Switched On! With added power from the right side and his usual pop from the left, Atlanta's Chipper Jones has put on a clutch-hitting clinic worthy of an MVP

October 03, 1999

On the first day of spring training this year in Kissimmee,
Fla., Don Baylor, the new Atlanta Braves hitting coach,
introduced himself to switch-hitting third baseman Chipper Jones
the way a double espresso does to your synapses first thing in
the morning. "Tell me your philosophy of hitting," Baylor said.

"Have good at bats, hit .300 from both sides of the plate and
get runners in from scoring position," Jones, a three-time
All-Star, said proudly.

"Bulls---," Baylor barked. "You hit third for the best team in
the National League, and I expect you to drive the ball out of
the park."

So much for "Howdy" and a firm handshake. Later, when a
lefthanded batting practice pitcher didn't show, Jones left the
cage after hitting lefthanded. "Hey," Baylor said, "where do you
think you're going? You aren't leaving until you hit righthanded."

That night Jones went to his parents' home in Pierson, about a
hundred miles from Kissimmee, walked in and announced,
practically before the door had closed behind him, "The worm has
turned, Dad. The worm has turned."

Thus began a season of change and growth for Jones, 27, who knew
he was in for a lesson in plate tectonics. What he thought was a
firm foundation under his feet suddenly was heaving every which
way. It wasn't just Baylor's version of the welcome wagon,
either. Jones, the good ol' Southern boy starring for a Southern
team, had been freshly defrocked as a Tom Sawyer in spikes after
his admission last October of marital infidelities and
illegitimate fatherhood.

"I was determined to show people that what happened in the
off-season wasn't going to affect me," says Jones, who admitted
to having a son out of wedlock. "The thing is, I had been dealing
with it myself for the past two or three years. Then I put
pressure on myself to get off to a good start so people didn't
have the chance to say, Chipper's stinking up the joint, and
problems with his personal life are causing it."

That burden, of course, is how Jones came to be hitting a paltry
.259 as late as May 17. From that dysfunctional beginning
emerged one of the greatest seasons ever by a switch-hitter, one
that, barring a final-week surge from Houston Astros first
baseman Jeff Bagwell, should be validated with the National
League Most Valuable Player award in November. Last week Jones
presented the most convincing closing argument since Perry
Mason. He eradicated all drama from the National League East
race by walloping four home runs in Atlanta's three-game sweep
of the second-place New York Mets. So good was Jones that the
Mets whined that he must have known what pitches were coming.
"That's bush," Jones scoffed.

With a sweep of the Expos in the three-game weekend series that
followed in Montreal, the Braves ended the season's penultimate
week with a seven-game lead after starting it with a perilous
one-game edge. No one was more responsible for that turnabout
than Jones, the National League's leading hitter in late innings
of close games (the seventh inning or later of games in which
the team at bat is either tied, ahead by a run or has the tying
run on base, at the plate or on deck). In such situations Jones
had a .415 average through Sunday. "You talk about carrying a
team, that's what he's done," Atlanta shortstop Walt Weiss says.
"Take him out of this lineup, and we're all going home in a week."

Jones will become the first player in a season to exceed 100
runs, RBIs and walks, 40 home runs and doubles, and 20 stolen
bases while batting better than .300. (Bagwell will need five
doubles in Houston's final five games to accomplish the feat.)
Jones's 45 dingers at week's end, including 15 from the right
side after a total of 12 in the previous four years, are a
National League record for switch-hitters. "This," Jones says,
"has been my most satisfying season. I am happy with all facets
of life right now."

Chipper Jones grew up in Pierson, population 2,988, where the
only light in town forever blinked yellow in reliable,
monochromatic homage to the simple Southern life. Most
townsfolk, including his father, Larry, a high school algebra
teacher and baseball coach, grew the decorative greenery you'd
find in a flower bouquet. That was Pierson. It wasn't about the
roses. It was about the ferns.

Five-year-old Chipper learned how to hit from both sides of the
plate in his backyard, swinging a two-inch-wide piece of PVC
pipe at a tennis ball thrown by his dad, who stood by the hay
barn. As the boy grew, he and his father would play games
against each other, blasting home runs onto the clear plastic
sheeting that draped the fernery.

The boy grew tall as corn. In 1990, after hitting .448 and
leading The Bolles High School to the 2A state championship,
Chipper became the first pick in the amateur draft and agreed to
a contract with Atlanta that carried a $275,000 signing bonus.
Five years later he was batting third for a world championship
team in his first full big league season. He was a
made-for-Dixie hero with a lopsided aw-shucks grin that made
girls swoon, men swear they were watching the second coming of
Mickey Mantle and foes want to clean his clock. "Hated him,"
admits Weiss, who came to the Braves from the Colorado Rockies
after the '97 season. "I didn't know him. It was just, I don't
know, a kind of swagger he has. But, really, he's a blue-collar
guy. Comes in, plays cards, goes out and plays. Every day."

Married to Karin Fulford, whom he met in 1991 and wed a year
later, Jones was an All-Star who would come back to Pierson in
the winter for the deliciously greasy hamburgers, corn bread,
sweet tea and the familiar company of his boyhood friends at
Carter's Country Kitchen. At home he would watch football on TV
with his father until out of nowhere Larry would say, "Chipper,
you know what? I can still take you." And just like that the two
of them would bolt from the couch to the backyard and resume the
game with the tennis ball, the PVC pipe, the hay barn and the
canopy of fernery.

The two share an almost brotherly friendship, with frequent
hunting and fishing trips and usually no more than one day
passing without a phone call. But Larry Wayne Jones Jr.,
nicknamed for being such a chip off the old block, never did
tell his father about the affairs that destroyed his marriage.
Chipper and Karin separated last November, and their divorce is
pending.

