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A Jones For Hitting

Old of head, fast of twitch and occasionally achy of muscle, Braves third baseman 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 hisaverage—.420 through Monday, the best in baseball—and you're tempted to sayChipper Jones is a young 36. He's not. There are nights when Jones can't makethe walk from his driveway to his front door without wifely support. His bodyaches 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 theplate, a study in conservation, John Wayne packing 33 ounces of white ash. Butif 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 intohigh gear with astonishing speed. At that moment he's 18 again, first overallpick in the nation, with reflexes to match. He's old of head and young oftwitch. Four-two-oh.

Last Thursday inAtlanta he hit his 14th home run of the season and the 400th home run of hiscareer, on a night when he went 4 for 5. His curtain call for the Turner Fieldcrowd—only the second, he recalled, in his long, distinguished career—lastedall of four seconds. Typical Chipper.

Two nightsearlier, against the Florida Marlins, he was way out of character. Jones, anintensely focused switch-hitter, stepped into the left batter's box wearing thewrong helmet, and for a few pitches his unprotected right ear was exposed tomajor league pitching, and for about a minute he looked even more like hishero, Mickey Mantle, who batted switch and without ear flaps and won three MVPawards and seven World Series and made it all look easy. Chip (his managercalls him Chip) is in the 15th year of a career that will finish inCooperstown. People tell Chip he makes it look easy. He knows better. He knowsthe parts you don't see: the pregame trip to the trainer's room to return lifeto his cement-stiff right leg, the mid-game trip to the video room to scout anewly arrived reliever, the postseason trip to Japan to inspect raw wood forpotential bats. He's devoted to baseball's many little things, to what hecalls, as others have before him, "the game within the game." TedWilliams—the last man to hit over .400—was the same way. Chipper Jones, battingthird and playing third, is the old pro.

It helps that hehas some ridiculous gifts. He was in a visiting clubhouse a while back, readingthe crawl on a cable channel from about 30 feet away. A teammate said, "Youcan read that?" Jones thought, You can't? He can remember hundreds, maybethousands of at bats, what he hit off whom. One night last week, after a gamein which he saw two dozen pitches, he could remember in detail all but two orthree of them: count, pitch, location, result. He watches game tape like adetective, and if a pitcher tends to slightly open his glove before throwing acurve, Jones knows it. His own M.O. is low tolerance for failure, "thatfeeling after a bad game that just marinates in your mouth and makes you countthe hours until you get to go back out and try to redeem yourself," Jonessaid recently.

One night inmid-May, Jones found himself facing the Phillies' lethal closer, Brad Lidge(page 72). The Braves had one out and one on in the ninth and trailed the Phils5--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 beenunderwater for all he heard. Jones, batting from the left, saw that red dot thesize of a dime coming at him—SLIDER!—and this one was an unexpected gift: atthe letters, outside part of the plate, smack-dab in the birthplace of nearlyevery opposite-field home run he's ever hit. He hit the ball hard but only tothe warning track in leftfield. He had missed the bat's sweet spot by a halfinch. "That slider," Jones said after the game. It was another 3 for 4game 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 wasfrustrated. 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, hasbeen Chipper's personal batting instructor all his life. The father and son, anonly child, speak by phone almost every night, postgame, when the Braves arehome. (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 Chipperand called Double Dime Ranch. Larry Sr. wore number 10 in high school andcollege—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 hisfour 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 canwhack a baseball, and Chipper calls him "a stud." One of Larry's earlylessons to Chipper was this: Don't be afraid of the ball. Chipper's teachingthat to his kids now, and reminding himself of it.

"When I wasseven or eight, I was bailing out on everything inside," Jones said theother day. "My father's pitching to me in the backyard." They lived on11 acres in rural north Florida and played ball by the hay barn. "He says,'I promise; I'm not gonna hit you.' And then he goes and hits me right in themouth. It was with a tennis ball, but it still knocked out a front tooth. Bloodwas everywhere. But I survived it." Larry Jones says that from what he'sseen, Chipper is a tougher baseball dad with his kids, or at least with Shea,than Larry was with Chipper. And that after a search for the knocked-out tooth,Chipper stepped right back in.

One weekend inPittsburgh last month Jones found himself in a minifunk: 0 for 2 in theFriday-night game against the Pirates, 0 for 4 the next night. His average hadfallen to .400, and his swing felt out of sorts, especially when he was battingrighty. A Sunday matinee awaited the team. For Jones, and many ballplayers, a 1p.m. game is like a school day starting at five in the morning. Still, therewas no way he could go straight back to the hotel on that Saturday night, notwith that horrid 0-for-6 taste marinating in his mouth. He went to the PNC Parkvisiting-team weight room.

"Fultzy,"Jones said, popping his head through the door. "When you get done in here,can you give me some extra work?" Frank Fultz, Atlanta's strength andconditioning coach, also moonlights as the club's lefthanded batting-practicepitcher.

