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Andruw Jones is keeping his Georgia roots, but the new Dodger will try to prove he belongs in L.A. for the long run

February 16, 2008|Dylan Hernandez | Times Staff Writer

DULUTH, Ga. -- Nine tall boxes sit in the garage of Andruw Jones' nine-bedroom house, taped up and ready to be shipped to Los Angeles. Inside are his clothes.

Almost everything else the Dodgers' new center fielder owns will remain at his residence in suburban Atlanta, at least until he can see beyond the next two years.

Asked last week about buying a house in Los Angeles or enrolling his 4-year-old son in kindergarten next fall, Jones prefaced his responses with a conditional clause: "If I get an extension."

To be able to answer questions about his future more definitively, Jones will first have to answer questions about whether he can recover from what he described as the toughest season of his 11-year career, played entirely so far with the Atlanta Braves.

"It's all about this year," he said.

Jones' life is in Atlanta. What the 30-year-old wants to know is whether he'll be with the Dodgers long enough to start a new one in Los Angeles. The first day of the next phase of his life will be Sunday, when he plans to report for spring training in Vero Beach, Fla.

His contract with the Dodgers is for two years and will pay him $36.2 million, the length of the deal reflecting the doubts created by his performance at the plate. Jones won his 10th Gold Glove award for fielding last season, but hit a career-low .222 with 26 home runs, down from a major league-best 51 in 2005 and 41 in 2006.

Scott Boras, Jones' agent, noted that the short-term deal would allow Jones to quickly re-enter the free-agent market upon re-establishing his value. But Jones says he wants to avoid that, adding that he'd discuss an extension as soon as the Dodgers are ready.

"I want to be there for a while, like I was with the Braves," Jones said.

He was called up to the majors at 19, hitting two home runs in Game 1 of the 1996 World Series. Jones stayed with the Braves from then until last September, long enough that not an eyebrow was raised when he walked into their clubhouse at Turner Field last week accompanied by his live-in personal trainer, Daniel Leoncio.

On his way to the batting cages, he bumped fists with Chipper Jones. He exchanged hugs with Brian McCann and Peter Moylan. Another former teammate asked if he still had his old locker. Jones leaned back and laughed.

"He's a special guy," Braves Manager Bobby Cox said. "Great in the clubhouse. You'll never hear him pout about anything, except losing."

For most of the off-season, Jones hit in the batting cage in the basement of his house. Throwing to him was either Braves first base coach Glenn Hubbard or strength coach Frank Fultz. When an injury put an end to Hubbard's house calls last month, Jones went back to his old home away from home.

And the Braves didn't mind that the enemy was using their facility three times a week?

"The enemy?" Moylan asked, shaking his head and smiling. "If someone's been here as long as he's been, he's not the enemy."

That probably won't change April 18, the day the Dodgers open a three-game series at Turner Field and Jones enters the visiting clubhouse for the first time.

"I could hit 10 home runs against them and still walk in this ballpark," Jones said. "They love me."

That includes the team's young players.

"Age-wise, he was always the baby with the Braves," said Jones' wife, Nicole. "It's mostly the younger guys that he relates to."

Such as McCann, the Braves' 23-year-old catcher, who called Jones "family." McCann, another Duluth resident, often hit at Jones' house and played basketball with him at a local gym this winter.

Driving out of the players' parking lot at the stadium, Jones glanced over at the autograph-seekers and waved.

"When a change like this happens, you find out how much you were appreciated," Jones said. "Now that I'm moving, a lot of people are telling me, 'We're going to miss you,' or 'We wish you could have stayed.' "

Staying wasn't an option. He said then-Braves general manager John Schuerholz approached him last season about extending his contract, but that the club was interested in offering him only one more year.

Jones didn't take well to free agency. Nicole said that he never said anything to her about his season-long slump, but he couldn't hide his anxiety of being without a contract.

Told by a friend that it could take months for her husband to find a new team, Nicole said her reaction was: "Months? Oh my gosh, he's going to have a nervous breakdown."

By late November, Jones said he already was leaning toward the Dodgers, something Manager Joe Torre seemed to sense in a meeting at Dodger Stadium that included owner Frank McCourt and General Manager Ned Colletti.

"It seemed like a special meeting," Torre said. "It didn't seem like a meeting that was just sort of getting a feel for something. It sounded like he genuinely wanted to come to us."

Jones took comfort in what McCourt told him.

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