In Appreciation: Jeff Fox, Protector of a President, Passengers, Teammates, and Family
As we celebrate the beginning of another baseball season and the endless possibilities that come with it, the start of this season also reminds us of all the possibilities that we have lost. Our fields, dugouts, stands, and homes are emptier, quieter, and lonelier than they were a year ago.
As of this writing (May 3, 2021), one of the more than 573,000 Americans who have lost their lives due to the pandemic was Jeffery Lynn Fox, trusted friend, ballplayer, Secret Service agent, CIA and DoD investigator, umpire, and protector of family, a president, and passengers. Jeff died on March 16, 2021 from COVID. He was 52. He is survived by his wife, Kristina Fox and their Jack Terrier, Bella (San Jose, CA) and his parents, Martha and Jerry Fox (Conover, NC). Clay Risen’s wonderfully written obituary in the New York Times perfectly captured Jeff Fox in broad strokes, providing readers around the world with an understanding of what made Jeff so special. This is an effort to build upon that and provide more details and depth about Jeff’s life.
A longtime resident of Northern Virginia, Jeff Fox was born on November 10, 1968 in South Ruislip Air Base, England. His parents were living in England while his father served in the U.S. Air Force, stationed at nearby RAF Welford.
The Foxes returned home in 1970, and raised Jeff as a yellow dog Democrat in rural and red Alexander County. Khaetlyn Grindell, an expert on North Carolina politics and geography describes “Alexander County as a beautiful place. Its hills are a welcoming gate to the mountains that really do just roll you into the Blue Ridge.” The hue of the mountains and the Foxes’ politics are about the only blue you will find in a county that President Joe Biden lost in 2020 by 58 points. In fact, according to the Director of the Alexander County Board of Elections, Patrick Wike, a Democrat running for president has not carried the county since Jimmy Carter in 1976.
Undoubtedly, being outnumbered made a profound impression on Jeff Fox. He never backed down from a healthy debate, but did so respectfully no matter the subject from politics, faith (he had his doubts), or baseball (he grew to have no doubts).
Ironically, early on, young Jeffery did have doubts about the game he would come to love. Jerry Fox recalls his son being terrified of being hit by the ball while batting, so much so, that Jeff would sneak away from the field to avoid an at-bat. Jerry recalls practices with Jeff where the older Fox would tie a rope around Jeff’s left ankle while he was hitting, so Jeff couldn’t step in the bucket and bail out from a pitch. It must have done the trick because Jeff was tied to the game for the rest of his life. Jerry recalls that soon after Jeff got over his fear of getting hit, Jeff would be waiting in their front yard for Jerry to get home from work. Jerry, dead tired from working all day in an upholstery factory, would be welcomed by Jeff with his bat in one hand and a glove and ball in the other, saying: “throw some to me Dad, let me hit.”
His parents also instilled in Jeff a profound and deep sense of caring for those around him. Jeff Fox was equal parts Jerry’s vigorous spirit and Martha’s unconditional love and loyalty. He spoke at least once a week with his parents no matter where he was, a familial bond broken only during Jeff’s illness. A testament to the strong relationships that Jeff forged, close friend and teammate Chris Cardinale has struck up a friendship with Jerry, leaning on each other by exchanging stories and pictures of Jeff. For Chris, talking with the father is like talking with the son.
Jeff Fox was a star high school baseball player and was elected to the Alexander County Sports Hall of Fame in 2019. He was also a standout at UNC Asheville, where as proof of his versatility, athleticism, and willingness to play anywhere if it helped the team, he was a 4-year starter who both caught and played center field. Fox was a teammate of St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Shildt, who noted in a release from the UNC Asheville baseball program: “He was the glue that helped those teams stay close while we competed and continued to be the leader in keeping teammates together today. Jeff was fiery, intelligent, competitive, funny, and as loyal a friend as we could have ever asked.” Shildt thought of Fox again on Opening Day, when his Cardinals beat the Cincinnati Reds, Fox’s favorite team growing up. The Cardinals opened up with 6 runs in the first inning, Fox’s number. As Derrick Goold wrote in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch he was writing for all of us: “the runs they scored left Shildt subdued by a symbol to him of the virus’ cost.”
