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A Pitcher and His Tic

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Illinois’ Zack Jones excels on the mound with Tourette’s.

Jonathan Bonaguro

The Illinois Baseball team was on a plane ride back from Texas on Feb. 6, 2017, when an annoyed passenger decided to take to Twitter to make a noise complaint.

“Are we still in middle school or something cause I didn’t know it was cool to make stupid ass noises on the plane @ UofIbaseball,” Alaina (@tavianixalainax) tweeted.

The complaint was specifically regarding one certain player making random noises in the back of the plane. What this frustrated traveler didn’t know was that these sounds were not random.

The player was sophomore reliever Zack Jones, and he was making noises because he lives with Tourette’s, which he was diagnosed with in elementary school. Tourette’s is a neuropsychiatric disorder characterized by motor and vocal tics.

Jones didn’t see the tweet until he looked at his phone and saw a friend had sent him a screenshot of it later that day.

“I saw it and everyone was laughing and stuff and it got posted in (the baseball team’s) GroupMe, and then I decided to respond to it,” Jones said.

While many people may have taken a more serious route to reply to the ignorant comment, Jones took a more light-hearted approach.

“Ya sorry that was me boo boo,” Jones responded.

According to Illinois pitching coach Drew Dickinson, Jones’ response showed a growing level of maturity.

“He took it very well and handled it very maturely like a man,” Dickinson said.

Baseball and Tourette’s

When Jones was younger, however, he might have instead avoided the whole situation.

Jones’ mother, Julie, said Zack was shy and embarrassed about having Tourette’s when he was younger.

Because of this, Julie did everything she could to help accommodate Zack and avoid the awkward situations and funny looks he gets from people. She would pick Zack up from school so he can relieve his noises instead of him holding them back for another hour on the school bus. The family would also not go out to restaurants when Zack’s noises were especially bad, thus not disturbing other people and making sure Zack felt comfortable.

“Obviously it’s hard. It sucks just not being normal,” Zack said. “It’s one of those things where I always have to be conscious of it.”

Despite the adversity he faced, Zack lived a normal life for the most part, but Julie didn’t see Zack’s confidence grow until he started playing baseball.

“He had a lot of success with his pitching and he got to be such best friends with the guys on the team that really became his group and accepted the way he was,” Julie said. “Noises or no noises, they accepted him for the way he was; it built his confidence and he really came into his own.”

Zack dominated his junior and senior years on the mound at Downers Grove South High School in Downers Grove, Illinois. His senior year where Zack finished with a 5-1 record with a 0.76 ERA in 46 innings. He allowed only five runs, walked only five batters and struck out 40 total at the plate.

Zack was named to the All-Area team and also excelled in the classroom, being named a two-time IHSA All-Academic.

When Zack was younger, he had to worry about balking if he was making noises or tics while pitching. But he said having Tourette’s didn’t play a factor when it came to baseball as his comfort level around others grew once he began high school.

“From the start, I was pretty good friends with a lot of kids from my high school team even before high school, so I wasn’t really nervous about that around them,” Zack said. “High school was easier than necessarily before that when I was a lot younger because high school was kind of the age where people understand and they know what it is and have heard of it.”

Julie attributes a lot of Zack’s success pitching and living with Tourette’s to when he was 10 years old and working with his pitching coach, Bobby Guillen.

“Bobby used to tell Zack about a major league pitcher that had Tourette’s, and Bobby had worked with him,” Julie said. “When Zack was younger, it was fascinating to him that somebody like him, who had the noises and stuff like that, could make it into the major leagues.

“I think that kind of inspired him a little bit in such that life is going to go on and that ‘I’m going to be okay.’”

Transition to College

Every time Jones pitched in high school, he started. He started and went a full seven innings no matter what. Then Jones came down to Champaign, and he switched to a completely different role than he was used to — a lefty specialist out of the bullpen.

It was a role Jones was very unfamiliar with and wasn’t even sure was a thing at that level.

“It was a lot different getting used to pitching in college,” Jones said. “One batter and out, I had never experienced that before and really had no clear idea that’s actually how it was. It definitely took some time getting used to, but I think I’ve also gotten used to it and accepted that I’m not going to be one of the main starters on the team unless I really prove myself in the future.”

In his freshman season for the Illini, Jones saw 20 appearances out of the bullpen where he finished with an 0-3 record with a 7.36 ERA. Jones pitched 18.1 innings, striking out 17 batters and walking 11.

“Zack has a personality of a little fun, playful kid-type guy, so sometimes, especially last year, he would go out there taking the field not thinking he belonged,” Dickinson said.

Jones said he had to account more for his Tourette’s once he started pitching at Illinois because of the increased stress levels that the game was putting on him. But, off the field, he felt like it was easier to manage.

“I just think it was easier in college than it was in high school because in high school, baseball is not as big of a part of your life than it is in college where I’m with these guys eight hours every single day no matter what,” Jones said. “Being super close to them has really helped and obviously they don’t care (about me having Tourette’s).”

That increased comfort-level has been a key factor to why Jones has able to have a strong showing out of the bullpen in his sophomore campaign, Dickinson said.

Through April 22, Jones had 12 appearances out of the bullpen and threw 15.1 innings. He drastically brought down his ERA to 3.52 and struck out 10 batters on the season as he transitioned into more of a middle reliever for Illinois.

“He’s starting to understand that, ‘hey man, my stuff is good, my stuff plays at this level,’” Dickinson said. “He’s gone out there with a different confidence, a different attitude and his stuff has played up and I’m actually disappointed I haven’t gotten him enough innings.”

Jones (34) meets with his infield during Illinois’ game versus the Grand Canyon Lopes on Saturday, April 21, 2017.
Jonathan Bonaguro

Dickinson said that Jones’ pitches are also starting to develop, especially his changeup, which is why he has been able to retire a majority of the right-handed batters he has faced.

Jones said that his success so far this season has been due to him being able to locate his pitches and move in and out of the zone, keeping opposing batters off balance.

On the mental side of things, his confidence is growing. In 2017, if he didn’t perform well in his outing, he said that he would let that affect him. But now with experience, he no longer lets that bother him.

In the short run, Jones wants to develop into the middle reliever role out of the bullpen, which to his credit he has somewhat become, getting multiple outings where he goes longer than three innings.

But becoming a starter for Illinois is his main goal.

And whether it’s sitting on an airplane or pitching in a Big Ten baseball game, Jones isn’t going to let Tourette’s hold him back.

“I want to leave an impact on the program. From a social, like from a guys, standpoint, but also from a baseball standpoint,” Zack said. “Obviously I want to do good, but I also want to get a good degree with going to one of the best schools in the country... I know that I will most likely not get drafted which is fine, that’s not really a problem.

“I just want to do good and help the team out as much as I can while I’m here and then move on.”