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A Jones For Hitting

You look at his average -- .420 through Monday, the best in baseball -- and you're tempted to say Chipper Jones is a young 36. He's not. There are nights when Jones can't make the walk from his driveway to his front door without wifely support. His body aches 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 the plate, a study in conservation, John Wayne packing 33 ounces of white ash. But if 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 into high gear with astonishing speed.

At that moment he's 18 again, first overall pick in the nation, with reflexes to match. He's old of head and young of twitch. Four-two-oh.

Last Thursday in Atlanta he hit his 14th home run of the season and the 400th home run of his career, on a night when he went 4 for 5. His curtain call for the Turner Field crowd -- only the second, he recalled, in his long, distinguished career -- lasted all of four seconds. Typical Chipper.

Two nights earlier, against the Florida Marlins, he was way out of character. Jones, an intensely focused switch-hitter, stepped into the left batter's box wearing the wrong helmet, and for a few pitches his unprotected right ear was exposed to major league pitching, and for about a minute he looked even more like his hero, Mickey Mantle, who batted switch and without ear flaps and won three MVP awards and seven World Series and made it all look easy. Chip (his manager calls him Chip) is in the 15th year of a career that will finish in Cooperstown. People tell Chip he makes it look easy. He knows better. He knows the parts you don't see: the pregame trip to the trainer's room to return life to his cement-stiff right leg, the mid-game trip to the video room to scout a newly arrived reliever, the postseason trip to Japan to inspect raw wood for potential bats. He's devoted to baseball's many little things, to what he calls, as others have before him, "the game within the game." Ted Williams -- the last man to hit over .400 -- was the same way. Chipper Jones, batting third and playing third, is the old pro.

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

One night in mid-May, Jones found himself facing the Phillies' lethal closer, Brad Lidge. The Braves had one out and one on in the ninth and trailed the Phils 5-3. The Philadelphia crowd, full house and full throat, was on its feet, stomping and cheering for its righty, but Jones might as well have been underwater for all he heard. Jones, batting from the left, saw that red dot the size of a dime coming at him -- SLIDER! -- and this one was an unexpected gift: at the letters, outside part of the plate, smack-dab in the birthplace of nearly every opposite-field home run he's ever hit. He hit the ball hard but only to the warning track in leftfield. He had missed the bat's sweet spot by a half inch. "That slider," Jones said after the game. It was another 3 for 4 game 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 was frustrated. 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, has been Chipper's personal batting instructor all his life. The father and son, an only child, speak by phone almost every night, postgame, when the Braves are home. (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 Chipper and called Double Dime Ranch. Larry Sr. wore number 10 in high school and college -- 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 his four 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 can whack a baseball, and Chipper calls him "a stud." One of Larry's early lessons to Chipper was this: Don't be afraid of the ball. Chipper's teaching that to his kids now, and reminding himself of it.

"When I was seven or eight, I was bailing out on everything inside," Jones said the other day. "My father's pitching to me in the backyard." They lived on 11 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 the mouth. It was with a tennis ball, but it still knocked out a front tooth. Blood was everywhere. But I survived it." Larry Jones says that from what he's seen, 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 in Pittsburgh last month Jones found himself in a minifunk: 0 for 2 in the Friday-night game against the Pirates, 0 for 4 the next night. His average had fallen to .400, and his swing felt out of sorts, especially when he was batting righty. A Sunday matinee awaited the team. For Jones, and many ballplayers, a 1 p.m. game is like a school day starting at five in the morning. Still, there was no way he could go straight back to the hotel on that Saturday night, not with that horrid 0-for-6 taste marinating in his mouth. He went to the PNC Park visiting-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 and conditioning coach, also moonlights as the club's lefthanded batting-practice pitcher.

They went to the indoor visiting-team batting cage at PNC. Braves hitting coach Terry Pendleton, who takes his cues for Chipper from Larry, stood behind the netting. There was little 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 a contract that will pay him more than $12 million this season, Chipper Jones was taking extra BP. He's been batting nearly .450 ever since.

You don't become an old pro overnight, of course. It took Jones years, as it must. The role suits him. In late May, in Cincinnati, Jones had what he called "one of the worst games of my life." He went hitless in five at bats, hit into two double plays and committed a walk-off error when a ground ball skipped past his glove, allowing the Reds to score and win in the 11th. A handful of reporters and broadcasters traveling with the Braves were waiting to talk to him. "Ten years ago I would have stayed in the trainer's room until everybody left," Jones said. "Then you grow up. When you flat-out stink the joint up, you have to stand up and say just that." Which is what he did and what he said. He knew that the old Brave Dale Murphy -- "a god in the city of Atlanta," Jones says -- was a stand-up guy that way.

He's learned from his elders. When the New York Mets came to Turner Field last month, Jones welcomed the chance to face Johan Santana, the Mets' ace. When Jones batted against him in the seventh with the game tied at 2, Santana threw him a superb 0-and-1 fastball on the outside part of the plate. There wasn't much Jones could do with it except lace one into short rightfield, scoring the go-ahead run. The inning ended when Santana made a leaping grab on a chopper between the mound and third, followed by a twirling, off-balance, called-strike throw to second, the first leg of a textbook 1-6-3 double play. As they crossed paths on their way back to their dugouts, Jones patted Santana, 29 and new to the National 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 Venezuelan pitcher. "When I was coming up, Cal Ripken said things like that to me, and it gave me a lot of encouragement," Jones said. "It was like he was saying, 'You're a good young player. Now let's see what you can do with your career.' So now I feel like I'm at the point where I should be able to do that for somebody else." The old pro.

Last weekend the Braves were swept by the Phillies at home, and through Sunday they trailed Philadelphia 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 two old-pro players on the Atlanta roster, Jones and Tom Glavine, the veteran lefthander. They first met in 1990, when Jones was chosen by the Braves as the first 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 like that."

When Atlanta was in Philadelphia in May, Glavine started the second game of the series, still looking then for his first win of the season. In the fourth, with the Braves leading 5-0, Phillies cleanup hitter Ryan Howard headed to the plate. With the Howard Shift on, Jones moved from third to short, and the shortstop, Yunel Escobar, a young Cuban émigré whom Glavine barely knows, moved to the outfield grass 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. I don't know if they're stealing signs or what. Tell me if you hear or see anything."

Jones was surprised. He could never remember Glavine coming off the mound to ask him a question before, let alone one about possible sign stealing. He was flattered that Glavine recognized that Jones could stay focused on the batter but also open his ears to the external sounds of the game, if that's what his pitcher needed him to do. More than anything, he was impressed. He could feel Glavine's urgency, his need to win a baseball game.

Glavine retired Howard, and when the inning was over, Jones told Glavine that the whistling was coming "from one of our guys" -- from Escobar, a serial whistler -- and that fans in the stands were whistling in response to him. Nobody, he said, was stealing signs.

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

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

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