They went to theindoor visiting-team batting cage at PNC. Braves hitting coach Terry Pendleton,who takes his cues for Chipper from Larry, stood behind the netting. There waslittle talk. On different swings Jones was thinking about his hands, his hips,his father. He took about 60 cuts and finally said, "I'm good—thanks."On a Saturday night, on the road, after a loss, while batting .400 and with acontract that will pay him more than $12 million this season, Chipper Jones wastaking extra BP. He's been batting nearly .450 ever since.

YOU DON'T becomean old pro overnight, of course. It took Jones years, as it must. The rolesuits him. In late May, in Cincinnati, Jones had what he called "one of theworst games of my life." He went hitless in five at bats, hit into twodouble plays and committed a walk-off error when a ground ball skipped past hisglove, allowing the Reds to score and win in the 11th. A handful of reportersand broadcasters traveling with the Braves were waiting to talk to him."Ten years ago I would have stayed in the trainer's room until everybodyleft," Jones said. "Then you grow up. When you flat-out stink the jointup, you have to stand up and say just that." Which is what he did and whathe said. He knew that the old Brave Dale Murphy—"a god in the city ofAtlanta," Jones says—was a stand-up guy that way.

He's learned fromhis elders. When the New York Mets came to Turner Field last month, Joneswelcomed the chance to face Johan Santana, the Mets' ace. When Jones battedagainst him in the seventh with the game tied at 2, Santana threw him a superb0-and-1 fastball on the outside part of the plate. There wasn't much Jonescould do with it except lace one into short rightfield, scoring the go-aheadrun. The inning ended when Santana made a leaping grab on a chopper between themound and third, followed by a twirling, off-balance, called-strike throw tosecond, the first leg of a textbook 1-6-3 double play. As they crossed paths ontheir way back to their dugouts, Jones patted Santana, 29 and new to theNational League, on his backside and said, "That was a hell of a play."Later Jones realized it was the most he had ever said to the Venezuelanpitcher. "When I was coming up, Cal Ripken said things like that to me, andit gave me a lot of encouragement," Jones said. "It was like he wassaying, 'You're a good young player. Now let's see what you can do with yourcareer.' So now I feel like I'm at the point where I should be able to do thatfor somebody else." The old pro.

Last weekend theBraves were swept by the Phillies at home, and through Sunday they trailedPhiladelphia by 6 1/2 games in the National League East. They're still in it,even with John Smoltz on the DL for the rest of the season. That leaves twoold-pro players on the Atlanta roster, Jones and Tom Glavine, the veteranlefthander. They first met in 1990, when Jones was chosen by the Braves as thefirst pick in the amateur draft. Jones loves to watch Glavine, now 42, at work,"treating each game like it's the final game of the World Series,"Jones said last week. "I wish we had 23 other guys on the club likethat."

When Atlanta wasin Philadelphia in May, Glavine started the second game of the series, stilllooking then for his first win of the season. In the fourth, with the Bravesleading 5--0, Phillies cleanup hitter Ryan Howard headed to the plate. With theHoward Shift on, Jones moved from third to short, and the shortstop, YunelEscobar, a young Cuban émigré whom Glavine barely knows, moved to the outfieldgrass just to the right of second base. Glavine walked out to Jones and said,"I'm hearing whistling, from their dugout or bullpen—from somewhere. Idon't know if they're stealing signs or what. Tell me if you hear or seeanything."

Jones wassurprised. He could never remember Glavine coming off the mound to ask him aquestion before, let alone one about possible sign stealing. He was flatteredthat Glavine recognized that Jones could stay focused on the batter but alsoopen his ears to the external sounds of the game, if that's what his pitcherneeded him to do. More than anything, he was impressed. He could feel Glavine'surgency, his need to win a baseball game.

Glavine retiredHoward, and when the inning was over, Jones told Glavine that the whistling wascoming "from one of our guys"—from Escobar, a serial whistler—and thatfans in the stands were whistling in response to him. Nobody, he said, wasstealing signs.

The Braves won,and Glavine got the decision. The box score shows that Jones went 2 for 4, witha home run. It doesn't show how he helped settle down his pitcher. What ChipJones did that night was nothing and everything.

He went to theteam hotel, slept in, woke up, got his old body moving again and headed back tothe park, looking for any little baseball thing that he could do right.

Jones is devoted to what he calls "the game withinthe game." TED WILLIAMS—the last man to hit .400—was the same way.

YOU DON'T BECOME AN OLD PRO OVERNIGHT, of course. Ittook Larry Wayne Jones Jr. years, as it must. The role suits him.




SI senior writer Tom Verducci breaks down ChipperJones's quest to become baseball's first .400 hitter in 67 years.



Photograph by Bob Rosato

400--.400 CLUB In the same week that Jones hit his 400th homer, his average climbed to .420, the latest a player had hit so high in 14 years.



[See caption above]



CHIP OFF THE OLD BLOCK Dad (above, right) liked to come inside with heat to young Chipper, who learned not to give in.



THE PILLARS Like Smoltz, Jones was a young cornerstone of a minidynasty who became a symbol of veteran excellence.