ATLANTA -- In this most bittersweet of years, Chipper Jones is giving new meaning to the term swing vote.
Jones began the season facing the poll of public opinion after revealing that he had fathered a child in an extramarital affair that prompted his pending divorce from wife Karin. The Atlanta Braves slugger is ending the season on another ballot, one voted on by a group that is as controversial as it is exclusive.
As the Braves enter their last 15 games of the regular season in a tight National League East pennant race, Jones is getting some attention as a possible National League Most Valuable Player candidate. Atlanta plays host to Montreal tonight at Turner Field.
"That's not for me to decide," Jones said. "You're the guys who vote on it, so I have no control over it. I go out and try to help the Atlanta Braves win as many ball games as I can and do whatever it takes to help them win. I think had we not had the injuries that we've had this year, I don't even think you'd see my name anywhere mentioned in that boat."
Jones joins Houston first baseman Jeff Bagwell and Arizona third baseman Matt Williams as the players widely considered the frontrunners for the NL's most prestigious award.
"That's the ultimate in respect," Jones said. "After the season is over, it would mean a tremendous amount."
Many baseball people, including Jones, consider Bagwell the leader. The Astros slugger is hitting .306 with 40 home runs, 116 RBI and 130 runs scored. Williams is hitting .306 with 34 home runs, 130 RBI and 92 runs scored. Not coincidentally, the three leaders' teams all are in first place.
Jones is a candidate not only because of his statistics, but also because he has been the anti-Williams. He has played splendidly despite little help from leadoff hitters Otis Nixon, Walt Weiss and Gerald Williams, and a disappointing season from No. 2 hitter Bret Boone.
In posting his finest professional season, Jones is hitting .322 with a career-high 40 home runs despite so little support that he has been walked 115 times. His runs batted in total of 96 is 15 shy of his career high and is the only serious sticking point in his campaign to become the first MVP winner in Atlanta since Terry Pendleton in 1991. Jones has scored 107 runs and will become the first Braves player to drive in 100 runs and score 100 runs in four consecutive seasons since two-time MVP Dale Murphy in 1982-85.
Jones even has an outside shot at breaking the franchise record for home runs. Eddie Mathews and Hank Aaron each hit 47 in 1953 and 1971, respectively.
"He's consistent year in and year out. I don't even know how many years he's got in the big leagues. It seems like he's got 10, at least, but he doesn't," Williams said of Jones. "He makes the plays at third base. He hits for a high average, he drives runs in, hits the ball out of the ball park, he's an intelligent baserunner. I mean, he does everything well. ... His consistency is just phenomenal."
At least one baseball expert said Jones' candidacy will be hurt by media that -- over the past two seasons -- have seemed consumed with Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and empty home runs.
"Of course he is a candidate. How legitimate, I don't know," said Braves Cy Young Award winner Tom Glavine. "That's according to what other people's criteria are. I mean, it's hard to get anybody off of Sammy and Mac. It all boils down to what the people who vote on it think a Most Valuable Player is, and I'd venture to say that most of the media's definition is probably different from the players'.
"He's got an outside shot. There's no question about that. The question is: Should he have more of an inside shot than he does?"
So, what are the criteria? Numbers? The best player on the best team? A combination of both? And how inappropriate would it seem for Sosa, with another 60-homer year in the offing, to successfully defend his MVP trophy though he plays for the pathetic Cubs?
"This is the first time I've voted for MVP," says former Augusta Chronicle reporter Ed Price, who covers the Diamondbacks for Tribune Newspapers in Mesa, Ariz. "I think it is important to be on a contender, and I think you should consider things other than statistics: When you watch a team play, how much is he a part of what they do? I haven't seen Cincinnati play since July 1, but when I saw them play this year I was left with the impression that Barry Larkin should be considered for the MVP. He's not in the top 10 in any statistical category, but he's in the middle of their lineup, he's getting clutch hits for them, and he's playing great defense."
Price already has begun making his list, which started with Bagwell, Jones, Larkin, and Williams, whom he regularly covers.
Jones is politely skirting the off-field fray. For the record, he says Bagwell "without a doubt" is the favorite. His personal criterium for the award is to look at the division-leading teams first and ask, "`Who can they not do without?"' and then prune with a statistical blade.
He proclaims that he is unflaggingly preoccupied with consummating a season that opened with bold headlines about his breakup and is closing with progressively bolder ones about his breakout.
"The last thing that I wanted to happen was to come out after what happened in the off-season and struggle, play bad," Jones said. "Because then people would think, `Golly, his personal life is affecting him on the field, and what good is he going to be to us from now on?' I wanted to dispel those doubts right off the bat. And I think, starting from the very first day of spring training, I did that. I've played pretty solid ball all year, and because of that I'm probably having my most satisfying year."
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