After graduation from Asheville, a knee injury ended any future in professional baseball, so Fox headed to Washington. As a Secret Service agent, Fox may not have been able to protect President Bill Clinton from defeat in Alexander County, but Fox protected him in Washington and abroad. Yet, even with an unpredictable schedule that could mean last minute changes, Fox planned his life around playing baseball, as well as somehow managing to gain entry “on duty” to Cal Ripken Junior’s record-breaking consecutive game 2,131.
Like Ripken, Fox had a streak of never letting his teammates down and always being there for us. Joe Antonellis, Commissioner of the Industrial Baseball League of Northern Virginia, recalls that while Fox was working out of the country to protect President Clinton, he was also trying to ensure his on-time arrival for a tournament in Danville. Concerned that Jeff’s slightly more important assignment protecting the leader of the free world might get in the way of Danville, Joe was reassured by Fox, who told him “no problem, I’ll work it out.” Fox just asked the day and time of the first game, and sure enough he was there. Antonellis recalled, “Fox played multiple positions in the tournament hit in different spots in the line-up and as he always did was a major factor in us winning the tournament. Right after the tournament we hung around for a little while on the field to celebrate and then when we looked around for him, he was gone, back to cover the President who was out of the country again.”
After 9/11, Fox became a Federal Air Marshall. For years, he swore that he would never get married, but he finally met someone special, the exception to his rule. While serving his country in the air, he met Kristina Capuyon, then a flight attendant for United Airlines. His first month on the job, they worked together, twice a week flying cross-country from San Francisco to Dulles. At the end of the month, Jeff gave his number to Kristina, and she eventually called. Their first date was at the Washington landmark, Old Ebbitt Grill. Kristina’s warmth, generosity, kindness, and fashion sense all improved Jeff Fox, who went from tucking in his tight sweaters to Ferragamo. Kristina knew who she was marrying and the love he had for the game when she said: “All he ever wanted was to hang out with his teammates and play baseball.” But when his team had an early exit in a tournament in York, Pennsylvania, I’ve never seen anyone in more of a hurry to get to the airport to meet up with his future wife. Jeff and Kristina were married on September 19, 2008, at a beautiful ceremony on Lake Tahoe.
After serving as an Air Marshall, Fox would then work for the Central Intelligence Agency, and finally the Department of Defense, leaving the Washington area in 2019 for a position in the San Francisco Bay area and back home for Kristina. This was to have been his last position before retirement with Kristina in Arizona. All the while, Fox was sure to schedule his baseball life around his professional life (or vice versa), with numerous tournament victories across the country and plans to represent the United States in Japan this year in the Master’s Games.
Close friend, former Major League pitcher Pete Schourek, had plans to move to Arizona in retirement with his wife, Carrie, to be close to the Foxes, said: “Jeff was one of my favorite people on and off the baseball field. A true friend.”
Fox’s youthful passion for baseball was clear to Kristina, Pete, and anyone who knew Jeff Fox well. Another of Fox’s teammates, Dana Arrowood said: “He reminded me of a 12-year-old Little Leaguer who was always ready to play any position and didn’t care as long as it was baseball.”
Jeff Fox did it all, played (every position), managed, and over the past few years, also umpired. His career in law enforcement served him well as he had started to gain a reputation as being an excellent umpire, including serving as a volunteer umpire for Kyle’s Kamp games to raise money for pediatric cancer research and care at Nationals Park. He umpired because he saw it is another way to give back to the game and younger players. Fox wanted the next generation of ballplayers to learn to love the game that he loved, play the game with passion at all times, and to treat everyone on the field with respect. Many a catcher would receive a running dialogue from Fox behind the plate over the course of a game. Whether they knew it or not at the time, they were better for it.
Jeff Fox made all of us better for being around him both in ways we know and can feel, and even more importantly in all of the other ways that just rub off on you over the years. Like way too many of our fellow Americans whose lives were cut short by COVID, Fox’s familiar habits, mannerisms, and expressions we slowly embraced over time now become ours together to carry on.
The late Major League Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti famously reminded us that baseball is designed to break your heart. He was writing about himself when he wrote these words, but he was also writing for Jeff Fox, the timeless 12-year-old who loved the game and refused to grow up, and all of us, his family and baseball family, whose hearts are broken because he won’t grow old:
“Of course, there are those who learn after the first few times. They grow out of sports. And there are others who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun.”
Jeff Horwitt is the player/manager of the Senators of the Industrial Baseball League of Northern Virginia, the team he co-managed with Jeff Fox.