A. Jones is tough, humble

Braves outfielder cares about wins, not his statistics

September 19, 2005|By DAN CONNOLLY | DAN CONNOLLY,SUN REPORTER

PHILADELPHIA - Andruw Jones sits at a card table in the middle of the visitors' clubhouse with a smile on his face and one comment after another hanging on his lips.

He taunts Atlanta Braves bench coach Pat Corrales, playfully refusing to sign Corrales' charity baseballs.

He talks trash to teammate and fellow card player Brian Jordan, freshly spinning first-person athletespeak by abbreviating himself: "A.J. is comin'. A.J.'s gonna get ya."

He berates rookie outfielder Jeff Francoeur for leaving the table after losing.

He even bashes the Philadelphia Eagles to no one in particular, predicting that "they won't win a game the rest of the year."

This is the easygoing islander, happily picking at every topic that floats by.

Finally, Jones starts an arranged media interview at the card table. And the easygoing A.J. turtles away. Out pops a measured, soft-spoken cliche-spewing animal.

He is just focused on helping his team get to the playoffs, Jones, 28, says quietly. Forget that this season he became the first player since 2002 to hit 50 home runs. Forget that he is one of just 12 ever to hit 300 career homers before age 30.

Forget that he has more homers (50) in one season than any other player in Braves franchise history - including Henry Aaron. Forget that he has single-handedly carried these Braves toward their 14th straight division title.

And, whatever you do, please forget that Jones has passed the Chicago Cubs' Derrek Lee and is in a two-person race with St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols for National League Most Valuable Player honors. Jones can't consider that despite leading the league in homers and RBIs. Besides, his average hovers in the .270s, roughly 60 points behind Pujols' and Lee's.

"Those guys are at a different level. Their averages are way up there. And they've got home runs and they've got RBIs," Jones said. "I think Pujols is one of the elite hitters in this league."

That statement raises the question: "So, who deserves the 2005 NL MVP?"

"I would vote for Pujols," Jones whispers.

"Save it, meat," snaps Jordan, who has been listening in from the other side of the card table.

"For MVP? Yeah, I wouldn't vote for myself," Jones retorts, his voice rising slightly and his eyes darting to Jordan.

Jordan shakes his head and laughs, saying, "Save it, meat."

Only then does a slight smile cut across Jones' face, as a hint of A.J. returns.

If, indeed, Jones endorses the Cardinals' star as MVP, he'd be the only one to do so in the Braves' clubhouse.

To a man, the Braves believe no one else has had a similar impact on a team as Jones has had on theirs. Not after Atlanta was forced to use 17 rookies after injuries decimated its rotation and lineup. Not when slugger Chipper Jones was lost for six weeks and the offensive leadership fell onto the other Jones' shoulders.

"I don't know how to describe it. He has been fantastic," said Braves manager Bobby Cox. "When we lost all of our regular players and three starters in the rotation, he turned it up more than one notch. He just took off. He carried us."

Jones had a monster spring training, hitting 10 homers and driving in 21 runs, but he started the regular season painfully slow. He hit just .182 with two homers in his first 77 at-bats heading into the end of April. Then things started to click. Over his next 18 games, Jones batted .414 with nine homers and 19 RBIs.

A breakout season was under way.

"This is my first year, and I was called up at the very, very beginning of him getting hot," said Braves rookie outfielder Kelly Johnson. "So all I know is him doing what he has been doing. I haven't seen anything else."

In one sense, there should be no surprise here. The Braves discovered Jones as a 16-year-old playing in his native Curacao, a small Caribbean island just north of Venezuela in the Netherlands Antilles.

He signed two months after his 16th birthday and made his debut in 1996 at age 19. He homered in his first two World Series at-bats, becoming the youngest player to go deep in the postseason.

But what really set Jones apart was his defense. Fleet-footed with tremendous instincts and a sharp, accurate arm, he has won Gold Gloves in seven of his first eight full seasons. One National League general manager says Jones is the best pure center fielder ever - better defensively than Hall of Famer Willie Mays.

His offense, though, has always been above average, but not spectacular. He set out to change that this offseason, improving his mechanics with daily workouts.

"He has widened his stance out, and it has given him the opportunity to see the ball longer and use his hands better and have better balance," said Braves hitting coach Terry Pendleton. "And that has been the difference."

That, and Jones has finally reached the magical age of 28.

"He's in his eighth or ninth year when most people are in their third or fourth," Johnson said. "It always takes a couple of years for guys to get going, and he's just hitting that age 28, that's a lot of guys' prime."

He's also taken an active leadership role on the field and in the clubhouse.

"Being a young player growing up, you hear how good he is and then obviously when you play with him it is 10 times different because he helps you out so much in the outfield," Francoeur said. "He gets you lined up to get jumps and everything ... He is just unbelievable. He knows how to play the game. He is just very smart."

Smart enough not to openly campaign for an MVP award. Smart enough to let his bat, glove and teammates do the talking for him.

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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