It's hard to tell when Wichita State right fielder Ryan Jones isn't having fun.
He talks to everyone about anything. He is the Shocker most likely to give coach Gene Stephenson a big hug and call him "Geno." He can be counted on to bring a bag of goodies on road trips, and two seasons ago made a point to bring Twizzlers and chocolate chip cookies for pregnant sports information director Tami Cutler. After home games, he can be found amid a pack of friends and family, usually smiling and laughing as they replay the game.
Even with all that, last season wasn't fun.
"I put a lot of pressure on myself," he said. "I didn't want to be known as one of the worst teams here. That's not what we're meant to do."
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The Shockers start practice today, trying to erase the memory of last season's struggles. WSU played in an NCAA regional, elevating an otherwise miserable time. The Shockers went 30-27, the fewest wins in coach Gene Stephenson's 32 seasons.
Jones, a senior from Bishop Carroll, endured his own version of miserable. He started strong before slumping and ended the season hitting .277 with a .365 on-base percentage. A late surge gave him the team lead in home runs with seven.
That wasn't what he expected after hitting .326 as a sophomore on a super regional team. He returned for 2009 as WSU's lone starting position player.
"I was looked upon as one of the older guys — a guy that was supposed to make it happen," Jones said. "I think that's where I got myself in trouble."
Jones tried to mash every ball, drive in every runner and carry a struggling offense by himself. He ended up with a team-leading 51 strikeouts. During the worst parts of his slump, Stephenson reluctantly dropped him from second or third in the batting order to sixth or seventh.
Stephenson blamed the baseball draft for taking Jones' mind off target. It's a common affliction for juniors. Stephenson worries they are so concerned about the future, they neglect to enjoy the present.
"I think that dominated his mind last year," Stephenson said. "You can tell where a guy's focus is. You see it. You feel it. You address it, but at the same time, sometimes young men don't listen."
Jones disagrees that the draft clouded his mind so completely.
"I think it was more just us losing," he said. "It (the draft) was always there in my mind, but when I got toward the middle of the year — when I was really struggling — it was more 'We lost six of eight games. We're awful.' The whole team is down, and that made me feel worse about myself."
Jones, drafted in the 39th round by Arizona, played in the Cape Cod League for a second summer and made plans to return for his senior season. He is working with sports psychologist Gregory Buell at WSU and is determined to not let a bad game ruin his day. With more veterans around him, he can trust his teammates to drive in a run. He added 12 pounds of good weight and thinks his hands are quicker. Most important, he wants to command the strike zone and increase his walks. His results in the fall encouraged him.
"I'm a lot more selective," he said. "I'm trying a lot more to stay through the ball, and not really pull out as much, which everybody knew was my problem."
Stephenson expects Jones to perform even better than he did as a sophomore. His defense in right field is always top notch.
"I think he'll have the best year he's ever had here," Stephenson said. "I think his mind is focused on the proper things."
Uppermost on Jones' mind is playing baseball with the carefree attitude of a little kid.
"All the pressure's off me," he said. "It's going to be a fun time for me, and it will be a lot better this year because we'll be winning."