LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- An empty batting cage provided a suitable backdrop to the start of Chipper Jones' ninth season with the Atlanta Braves.
In keeping with what has become an annual tradition, he reported to camp ahead of pitchers and catchers. It was hardly surprising, then, to find the batting cages as silent as a graveyard, a situation that Jones soon addressed.
He quickly found a volunteer to pitch to him so he could work on a swing that hitting coach Terry Pendleton has described as "a swing you wish you could teach your kids."
"His balance and the way he attacks the ball," Pendleton said. "That's the way you want everyone to do it."
It's not an issue of "if." It's only a question of "when." Jones will be inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame, count on it. He's almost halfway to 3,000 hits, he'll wind up with more than 500 home runs, and he'll probably hold the National League record for most consecutive seasons with 100 RBI. He's at seven and counting, and just three hitters in NL history -- Willie Mays, Mel Ott, and Sammy Sosa -- have more. Sosa joined Hall of Famers Mays and Ott last year with his eighth consecutive season. The 30-year-old Jones, however, is four years younger than Sosa and figures to eventually surpass the Cubs' slugger.
No less an authority than general manager John Schuerholz, who is certainly qualified to judge hitters after seeing Hall of Famers Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Mays, Mickey Mantle, Rod Carew, and George Brett, says, "I rank (Jones) in the top 10 percent of hitters who have played the game."
Jones' career hasn't been a highlight reel of spectacular numbers. On the road to Cooperstown, he's the tortoise. He plods along, putting up the same numbers every year. In his first eight years in the big leagues, he batted .309 or better six times. He's had one season of 40-plus home runs and he's never had 200 hits in a season. Until his streak ended last year when he scored 90 runs, he had scored 100 runs or more as frequently as he knocked in 100. He's had 30 or more doubles in five of the last six years, drawn 95 walks or more in the last five seasons, and played in at least 156 games every year since his rookie season in 1995.
Granted, that kind of consistency gets you noticed by opposing pitchers, but it doesn't get you invited to home run hitting contests.
"The first thing I realized is the numbers he's put up, what he's accomplished, and he's done it every year," said pitcher Russ Ortiz, who faced Jones for five years with the Giants before last December's trade brought him to the Braves. "When you're facing a guy like Chipper, you've got to step it up a little bit. You learn how to become a better pitcher by facing guys like that.
"A couple of years ago I tried to go in on him and it didn't work. He hit a double off the wall. Against guys like that, I constantly have to make adjustments."
Jones, meanwhile, is making similar adjustments.
"My swing is still a work in progress," he said. "There's always an adjustment that needs to be made."
Jones' bat is often the catalyst for the Braves' offense. He shifted to the cleanup spot last year to make room for Gary Sheffield in the No. 3 hole, but the No. 5 hitter, Andruw Jones, hit just .257 with runners in scoring position and pitchers often chose not to pitch to Chipper.
"He's the linchpin of our hitting machine," Schuerholz said. "If he's going well, it seems the rest of our lineup hits well."
The scary thing is, Jones hasn't fulfilled his potential yet. While he's been one of baseball's most consistent run producers, he's never knocked in more than 111 runs. He hit 45 home runs in 1999, when he won MVP honors, but he's usually in the mid-30s. Last year he hit just nine home runs in the first half and ended up with 26.
"He may look at this and say, 'what are you saying?' but I think he can do more. That's my opinion," Pendleton said. "Tony Gwynn is the best I've ever seen personally. But as far as clutch hitting, he and Sheffield would be in my top five or six among guys who can just flat-out hit."
Said Chipper Jones: "From a run production standpoint, I think I can be better. I have yet to have a 120-RBI season. One of these days the numbers are going to fall just right."
There are few hitters better with runners in scoring position. Jones batted .301 with runners on base last season and is a career .300 hitter in the same situation. Greg Maddux, a four-time Cy Young winner and future Hall of Famer, was asked how he'd pitch to Jones.
"Hit him or walk him," Maddux joked, "whichever came first. He's one of those guys that you've got to make sure you get guys out in front of him and keep him in the ballpark. It's very important to face him with no one on base. That's how you pitch to him."
The smile on Jones' face this spring is new. You might think that someone playing a game he loves, while being paid an average of $15 million a year to do it, couldn't wipe a grin off his face, but Jones rarely ever smiled the last three years.
He was divorced. He admitted fathering an illegitimate child. He remarried. His personal life has been so well chronicled he could be his own reality show.
But that scowl so often seen has been replaced by a smile, and Jones looks like he enjoys being around the game again.
"I've had a lot of things going on in my life that haven't gone right the last few years and I've let it affect me," he said. "I've finally made up my mind that I'm not going to let that happen. I want to go through a whole season where I come to the park and I completely enjoy myself. I want to hang out with the boys and just have fun."
Reach Bill Zack at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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