A Jones For Hitting
Chipper Jones, the baddest switch-hitter since Mickey Mantle, is batting over .400 -- still! -- thanks in part to an old pro's secrets that will help pave his road to Cooperstown
You look at his average -- .420 through Monday, the best in baseball -- and you're tempted to say Chipper Jones is a young 36. He's not. There are nights when Jones can't make the walk from his driveway to his front door without wifely support. His body aches and his feet are all knobby and his manager, Bobby Cox, says, "Gosh, I used to love to watch him run the bases." He practically crawls to the plate, a study in conservation, John Wayne packing 33 ounces of white ash. But if he sees a pitched ball with a dime-sized red dot on it (the spinning seams), his internal message alert lights up -- SLIDER! -- and every part of him goes into high gear with astonishing speed.
At that moment he's 18 again, first overall pick in the nation, with reflexes to match. He's old of head and young of twitch. Four-two-oh.
Last Thursday in Atlanta he hit his 14th home run of the season and the 400th home run of his career, on a night when he went 4 for 5. His curtain call for the Turner Field crowd -- only the second, he recalled, in his long, distinguished career -- lasted all of four seconds. Typical Chipper.
Two nights earlier, against the Florida Marlins, he was way out of character. Jones, an intensely focused switch-hitter, stepped into the left batter's box wearing the wrong helmet, and for a few pitches his unprotected right ear was exposed to major league pitching, and for about a minute he looked even more like his hero, Mickey Mantle, who batted switch and without ear flaps and won three MVP awards and seven World Series and made it all look easy. Chip (his manager calls him Chip) is in the 15th year of a career that will finish in Cooperstown. People tell Chip he makes it look easy. He knows better. He knows the parts you don't see: the pregame trip to the trainer's room to return life to his cement-stiff right leg, the mid-game trip to the video room to scout a newly arrived reliever, the postseason trip to Japan to inspect raw wood for potential bats. He's devoted to baseball's many little things, to what he calls, as others have before him, "the game within the game." Ted Williams -- the last man to hit over .400 -- was the same way. Chipper Jones, batting third and playing third, is the old pro.
It helps that he has some ridiculous gifts. He was in a visiting clubhouse a while back, reading the crawl on a cable channel from about 30 feet away. A teammate said, "You can read that?" Jones thought, You can't? He can remember hundreds, maybe thousands of at bats, what he hit off whom. One night last week, after a game in which he saw two dozen pitches, he could remember in detail all but two or three of them: count, pitch, location, result. He watches game tape like a detective, and if a pitcher tends to slightly open his glove before throwing a curve, Jones knows it. His own M.O. is low tolerance for failure, "that feeling after a bad game that just marinates in your mouth and makes you count the hours until you get to go back out and try to redeem yourself," Jones said recently.
One night in mid-May, Jones found himself facing the Phillies' lethal closer, Brad Lidge. The Braves had one out and one on in the ninth and trailed the Phils 5-3. The Philadelphia crowd, full house and full throat, was on its feet, stomping and cheering for its righty, but Jones might as well have been underwater for all he heard. Jones, batting from the left, saw that red dot the size of a dime coming at him -- SLIDER! -- and this one was an unexpected gift: at the letters, outside part of the plate, smack-dab in the birthplace of nearly every opposite-field home run he's ever hit. He hit the ball hard but only to the warning track in leftfield. He had missed the bat's sweet spot by a half inch. "That slider," Jones said after the game. It was another 3 for 4 game for him, but it was the out, and the loss, that had his attention. "I'll be thinking about that slider for the rest of the night." He was frustrated. He was saying this: I made a mistake, and I'll learn from it.
Chipper's father, the senior Larry Wayne Jones, a retired high school math teacher and coach, has been Chipper's personal batting instructor all his life. The father and son, an only child, speak by phone almost every night, postgame, when the Braves are home. (Larry and Lynne Jones, Chipper's mother and an accomplished equestrian, live on and run a 10,000-acre farm in Carrizo Springs, Texas, owned by Chipper and called Double Dime Ranch. Larry Sr. wore number 10 in high school and college -- he played shortstop at Stetson University -- and Chipper wears 10 today.) What Chipper learned about hitting from his father he is now passing on to his four kids, all boys. The third son, Shea, named for the ballpark in Flushing, Queens, where Chipper has wreaked so much havoc, is not yet four, but he can whack a baseball, and Chipper calls him "a stud." One of Larry's early lessons to Chipper was this: Don't be afraid of the ball. Chipper's teaching that to his kids now, and reminding himself of it.