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The weight of .400

It's only June, but the Braves' Chipper Jones has people asking whether he can accomplish something that hasn't been done since 1941

June 13, 2008|Chris Foster | Times Staff Writer

The quest to hit .400 is not a private journey. The Atlanta Braves' Chipper Jones is learning that each day.

The Braves begin a three-game series with the Angels tonight, with Jones dragging a gaudy .414 batting average with him. He has not spent a day under .400 since April 12, and the media weight, with those can-he-do-it questions, gets a little heavier every day.

"It's still so early," Jones said. "We get into August and September and somebody's hitting .400, I think that's when you can start talking about it and start following them, but there's still a lot more baseball to play before we get to that point."

Maybe so. But with so little buzz around the meandering Braves (32-35), reporters make a beeline for the third baseman's cubicle. Can he maintain the pace? Will he stay healthy enough? Is it even possible to do it? All are questions that are a part of Jones' day, every day.

"Sure you can hit .400 in this day and age," said Tony Gwynn, who was hitting .394 in 1994, when the season was wiped out by a strike. "Why not? Hitting .400 is about giving yourself an opportunity every time you go up there and not wasting an at-bat. Chipper has been able to do that and remain his team's top run producer, which is amazing."

If Jones, 36, were to achieve the feat, he would be the oldest .400 hitter ever, surpassing Ty Cobb, who was 35 in 1922 when he hit .401.

Ted Williams was the last player to hit .400, when he hit .406 in 1941. Even he knew the pressures involved, often saying, "I hope somebody hits .400 soon. Then people can start pestering that guy with questions about the last guy to hit .400."

The pestering has begun with Jones. Each stop brings more questions and the interest will only grow as long as he toes the .400 line. Reporters from Sports Illustrated and the New York Times have already found their way into the Braves' clubhouse.

"Unfortunately, you hear about it 24-7," said the Dodgers' Nomar Garciaparra, who took a .400 average into July while with the Boston Red Sox in 2000. "You're constantly hounded. It takes away from your goal, which is to win games.

"I remember telling guys, 'If somebody wants to ask me about my freaking average, you can just walk away.' I just wanted to win."

That season, Garciaparra was over .400 after the first game of a doubleheader on July 20 but dropped below in the second game. He finished at .372 to win his second consecutive batting title.

Garciaparra is one of seven players who were hitting .400 after July 5 since 1980, according to STATS LLC. The most prominent on that list is former Kansas City Royals third baseman George Brett, who was batting .400 after a Sept. 19 game. Nagging injuries took their tool and Brett finished at .390.

There have been others who flirted with .400, including Rod Carew, who hit .388 with the Minnesota Twins in 1977. Gwynn, at the age of 34, made the last serious run at the mark before the strike robbed him of the opportunity.

"I think about that season all the time, more now that I'm retired," said Gwynn, now San Diego State's baseball coach. "I get more confident about it. Back in 1995 and 1996, people would ask me and I'd say, 'Well, I was swinging pretty good.' Now there is no question I would have done it."

Jones, though, won't compare himself to Gwynn.

"Well, he was a freak of nature, so I don't put myself in the same class as Tony," Jones said. "I think if there were one pure hitter who could do it, it would be him."

Still, Jones is making his case. He went 11 for 19 last week, hitting his 400th career home run, third most among switch hitters.

"That's just crazy what Chipper is doing," Angels outfielder Torii Hunter said. "He's got a chance, as long as he stays healthy."

Jones says his batting has improved with age. "I'm just smarter. I do a lot more homework," he said. "I know what pitchers I can do optimum damage against. I know what guys it doesn't suit me to try to go deep [against]."

But his body has logged plenty of miles. Jones was reduced to pinch-hitting duties after suffering a slight quadriceps tear in his right thigh.

"I remember Ted Williams said to me, 'If I knew hitting .400 would be such big deal, I would have done it more often,' " Gwynn said. "I laughed, but then I thought about it. When he did it in 1941, it had been done recently. It wasn't as big a deal. It has been so long now, that we all go ga-ga in June, like we're doing with Chipper."

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Times staff writer Bill Shaikin contributed to this report.

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chris.foster@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Above average

Players hitting .400+ through games of June 12, since 1956 (minimum 3.1 plate appearances per game). The Angels begin a three-game series at home with Atlanta tonight:

*--* Year Player Team Avg. 1959 Hank Aaron Braves 411 1975 Rod Carew Twins 405 1983 Rod Carew Angels 411 1993 John Olerud Blue Jays 400 1994 Paul O'Neill Yankees 417 1997 Larry Walker Rockies 409 1999 Tony Fernandez Blue Jays 401 2008 Chipper Jones Braves 414 *--*

Source: STATS LLC

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