The Natural: 19-Year-Old Touted As Baseball's Next Big Star
Aug. 29, 1996
ATLANTA (AP) _ At age 19, it's obvious that Andruw Jones has a lot to learn.
He doesn't comprehend the odds against someone from a remote island in the Caribbean making it to the major leagues. He doesn't realize that teen-agers aren't supposed to be called up by the defending World Series champion in the middle of a pennant race. He doesn't understand that towering homers off established pitchers shouldn't be happening a full year and a half before he's able to drink legally.
``I don't think he's got any fear,'' said Atlanta Braves general manager John Schuerholz, marveling at his own version of Roy Hobbs.
Hobbs was ``The Natural,'' a fictional character of mythical talents who was discovered among the cornfields of the Midwest. Jones is the real thing, from the tiny island of Curacao, which hugs the Venezuelan coast. It's hardly a baseball hotbed, but the Braves just happen to have a scout who lives there.
Jones signed with the Braves in July 1993, a few months after his 16th birthday. Within a year, he already was starting to take on Hobbs-like qualities with his powerful wrists, dazzling bat speed, strong arm and leadoff-man speed.
``Even at 17, he was a man amongst boys,'' recalled Braves shortstop Chipper Jones, who played with him in the instructional league after the 1994 season.
Andruw Jones made it to the majors after fewer than three seasons in the minors, still eight months shy of his 20th birthday.
In his first 37 at-bats with Atlanta, Jones hit four homers, including two off Pittsburgh's Denny Neagle, one of the better pitchers in the National League. Despite moving from center to right field just a month ago, Jones made several spectacular catches soon after he joined the Braves.
Some say he will be baseball's next big star, on par with Ken Griffey or Barry Bonds. But Jones shrugs off the expectations.
``I just do the things I've got to do to do my job, just work hard and try to stay with the team every year,'' he said.
After that stint in the instructional league as a 17-year-old, Jones spent the 1995 season at Class A Macon. He hit .277 with 25 homers, 100 RBIs and 56 stolen bases, making him the hottest prospect in the game. Still, no one expected him to reach the big leagues this year.
Jones started the season at Class A Durham, where he hit .313 with 17 homers and 43 RBIs in 66 games. At Double-A Greenville, he batted .369 with 12 homers and 27 RBIs in 38 games. He was promoted to Triple-A Richmond, where it took only 12 games to hit .378 with five homers and 12 RBIs.
The Braves, hit by injuries and looking to bolster their roster for another trip to the postseason, couldn't overlook those numbers. When Schuerholz and manager Bobby Cox sat down to discuss their options, their conversation kept turning to the teen-ager.
``When you're about to make a decision with respect to a 19-year-old, it demands a complete and full answer,'' Schuerholz said. ``By all measures, was it the best thing for our team? Was it the best thing for Andruw Jones? The answer was yes.''
Two years ago, Jones played with a cockiness that didn't endear him to older players.
``Since then, he's gotten a little of the hot dog taken out of him,'' Chipper Jones said. ``That's not only made him a better player, but more of an intriguing player to watch.''
These days, Andruw Jones spends his time around the batting cage picking the brain of his teammates.
``Man, people make adjustments real quick up here,'' the teen-ager said during a recent discussion.
Chipper reminded him of his first game in Philadelphia, when Curt Schilling kept striking out the youngster with high fastballs.
``Don't think that scouts from Pittsburgh and Cincinnati and Chicago weren't sitting right behind you at that game, taking notes, and that went right into their scouting reports,'' the elder Jones told the younger.
With a sculpted physique hidden on a 6-foot-1, 185-pound body, Jones is having to survive on pure talent at the moment. His youth is clearly evident when he swings at fastballs over his head and sliders that break into the dirt a foot outside. Every swing is taken like it's his last.
Of course, his swing is so powerful, so full of potential, that it's almost as much a thrill to watch him strike out as it is to see him hit one over the wall.
``I think he realizes that he's not going to step in and be the man right away,'' Chipper Jones said. ``He's not going to be the guy in the middle of the lineup that everyone fears.''
Andruw Jones has spent most games batting second, but it's only a matter of time before he escapes that role.
End advance for Aug. 31-Sept. 1