"I found out from somebody else," says Larry, now an assistant
coach at Stetson. "But that's not surprising. Chipper doesn't
offer a whole lot."

"I went public," Jones says of his admission, "partly because my
wife pressured me to do it. But that was like a weight lifting
off my shoulders. I had been living a hypocritical life. I
wasn't as quick to look people in the eye, and I didn't want to
do that anymore. That was the only good thing that came out of
it. I cleared my conscience. I'm paying for my mistakes. I am
greatly sorry for them. But I feel it's time to close the door."

Jones immersed himself in an expanded weight-training regimen.
Larry was shocked to see him leg pressing more than 1,000 pounds
one day when he visited him at Turner Field. "Dad," Chipper
said, "I've got to be stronger in August and September. No more
of my usual fade." A career .256 hitter in September/October,
Jones had hit .301 this month through Sunday with 10 home
runs--one less than his career total for the month entering the
season.

"It looks as if he has more peace of mind, that he's more
relaxed," observes St. Louis Cardinals hitting coach Mike
Easler. "He's learned how to take one game at a time and not try
to do too much. The man could always hit. Now he's getting some
good direction from Don. When the student is ready, the teacher
shall appear."

Baylor, the 1979 American League MVP with the California Angels,
has made mechanical adjustments to Jones's stance, especially to
the placement of his arms and hands. Jones had a defensive
posture from the right side, his front elbow pointed up "like a
chicken wing," Larry said, and he held his hands close to his
chest. Jones did that to place a premium on making contact; he
loathed striking out and measured himself by that .300 mark.
Baylor persuaded Jones to drop the elbow and move his hands
slightly back, generating more thrust into the ball. "Balls he
used to pull foul," Baylor said, "are going to left center."

More important, Baylor told Jones that he had to think like a
power hitter. Baylor's empowerment of Jones took on increasing
importance as injury and illness ravaged Atlanta. In '99 the
Braves have lost first baseman Andres Galarraga, catcher Javy
Lopez and pitchers Kerry Ligtenberg, Odalis Perez and Rudy
Seanez for the season. Jones's usual protection in the lineup,
rightfielder Brian Jordan, has been a punchless singles hitter
since getting hit with a pitch on the right hand on June 22.

"For the first two strikes, at least, Chipper has to think about
doing damage, not just making contact," Baylor says. "I told him
from that first day that he had to think of himself as a threat
righthanded, the same as Galarraga or Jordan. He shouldn't be
just another switch-hitter who can get you a single from the
right side. He always made it easy on [opposing] managers late
in a game. You always brought in a lefthander to pitch to
Chipper. Automatic. I wanted him to make that decision tough for
them."

On Sept. 21 Mets manager Bobby Valentine summoned a lefthander,
Dennis Cook, to pitch to Jones in the eighth inning of a 1-1
game. Jones blasted a home run, his second of the game and the
winning hit. The next day Jones launched Atlanta to a 5-2 win
with a two-run homer (lefthanded) in the first inning. The day
after that, batting righthanded in the fifth against lefty Al
Leiter with the Mets ahead 2-1, he plunged a three-run dagger
through New York's heart. As the ball landed in the left
centerfield bleachers, Jones's mother, Lynne, who was watching
on television back in Florida, sank to her knees and wept with
disbelieving joy.

Says Larry, "He's not as good a player as he's been lately, but
like he said, he'll ride it as long as he can. MVP? I have to
pinch myself when I hear that talk. I still pinch myself when I
just think about where he is. This community is so small that
the odds against someone getting to the big leagues from Pierson
are huge."

As a boy Chipper wouldn't come straight home from elementary
school. He'd dash across the street to the high school baseball
field, where he would shag flies for his father's team. He has
grown into a man who is in the final year of a four-year, $8.75
million contract, who has missed only 20 games over the past
five years, who has hit .324 in 48 postseason games already and
whose career statistics closely track those of Mantle (chart,
above). What this season tells us is that Jones is still
growing. So, too, is tiny Pierson. The blinking yellow beacon is
gone, replaced by a full-fledged traffic light. There have been
two wrecks already under its watch at the intersection of Route
17 and Washington Ave. "People are so used to the yellow," Jones
says, "they plow right on through."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY RONALD C. MODRA Staying power Clearheaded and stronger, Jones has had his best September, slamming 10 homers through Sunday. COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE COLOR PHOTO: HY PESKIN

Right Makes Might

One of the keys to switch-hitter Chipper Jones's career-best
season in '99 is his increased power and production from the
right side of the plate. Here's a comparison of how Jones fared
against lefthanded pitching his first four full seasons in the
majors (average per season) and how he has done this year
(through Sunday). --David Sabino

VS. LHP, 1995-98 VS. LHP, 1999

At bats 169 139
Hits 48 49
Doubles 10 10
Triples 1 0
Home runs 3 15
RBIs 20 34
Walks 22 26
Strikeouts 33 24
Batting avg. .281 .353
On-base pct. .363 .449
Slugging pct. .399 .748

Chip Off The Old Mick

The start of Chipper Jones's career bears an uncanny resemblance
to that of baseball's greatest switch-hitter, Mickey Mantle
(bottom photo). Here's a comparison of their stats after each
had played six seasons. (Jones's stats are through Sunday.)

PLAYER,
SEASONS AVG. G AB H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SB

Chipper Jones,
1993-99* .301 774 2,875 866 166 17 153 521 456 82
Mickey Mantle,
1951-56 .308 808 2,944 907 136 43 173 575 524 43

*Jones missed the '94 season with a torn left ACL.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)