Slugging second half
Since the All-Star break, Chipper has carried the Braves
Posted: Monday October 04, 1999 10:53 PM
Chipper Jones: "I'm having a pretty good year, but the most important thing is helping the club win at crunch time." AP
ATLANTA (AP) - During the last offseason, Chipper Jones was consumed by personal turmoil.
He admitted to having an illegitimate child, his marriage collapsed and his All-American image suffered a terminal blow.
Somehow, Jones managed to put aside those most intimate of problems once he stepped on the baseball field. This offseason, he might enjoy a more pleasant task: picking up his first Most Valuable Player award.
"He's the MVP right now," said teammate Greg Maddux, who knows a little something about awards as the only person to win four straight Cy Youngs. "Look at what the guy has done down the stretch. That carries more weight than the first three months of the season."
Indeed, Jones was solid but not spectacular through the early part of the season, failing to make the All-Star game for the first time since 1995, when he was a rookie.
"You can't just rely on your reputation to get you to the All-Star game," he said. "You've got to put up some numbers. I didn't do that. That's OK. I'd rather play in the Fall Classic than the Midsummer Classic."
Since June 16, when Jones was at .283 with 15 homers and 41 RBIs, he has been a hitter possessed. Almost single-handedly, he kept the Braves' offense afloat.
Andres Galarraga missed all season while undergoing cancer treatment, Javy Lopez succumbed in late July to a gimpy knee and Brian Jordan has been plagued by a sore right hand. Jones has continued to excel, despite not having a healthy, consistent power hitter in the lineup to protect him.
"The guy picked a great time to get hot," Jordan said. "It's a special time in anyone's career when you have the sense you can do no wrong at the plate. He has a lot of confidence."
Jones will likely become the first player in major-league history (Houston's Jeff Bagwell also was in the running) to hit .300 with at least 100 runs, 100 RBIs, 40 homers, 40 doubles, 100 walks and 20 stolen bases.
"From a personal standpoint, it's been great," said Jones, whose previous career high for homers was 34. "I couldn't ask for anything more. I worked my tail off during the offseason to get better and it's been just awesome. It's nice that all the hard work is bearing some fruit."
Jones' most serious competition for the MVP will likely come from Bagwell. The slugging first baseman has put together another season of across-the-board excellence under similar circumstances, the Astros having played the whole year without Moises Alou.
Among the other MVP candidates are Arizona's Matt Williams and New York's MIke Piazza. While St. Louis' Mark McGwire and last year's winner, Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs, have waged a reprise of their stunning home-run heroics, neither plays for a contending team -- usually a prerequisite.
"It's flattering to be considered," Jones said. "But I've got to put that on the back burner. Yeah, I'm having a pretty good year, but the most important thing is helping the club win at crunch time."
During the offseason of his personal discontent, Jones focused on the upcoming season to get him through. Instead of relaxing on the golf course like many players, he put together a grueling workout program that resulted in about 20 extra pounds of muscle.
Jones' main focus was to avoid the subpar finishes -- he had been just a .256 hitter in September and October - that were plaguing his career.
"That guy does all the little things it takes to be ready to play," Maddux said. "That's why he's a real easy guy to root for."
He'll get no argument from the Mets, who were dominated by Jones all season -- but especially in a three-game set at Turner Field on the next-to-last week.
With New York trailing the Braves by only a game with 12 to play, Jones homered four times in a sweep that propelled Atlanta to its eighth straight division title.
"McGwire does that occasionally, and maybe Sosa," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "But when you're trying to win with only a handful of games left, those kind of things jump out at you. He really dominated the series."
Jones, a switch-hitter who used to display most of his power from the left side, is now dangerous in either box. After his power display against the Mets, he had 30 homers from the left side, 15 from the right side -- in more than 250 fewer at-bats.
"My confidence is equal from both sides of the plate for the first time in my career," Jones said.
Adding to his MVP credentials, he eclipsed Todd Hundley's NL record of 41 homers by a switch-hitter. Jones will fall short of the major-league mark, Mickey Mantle's 54-homer season in 1961.
"Certainly, Mickey Mantle was one of the guys I tried to pattern my game after," Jones said, laughing off any comparison.
"It will be a few more years before you can lump me in that category."
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