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Still In The Swing

On the heels of his first batting title, Atlanta's Chipper Jones

March 01, 2009|Paul Newberry | Newberry writes for the Associated Press.

KISSIMMEE, FLA. — For Chipper Jones, it all started in the backyard with his dad.

They would grab the bats and balls, set up behind their Florida home and take turns imitating the best lineups of the era. Young Chipper was a Dodgers fan, so he had to transform himself into Mike Scioscia or Reggie Smith or Rick Monday for authenticity's sake. Never mind that he was a right-handed hitter, and they all batted from the other side of the plate.

"I would see my dad switch back and forth, so I would say, 'I can do that,' " Jones recalled. "It got to the point where I preferred hitting left-handed when I was young."

He can remember back as far as 6 years old, when his education in the art of switch-hitting began. The elder Jones said it would be easier to hit breaking balls from a right-handed pitcher if he swung lefty. Chipper quickly found that dad knew what he was talking about. Before long, the youngster was switching back and forth with ease.

What a feeling it was to get hold of one during those carefree days of childhood. To rock back on his left heel before launching the bat forward at just the right moment. To feel the tingling in his hands as that thin piece of lumber made contact with all the power and speed he could muster. To watch the ball soaring off into the haze of a muggy summer evening.

There was nothing better than that. OK, one thing was better -- to see the look on his father's face.

"I loved impressing my dad," Jones said. "Every time I hit the ball on the sweet spot, he would track the ball, then turn around at look at me. I enjoyed seeing those reactions from him, because I knew he was impressed."

Three decades later, Jones is still impressing.

He'll turn 37 in the opening weeks of the season, but he's never been better as a hitter. Last year, the Atlanta Braves third baseman won his first batting title with a career-best .364 average, after just missing out in 2007 when Matt Holliday nipped him on the final day of the season.

Sure, there are flecks of gray in Jones' hair, and wrinkles have invaded around the edges of a face that once seemed perpetually youthful. But he carries himself like a ballplayer who knows there's no one you'd rather have standing at the plate with the game on the line.

He doesn't walk so much as strut: slow, purposeful, exuding confidence and a bit of cockiness as his shoulders rock up and down, gently but distinctly, sort of like John Wayne in a baseball uniform. And when Jones strolls into the batter's box -- no matter which side it might be -- he looks as though he's been preparing for that moment his whole life.

Which he has been, of course.

"One of the best feelings you can have as a ballplayer is having 50,000 people sitting on every pitch when you're in the batter's box, just waiting to come out of their seats," Jones said in a drawling monotone that contradicts his emotions. "When you center one and send it out of the park, bring them to their feet to applaud your performance, that's as good as it gets.

"Because," he quickly adds, "hitting a baseball is without a doubt the hardest thing to do in professional sports. To be able to do it as well as anybody, that feels good."

Growing up, Jones tried to model himself after Mickey Mantle and Eddie Murray, the two greatest switch-hitters in baseball history. He may wind up eclipsing them, already holding the distinction of being the only one of their ilk with both a .300 career average and 400 homers.

Jones is hitting .310 over his 14-year career, better than either Mantle (.298) and Murray (.287). There's still some work to do on the home run line, where Mantle leads (536), Murray is second (504) and Jones ranks a distant third among switch-hitters with 408.

But clearly, he's getting closer to a pretty exclusive neighborhood.

"When I was 6 years old, I wanted to stand next to Mickey Mantle and Eddie Murray," Jones said. "To stand here 30 years later and be next on the list behind those two, it's quite satisfying and gratifying. I know all the hard work has paid off. I've done it the right way. I've gone out and put together a long, successful career that I'm really proud of."

Terry Pendleton, the National League MVP in 1991 and now the Braves' hitting coach, is quick to note Jones' natural gifts as a hitter.

"God touched him and said, 'You're a hitter,' " Pendleton said.

But chalking it all up to genetics or a higher power does not tell the whole story. No one spends more time in the batting cage or studying tape of opposing pitchers. No one watches from the dugout more intently when it's not his turn to hit, absorbing every little nuance he can pick up on the mound.

"He's a student of the game. He's a student of hitting," Pendleton said. "People don't understand the mental part of it. He works at it. He understands it."

Before Jones' steps in the box, he already has an idea of what he wants to do.

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