More important, Baylor told Jones that he had to think like a power hitter. Baylor's empowerment of Jones took on increasing importance as injury and illness ravaged Atlanta. In '99 the Braves have lost first baseman Andrés Galarraga, catcher Javy Lopez and pitchers Kerry Ligtenberg, Odalis Perez and Rudy Seanez for the season. Jones's usual protection in the lineup, rightfielder Brian Jordan, has been a punchless singles hitter since getting hit with a pitch on the right hand on June 22.
"For the first two strikes, at least, Chipper has to think about doing damage, not just making contact" Baylor says. "I told him from that first day that he had to think of himself as a threat righthanded, the same as Galarraga or Jordan. He shouldn't be just another switch-hitter who can get you a single from the right side. He always made it easy on [opposing] managers late in a game. You always brought in a lefthander to pitch to Chipper. Automatic. I wanted him to make that decision tough for them."
On Sept. 21 Mets manager Bobby Valentine summoned a lefthander, Dennis Cook, to pitch to Jones in the eighth inning of a 1-1 game. Jones blasted a home run, his second of the game and the winning hit. The next day Jones launched Atlanta to a 5-2 win with a two-run homer (lefthanded) in the first inning. The day after that, batting righthanded in the fifth against lefty Al Leiter with the Mets ahead 2-1, he plunged a three-run dagger through New York's heart. As the ball landed in the left centerfield bleachers, Jones's mother, Lynne, who was watching on television back in Florida, sank to her knees and wept with disbelieving joy.
Says Larry, "He's not as good a player as he's been lately, but like he said, he'll ride it as long as he can. MVP? I have to pinch myself when I hear that talk. I still pinch myself when I just think about where he is. This community is so small that the odds against someone getting to the big leagues from Pierson are huge."
As a boy Chipper wouldn't come straight home from elementary school. He'd dash across the street to the high school baseball field, where he would shag flies for his father's team. He has grown into a man who is in the final year of a four-year, $8.75 million contract, who has missed only 20 games over the past five years, who has hit .324 in 48 postseason games already and whose career statistics closely track those of Mantle (chart, above). What this season tells us is that Jones is still growing. So, too, is tiny Pierson. The blinking yellow beacon is gone, replaced by a full-fledged traffic light. There have been two wrecks already under its watch at the intersection of Route 17 and Washington Ave. "People are so used to the yellow," Jones says, "they plow right on through."
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