Arash Markazi
Friday August 8th, 2008

A red "easy" button sits on a table below the players' mailbox in the Dodgers clubhouse, mere inches from Andruw Jones' slot, which is overflowing with fan letters he has yet to pick up. Judging from the reaction he gets at Dodger Stadium every time he steps into the batter's box these days, he probably isn't missing anything he hasn't already heard.

If life were as easy as those Staples commercials where employees in a pickle tap the red button to solve their problems, Jones would have done so a long time ago. Of course, given the way his season has gone to this point, he might miss it.

Jones, who was a five-time All-Star during his last eight seasons in Atlanta and finished second in MVP voting in 2005 after smashing 51 home, is on pace for arguably the worst offensive season in baseball history. Through Thursday, Jones was batting .164 with three home runs and 14 RBIs, a .262 on-base percentage and .259 slugging percentage. He has more than twice as many strikeouts (73) as hits (33). For this, the Dodgers are paying a premium: Jones, arguably the game's most prolific center fielder just a couple seasons ago, is in the first year of a two-year, $36.2 million contract in the off-season.

Despite striking out almost four times every 10 at-bats, Jones has remained as outwardly relaxed as he was during his glory days with the Braves, a demeanor that earned him criticism in Atlanta but may be the only thing keeping him sane in Los Angeles. Before last Saturday night's game against Arizona in which he was benched for the first of what would be six straight games through Thursday, he took his headphones off as he sat in front of his locker following batting practice and talked candidly about his struggles.

"I don't know how to explain it. It's tough," said Jones, looking as perplexed trying to describe his emotions as he is deciphering pitches this season. "I think it's just confidence. Getting comfortable here, getting comfortable at the plate and not trying to do too much. It's more mental than physical with me. I feel good. I'm in good shape, I feel like I can go out there and play everyday."

Asked if he was looking for one hit, one moment that might turn around his season; he shook his head and said, "It's too late now. I just want to put everything behind me and start new. I think every day I've been saying that. We'll see what happens."

It was a surprisingly somber revelation from a 31-year-old player who should be in the prime of his career and providing the Dodgers, who entered Friday's games 1 1/2 games out of first place in the NL West, with a big bat in the middle of their lineup. While he batted a career-low .227 last season, he did still hit 26 home runs, a total that would have led the Dodgers, who expected Jones to bounce back and give them an offensive boost this season.

Instead the Dodgers have turned to Manny Ramirez for that help and in just his first six games with Los Angeles he was batting .565 with four homers and nine RBIs, surpassing by one the home run total Jones had in his first 71 games with the Dodgers. Unlike Jones, Ramirez has had some of his most productive seasons after his 30th birthday and Scott Boras, who represents both said having Ramirez to talk hitting with might be exactly what Jones needs at this time.

"[Teams are] pitching to [Jones]," said Dodger manager Joe Torre. "They're not pitching around him; he just needs to start getting more consistent. He works at it. He's working at it before we take batting practice and after we come in he's still in the cage so I know it's frustrating for him because he's very proud. Even though I know he won't say it, he's hurting. Not physically but emotionally. It hurts."

Jones, however, won't show his frustration outside of a few deep sighs as he tries to wrap his head around the idea that he no longer can hit the ball as effortlessly as he once did.

"I was one of those guys too that didn't show his emotion," said Torre. "You hurt inside, there's no question. I don't think it's so much the booing as it is you're letting your teammates down."

Torre and Dodgers hitting coach Don Mattingly talk to Jones constantly; about personal experiences with hitting struggles, similar situations they've had with other players who've had slumps although even they admit they've never seen a dropoff as dramatic and prolonged for a player as historically talented as Jones.

"He sure has a lot going on," said Mattingly. "He's trying to prove himself; he's trying to show people that he's worth the money and all that stuff so it's become a real mental thing. I think part of it is relaxing and getting your confidence back. When you start thinking, you start struggling and people start booing you and it's tough."

Jones -- who admits he is dealing with a multi-layered problem that includes adjusting to life in a big city like Los Angeles while mending his broken confidence at the plate -- believes his biggest problem is trying too hard to connect with the fat pitches he used to launch over the fence. His strike zone recognition, never a strong point,

"I go out there and work hard in batting practice and hit balls the way I should be hitting them but when the game starts things are just different," Jones said. "The [pitchers] are not making a lot of mistakes, every pitch they throw is going to be down and away and it's tough to hit pitches that are down and away for base hits. They're not going to hang a slider right down the middle, if it's going to be a slider it's going to be down and away. When I hit a home run it's going to be a mistake slider over the plate, it's not going to be slider down and away."

With his bat becoming a major liability in an already crowded outfield, some have suggested that Jones try to fix his swing in the minors. "We might get to that point one day but right now I just have to work on the things I need to work on," he said. "There will come a day where you just want to step away." Torre, however, is still holding out hope that Jones will find his confidence before the playoffs and give the Dodgers a "secret" $36.2 million weapon they've been waiting on since the spring.

"Something will happen where you say to yourself, 'OK. Where has this been?'" said Torre. "But it's hard. The first game he came back off the disabled list we win the ballgame and if you turned on ESPN the first comment they made in reference to our game was that he struck out four times. So it's just something that's not going to go away until he starts doing a better job."

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