Former Wadsworth multi-sport star Dru Jones grew up playing travel baseball for the Barberton Nomads, which as it turns out was a very fitting moniker for the way the 2008 graduate’s life and athletic career have played out to this point.
Jones is currently unsigned, but is making preparations to embark on his seventh season of professional baseball overseas. His career has taken Jones to Germany, Australia and Croatia, and now the former Grizzlies catcher is considering offers from teams in Austria, Poland, Croatia and Germany.
“Ever since I was young, there were two things I always wanted to do,” Jones said. “The first was to play pro baseball for as long as I could. Obviously the big leagues was the top goal, and travel around. I really liked getting out and seeing a lot of things.”
For the past three seasons, Jones has played in the Euro Interleague Baseball Pool A, where in 2016 he won the Interleague championship and Croatian championship with the Nada SM Split.
“That was big for the club,” he said. “That was probably the highlight of my career, winning the Croatian championship.”
The following year, Split won the Interleague championship again but lost the Croatian championship to rival Karlovats. The Karlovats had a distinct Northeast Ohio touch, as Kent Roosevelt graduate Phil Smith and Manchester graduate Mitch Keim played against Jones. Last season Jones played for BK Zagreb, also in Croatia.
His time with Split is something Jones will always cherish.
“I’ve had good relationships with all my teammates, but these guys were great,” Jones said. “They are like my brothers.”
The European Interleague consists of teams from Hungary, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia and Croatia.
“That’s another reason why I like that league a lot,” Jones said. “You’re able to travel around and see all kinds of things playing in the big cities of those countries.”
Jones, who was sixth in the league last season with a .431 batting average, said that while baseball is probably the third or fourth most popular sport in most European countries, and well behind soccer, it is gaining ground and popularity.
“It’s catching on more and more,” he said. “The premiere leagues are Holland and Italy. You pretty much have to have some kind of minor league experience to go play in those two leagues.”
Jones, who left Wadsworth as the all-time Medina County rushing leader with 5,249 yards under coach Greg Dennison, attended junior college and played baseball at the College of Central Florida, where he was twice named Mid-Florida Conference Player of the Year.
That was followed by two years at the University of Tampa, where he was a first-team All-Sunshine State Conference selection both seasons. Jones also played baseball and wrestled for the Grizzlies.
“I did pretty well (at Tampa),” he said. “I thought I might have had a chance to get picked up late in the draft or maybe been signed. For whatever reason, it doesn’t work out. Just like for any other 5-foot-10 guy who played Division II ball, there’s a boat load of really good players that never got a shot.”
Following college, Cincinnati Reds area scout Bob Fritz called Jones and asked if he’d be interested in playing in Germany. Jones jumped at the chance, dropping out of classes he’d already enrolled in at the University of Tampa to go play for the Berlin Sluggers of the German Bundesliga North in 2013.
After a couple of months the Sluggers were unable to continue to pay Jones, so they got him a job working at a barbeque restaurant in Berlin. Due to not having a proper work visa, he had to stop working, which is when his team came up with a unique solution.
“The team said they figured something out for me,” he said. “What I could do is DH during the games and run the grill (when not batting), and whatever I sold I could take home. At that point, I was pitching and catching and still hopeful that I might get picked up (by a minor league team), and I had arranged to play for a team in Australia.”
Jones left the Sluggers and traveled to Australia, where he played for the Wanneroo Giants of the Western Australian State League and spent a month with the Perth Heat of the Australian Baseball League, which at the time was sanctioned by MLB. That’s where Jones said he faced his toughest competition.
“I got lucky because I got hooked up with that Australian deal and that was a real eye opener,” he said.
Jones faced off against such players as former major leaguers Donald Lutz (Reds) and Luke Hughes (Twins) in his time with the Heat before going back to playing for the Wanneroo Giants, with whom he serves as player and coach and was named team MVP.
“At that point, I was just hooked on being overseas and experiencing it more than I was baseball,” he said. “I was 24 or 25 years old, and the older you get the more you realize it isn’t going to happen (playing professionally in America).”
The next year Jones returned to Germany, where he played for the Mainz Athletics of the German Bundesliga South and hit .320.
“The South is generally much better (in Germany),” he said. “I saw some teams in the South when I was with Berlin and knew this was legit baseball, even if my team at the time was not very good.”
Following his 2014 season with the Athletics, Jones returned to Tampa and finished his bachelor’s degree in criminology in 2015.
“After that I was like, maybe I should get a job,” Jones said. “Most people after they graduate get a job and maybe that’s the smart thing, but no way. I got another call and this time it was for the Split.”
In addition to playing for his current teams, Jones also takes on a coaching role both with the teams he is playing for and younger clubs affiliated with the organization.
“I’m usually coaching kids and that’s what I love about it,” Jones said. “Kids in Europe are really in tune and focused on what you’re teaching them. Anything you say is like gold to them, and it’s something I like more than playing.”
Jones said he’ll coach every age group, from as young as 5 to as old as 40. In Europe, he said, they do not have the typical age groups found in the U.S. Teams generally fall from 12-and-under to 12-to-18.
Jones, who also coached the Slovakian National Team in 2017, supplements his income by giving English lessons to children and works for a company charting pitches for various international leagues. He returns home to Doylestown for four to five months of the year to spend time with his parents and five siblings. While in town, he works as a stone mason for Yoder Mason in Clinton.
Jones said he’ll likely decide where he wants to play this season and then head back overseas by the end of the month or early February to get his arm in shape for his duties pitching, catching and otherwise playing wherever his team needs him for a season that will begin in April.
“Not everyone gets paid, so I put it on myself to perform more and do more because I do feel a little bit bad about getting paid, but there’s no other way I can do it,” Jones said.
As for how long he thinks he’ll keep playing, the answer goes back to those dreams as a kid and making it last as long as possible.
“This baseball thing, I just keep doing it, I can’t stop doing it,” Jones said. “My parents ask me, ‘When the hell are you going to stop?’ I love it. I can’t get enough of it.”