SURPRISE, Ariz. – Andruw Jones is leaner. His knee has healed. He moves – and looks – like a man in his 30s again. He makes occasional contact.
He might not be a productive big-league ballplayer again, not like he used to be. But at least he's given himself a chance to be that guy. He's cleaned up his body and given himself over to a new hitting coach and seems to understand what's at stake here. Considering he's toiling under a minor league contract with the Texas Rangers, there'd hardly be any missing it.
He had no choice, not if he was to keep doing this for a living. And even now, even with all these structural and emotional upgrades, he is as likely to be done than not.
"I know my career's on the line," Jones says Monday morning, hours before the Los Angeles Dodgers arrived for an exhibition.
The Dodgers will be subsidizing his effort to revive the game within him. They owe him more than $22 million, the going rate to be rid of a player they believed would be divisive, a player they believed had gone off to a self-inflicted early retirement.
As he retakes the stroke that abandoned him, as he adheres to the lessons of hitting guru Rudy Jaramillo for swing mechanics and pitch recognition and plain old courage, Jones does consider the Dodgers.
In fact, over a 15-minute conversation, he creeps reasonably close to accepting responsibility for showing up in L.A. overweight and under-motivated. He comes close to admitting he deserved the boos that drove him out of town. Sadly for the Dodgers, Jones' arrival at accountability comes a year late, and serves not to help the organization win ballgames but to cut into its payroll for years to come.
So now this new-ish Andruw Jones sits at his locker – wearing the wrong shade of blue – and waters a thirst encouraged by early morning batting practice.
He's kind of sorry. A little defensive and kind of sorry.
"They didn't just give me the money," he says. "They paid for my reputation. Do I feel guilty? Is that what you're asking? No. I feel sorry things didn't work out for me and them. I talked to Ned Colletti and I apologized to him. I told him I was sorry it went that way."
Presumably, it was embarrassing.
"I wasn't in my best shape," he says.
Presumably, when he was younger and fitter, the game came easy. And then he wasn't young and fit anymore.
"Things didn't go the way I wanted them to go," he says.
Presumably, he made some poor decisions.
"It was awful," he says. "It was the worst year in my whole life."
Now he's convincing himself he hasn't gone from one of the best players in the game to out of the game in two years, that it just doesn't happen like that. He beats plenty of his teammates to the ballpark every morning and locates Jaramillo and then they go off to put Andruw Jones back together again.
As Jaramillo says, if this works – and he said it's beginning to look like it could – the Rangers will have themselves a $22 million ballplayer "for half-a-million dollars." Conversely, the Dodgers will have had themselves a worthless ballplayer for $36.2 million. It happens.
In fact, on one of those afternoons that can sneak up on even a wary organization, Jason Schmidt started for the Dodgers and faced Jones in the second inning. In the first two seasons of his three-year, $48 million contract, Schmidt made six starts. A seventh start seems a longshot. In his only season with the Dodgers, Jones played in 75 games and batted .158. That's $84 million worth of standing around, shoulder and knee surgeries, falling velocity and empty swings.
And then Schmidt struck out Jones on a slider away.
Jones later homered on a Claudio Vargas fastball on a day hardly anyone could keep the ball in the park. He also misplayed a long fly ball in center field, it deflecting off his glove for a gift triple.
On goes the saga, Jones' former skills mixed with his current frailties.
"He's human," Jaramillo says. "You lose your swing and then you lose your confidence and it kind of snowballs from there. I think that's where he's at.
"I saw his raw talent was still there. The bat speed was still there. Now he's here. … We're not asking him to be the Andruw Jones of the past. But, if you think about it, why can't he be?"
For the moment, it depends on the at-bat. It depends on the day. And the lighting. He's Jones and then he's not.
He'll work on balance. He'll stay as square to the ball as he can, recognize pitches earlier, let them get deeper in the zone, put his front foot down and keep his hands back.
He's still striking out. It's still happening. But, he's here and he can't help but believe it'll work again. He's sorry. But he's going to keep trying.
"I've still got baseball in me," he says.
- Andruw Jones