Note to all those baseball romantics and dreamers who think Atlanta third baseman Chipper Jones could add spice to the 2008 season by flirting with .400: It's not going to happen.
For a variety of reasons, the chances of a Sunshine State World Series are better than Jones' reprising Ted Williams. Consider that Jones is in his 15th season and has yet to bat better than .337. He's good for legging out maybe a hit a month, and at age 36, he must be vigilant about nagging injuries that could spiral into something more serious.
The latest case in point occurred Thursday in Philadelphia. Jones felt a twinge in his groin while hitting off a tee, so he decided to sit out in hopes of being fresh for this weekend's series against Oakland in Atlanta.
Still, the occasional bout of reality can't diminish Jones' incredible start. The Elias Sports Bureau reports that he just became the fourth National League player since 1960 to amass 60 or more hits and at least 10 home runs with his team fewer than 40 games into a season. Billy Williams of the 1964 Cubs, Lou Brock of the 1967 Cardinals and Larry Walker of the 1997 Rockies were the others.
Jones also is hitting .418. The last Brave to carry a .400 average this deep into the season was Ralph "The Roadrunner" Garr of the 1971 Atlanta club.
Heck, Houston's Lance Berkman is in the middle of a 28-for-46 tear, and Jones is hitting 27 points higher than him.
"It's been a cool first six weeks of the season, to say the least," Jones said, smiling.
The sight of Jones making time stand still for his first and only professional organization is both heartwarming and remarkable. It really does seem like yesterday when he signed with Atlanta out of Jacksonville, Fla., as the first pick in the 1990 draft. The Braves offered a $250,000 bonus, Jones and his father asked for $300,000, and after a half-hour of bickering, the two sides settled on $275,000.
Eighteen years, five All-Star appearances, an MVP award and 333 postseason at-bats later, Jones continues to enhance his credentials as one of baseball's great switch-hitters. He also is an object of respect bordering on reverence in his own clubhouse.
Right fielder Jeff Francoeur jokingly calls him "the old fart in the clubhouse," then ranks him among the most underrated players in the game.
"I can't see him hitting .400, but I can definitely see him at .350 or .360," Francoeur said. "The way he's hitting, I think this is his year to win the batting title."
Manager Bobby Cox is convinced Jones' Hall of Fame ticket is punched even though he has yet to reach 400 home runs or 2,200 hits. And pitcher John Smoltz theorizes that if Jones wanted to sacrifice batting average for power tomorrow, it could happen just like that.
"I guarantee you that he could turn into a .280 hitter and hit 40 home runs if he wanted to," Smoltz said. "He possesses the ability to do that."
First baseman Mark Teixeira marvels at Jones' fluid swing and mastery of the strike zone. Jones has more career walks (1,171) than strikeouts (1,094), putting him in an elite group of power hitters that includes Albert Pujols, Gary Sheffield, Frank Thomas and Todd Helton.
"He rarely swings at bad pitches, and his bat stays in the zone so long," Teixeira said. "He was just born to hit."
Jones is getting a second wind at an age when many of his contemporaries have begun to fade or disappeared from view. Consider Carlos Delgado and Shawn Green, who broke into the majors with Toronto in September 1993 just as Jones was arriving on the scene in Atlanta. Green recently retired, and Delgado's production continues to decline. Feel free to ask any Mets fan how much he has left in the tank.
In Los Angeles, longtime but now-former Brave Andruw Jones is striking out and popping up with regularity, hearing boos each time he steps to the plate and trying to live down the perception that he's a $36.2 million bust.
So why has Chipper Jones endured? In part, it's a matter of Jones' keeping his skills intact long enough for his experience and analytical skills to catch up. He has a keener sense than ever for how the catcher is calling the game and what the pitcher is trying to accomplish in a given at-bat.
"I'm definitely smarter now," Jones said. "I'm quicker to pick up on pitchers and teams -- how they're trying to pitch me, knowing pitchers' repertoires and what they're going to try and get you out with in a crucial situation. I'll sit on a pitch and wait the whole at-bat for that pitch. Young hitters don't do that."
An American League scout said Jones has an uncanny knack for keeping his hands back even when his lower half and his hips have begun to commit. So even when Jones starts his stride in anticipation of a fastball, he's still able to inflict damage if the pitcher throws a changeup or a curve.
Jones is comfortable hitting with two strikes and secure enough to gauge how he feels on a particular day and adjust accordingly.
"A lot of guys go up there trying to gap the ball," Francoeur said. "If Chipper knows he's not feeling good, he'll just try to hit singles. He knows when he can attack the ball and try to go for the big ball, and when he just needs to get a base hit."
When a hitter is truly locked in, bad days can become good days in a hurry. In a 6-1 win over Los Angeles in April, Jones struck out swinging and grounded into a double play in his first two at-bats against Derek Lowe. Just when he appeared to be on his way to one unsightly oh-fer, he hit two homers, added a single and drove in four runs.
Jones, like many observers, thinks the age of specialization is the biggest factor weighing against a .400 bid. Just when you think you've got the starter figured out -- and you know he's tiring and potentially vulnerable -- he's in the dugout and a righty or lefty specialist is in the game to bridge the gap to the closer.
As a switch-hitter, Jones has an advantage that George Brett, Tony Gwynn and Ichiro Suzuki have never enjoyed. But versatility comes with a price. A big league hitter's swing can be a fickle thing, and Jones has to do a lot of maintenance to keep two swings in order. It's like babysitting twins.
"It takes twice as long to prepare and twice as many swings," Teixeira said. "Sometimes you can drive yourself crazy trying to keep two swings right."
Jones has no illusions about hitting .400 because he knows the odds will even out eventually. Hard-hit balls will stop eluding infielders or finding outfield gaps with such regularity. Pitchers will do a better job of getting ahead in the count and dictating events. It happens.
All Jones can ask is to stay healthy enough to take the field. If one thing rankles him, it's the perception that he's evolved into some sort of Tin Man in his mid 30s.
Two years ago, Jones slipped while charging a slow roller on a wet infield in San Francisco and sprained his knee and his ankle. During a recent series in New York, he was talking to a reporter when he reached into his locker for a pair of sunglasses and experienced back spasms. He sat out two games as a precaution.
"It's those kind of fluke injuries that have plagued me the last couple of years," Jones said. "All of a sudden, people want to talk about my body breaking down. It's not breaking down. It's still good, and when I'm healthy, I still produce."
More than words can say.