This is the Andruw Jones we’ve been waiting for.
This Andruw Jones, the one whose home run binge gives him a realistic chance of spoiling Derrek Lee’s Triple Crown dreams, is who the world expected to see when, at age 19, he homered in Game 7 of the 1996 NLCS, making him the youngest man ever to homer in a postseason game. This is the guy the world was ready for after he hit home runs in his first two World Series at bats — in Yankee Stadium, no less — that same year.
And this year, Jones is finally delivering on that early promise. He’s leading the majors with 35 home runs. He’s driven in 87, third best in the National League, and is fifth in slugging at .595.
For the last 10 years, no player has been as good as Jones while also being a colossal disappointment. Perhaps that’s not his fault, but he made an unforgivable mistake: Even if only for a moment, he was too good at a sinfully young age for people to not jump to conclusions. He was Dwight Gooden without the dope. Doc’s demons led him toward mountains of cocaine; Andruw’s were far more benign but just as professionally disastrous. Worse than whatever drove him to receive “VIP service” at an infamous Atlanta strip joint called the Gold Club, something in Andruw’s head told him to swing at any pitch he could reach.
Pitches up in his eyes? Easier to see, I guess. Jones’ hitting eye has been so bad that he was probably the only Brave that didn’t complain when Eric Gregg called every pitch inside the batter’s box a strike during Livan Hernandez’s record-breaking “performance” in the 1997 NLCS. It didn’t matter that he was easily the best defensive player in baseball or that he consistently hit 30 home runs per season. He was perpetually compared to the legend he was expected to be from the beginning, something that was as unfair as it was unavoidable.
Braves fans expected Willie Mays. Jones might be the best defensive centerfielder since Mays — easily the best these relatively young eyes have seen — but expecting Jones to be Mays fell somewhere between optimism and delusion. Mays was a great hitter in every way, a disciplined hitter who struck out more than 100 times only once in 23 seasons while putting up big power numbers. Jones has fanned in the triple figures in each of his full major league seasons. Mays hit .300 ten times and .296 twice. Jones has hit .300 once and never more than .277 in another season; his career average is .269. A nice catch here and homer there does not Willie Mays make. That’s like thinking everybody with a hairy chest can sing like Teddy Pendergrass.
A few years ago, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Mark Bradley urged readers to realize that Jones wasn’t Mays and that being Andruw Jones should have been enough to please the masses. At the time, he was fairly right. He was — and still is — the only irreplaceable player the Braves had, the only one that couldn’t be seamlessly replaced without anyone noticing that he was gone. Think about it — Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Javy Lopez, and a host of others have left, and hardly anyone notices that they’ve left. The Braves brought in new junk ballers to replace Maddux and Glavine and haven’t missed a beat. They fleeced the Phillies for Johnny Estrada — acquired for Kevin Millwood, who became mighty irrelevant after throwing a no-hitter for the Phils in 2003 — and no one has mentioned Lopez much since he left.
The same could never be said about Jones, though. The Braves have always known that Mike Cameron or another of those perpetually available centerfielders could never come close to replacing what he brings. No one else, not even Torii Hunter, can eat up doubles like Jones. As far as intangibles, he gives fans a seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of hope. Trading Jones could turn Braves’ G.M. John Schuerholz into the fool he’s made of other G.M.’s that did business with him. Not even a hitting approach that looked as though Jones was getting paid by the swing could get Schuerholz to send him out of town.
But that doesn’t change the fact that Jones’ lack of plate discipline has been painful to watch. To be happy with that Andruw Jones was to condone underachievement, to tolerate rally-killing strikeouts and indefensible dribblers on first-pitch sliders. More damning, saying what he did then was good enough was like saying first-round playoff exits were good enough. Not even Braves fans who remember the dreadful late ’80s believe that, so how could they think Andruw was good enough?
Fast-forward to now and look what’s happened. He’s doing two things this year that seemed inconceivable this time last year — he’s carried the team, and he’s learned the difference between balls and strikes. He’s obscured Schuerholz’s worst personnel decision in eons, the poor upgrades of corner outfielders with a kaput Raul Mondesi and the creaky Brian Jordan. Teams have been criticized for pitching to Jones since the Braves’ lineup is so depleted, but I’m guessing that other teams are just as shocked that Jones is showing restraint as I am. The old Jones could stretch an intentional walk to a full count. His new eye has softened the blow of losing Chipper Jones for most of the year and helped create a situation where the Braves can bring kids like Jeff Francoeur to work without worrying that they would break something.
This year, Jones has done what the Braves have done for the last 15 years — he’s maintained a standard of excellence. Much is made of the fact that John Smoltz is the only Brave remaining from the 1991 roster, but Smoltz, Chipper, and Andruw are the only Braves that have stayed in Atlanta since 1999, the last time Atlanta made the World Series. More is made of how the Braves have stayed the same while constantly changing, and Jones deserves a great deal of credit for that (along with manager Bobby Cox and pitching coach Leo Mazzone).
So what if he’s not Willie Mays? At least he’s not Darryl Strawberry, a prodigy who started as quickly as Jones but fizzled post-haste.
But juxtaposing Jones against past icons is meaningless. He’s at a better place than he’s ever been. He’s not yet a Hall of Famer, but he’s everything the Braves have needed this year.
He’s Andruw Jones. Finally, that’s truly good enough.