LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - There were plenty of times last summer when Brian Jordan shouldn't have been in the Atlanta Braves lineup.
But, he refused to sit during the dog days and the September pennant race because he knew, as Chipper Jones says, "that we were a better team with him in the lineup."
"You've got to give him a lot of respect for gutting it out," Jones said. "He was hurt, his swing wasn't free and easy. He didn't have enough juice to take the ball into a gap or out of the park. He was really relegated to being a singles hitter, but he stayed in there and played."
Jordan, who has been on the disabled list seven times during his career with injuries ranging from fractured ribs to a bulging disk, calls last year his toughest season. Judging by the winter work done by doctors on both shoulders, that's an understatement.
When surgeons took a look, they found a partially torn rotator cuff and torn tissue in both shoulders. It's little wonder last year's swing didn't resemble the stroke that produced 115 RBI two years ago.
"I had two shoulder surgeries, that should tell you enough," said Jordan, who admitted to feeling hurt when the Braves shopped him this winter. "Feeling good again makes a difference. I don't have to compensate, I can just take a normal swing."
Gritting his teeth to stay in the lineup earned his teammates' respect, but it did nothing for his numbers. His run production fell by 34 RBI, his home runs dropped by six, and his average tumbled 19 points.
"If you have two sore shoulders and you know you're going to be slow, you start using your body and jumping at the ball," hitting coach Merv Rettenmund said. "You can tell a difference in his swing right now. He's just flipping the bat out there and putting the ball into play."
Alarmed by his declining numbers, his age (34 on March 29) and his propensity for injury, the club made Jordan available in trade talks this winter, sparking an outburst from the right fielder.
"I get tired of hearing that I'm inconsistent because of injuries and I'm injury prone," he said. "The thing they don't say is, I play through the injuries for the team. You figure you work so hard and you sacrifice your average for the team, and all of a sudden you're getting graded on your numbers. It just goes to show that sometimes when you sacrifice it just doesn't pay off."
Jordan need not have worried. Prospective suitors were scared off by his shoulders and the $26 million he's owed on a five-year, $40 million contract he signed in 1998.
A deal not made might turn into a blessing in disguise for a team that lost cleanup hitter Andres Galarraga's 100 RBI. Jordan dropped 18 pounds during a winter of strenuous rehabilitation and reported to camp feeling better than he has in many years.
"I just wanted to get back down to the weight I had during my football-playing days," said the former Atlanta Falcons strong safety. "I'm just not carrying all that bulk. I'm eating better, and I cut back on McDonald's fries, though I cheat once in a while. I just wanted to get my quickness back. I wanted to come back and steal more bases."
Cox is approaching Jordan's return cautiously and won't play him in today's exhibition opener against Georgia Tech. Jordan says he feels no pain while swinging, but admits his arm strength hasn't returned, and he won't throw hard until the end of camp. Cox probably will use him as a designated hitter in American League parks during spring training and severely limit his appearances in right field.
"He's going to be hesitating throwing the ball right now, and he should be," Cox said.
Jordan said he isn't worried about his defense. He's focused on regaining his stroke and marveling that he's able to swing without pain.
"It's new to me," he said. "I've just got to adjust, be patient and let it go."
Reach Bill Zack at email@example.com.
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