ATLANTA – Sixteen years ago, a few weeks into his professional career, Chipper Jones gave up hitting from the left side. Three days later, after phone calls from Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox and a few others in the organization, he was a switch-hitter again.
"Thank goodness," Jones said, "for the voice of reason."
So it was with some authority that when Lance Berkman of the Houston Astros revealed to him during a conversation at first base early in the 2000 season that he was scrapping his right side, Jones talked him out of it.
"And now every spring it's always the same old thing," Jones said, smiling. " 'Man, I can't find it. What's going on? How are you doing? How do you do it? What kind of drills do you do?' "
Said Berkman: "If nothing else, it's nice to have someone to commiserate with."
Chipper Jones carts his at-bats from the Braves' clubhouse, then ferries them home along broad highways and leafy avenues, wondering on a recent Friday night, for example, how Jamie Moyer could lock him up inside on a 3-and-2 fastball. What had he missed? Why hadn't he seen that coming?
In his first two plate appearances against Moyer, Jones had seen a total of two strikes, both away. The first he lined for a single. The second, two innings later, he drove for a double.
That's how it's gone for Jones, rolling into mid-June with a .421 batting average. And that's how it's gone for pitchers against Jones, who poke and nudge and aim and scheme and for 2½ months have not come upon a vulnerable place in his swing. Not twice, anyway.
Still, in his third at-bat, that fastball hit the mitt and evoked from Jones a grimace and a momentary softening of his shoulders. Inside fastball, huh? Inside fastball? But that's my power zone from the right side. That's the pitch I crush. Nobody throws me strikes there.
"Now," Jones said a day later, "whether I thought it was a strike or not is beside the point."
He didn't laugh. Didn't even smile.
He doesn't give an inch, not even the breadth of the plate's black border, not with a bat in his hands. That's what Jones carries with him home late at night, those small decisions and those persistent results that, when piled up, make you wonder if we're not seeing the first serious run at .400 since George Brett's almost three decades ago.
So, he turns over the sequence against Moyer in his head, and then over again. He sees that last two-seamer, tailing, maybe grazing the strike zone, maybe not. He can't make a mistake there. Doesn't have the fastball for it. That had to be off the plate. What was he doing in there anyway?
Another two-hit night, another day in the .400s, more survival from the right side, and he puts his head on the pillow. Only then does his head absolve him of that at-bat, that strikeout. He closes his eyes. Kyle Kendrick tomorrow. Never seen him before. What's he do? What's he look like on video? Back to hitting left-handed, that's good.
In the clubhouse, Jones grinned. It's not a burden, he said, all these swirling thoughts dragging him from one swing to the next, one pitcher to the next.
"It's who I am," he said. "It's what I've done since I was 7 years old. And it's been successful for me, so why should I do anything different? I don't want to allow the game to interfere with my family life. I still wake up in the morning and hang out with the kids. I have lunch with my wife every day. They have part of me every day. But whoever's starting that night against me is never far behind. Never far behind."
On the first day of most series, Lance Berkman asks around to see if anybody knows who the three opposing starting pitchers are going to be.
You know, just in case there's anybody interesting.
He hopes for right-handers, as many as possible, and deals with the left-handers the best he can. Like Jones, he's a switch-hitter. Like Jones, the thought occurred to him once or twice in the past to quit on his weaker side. Too much hassle. Too much failure. And, like Jones, he makes you wonder what .400 would look like at a time of five-inning starts, middle relievers, left- and right-handed specialists and closers.
Driven by a .471 May, when he had 49 hits, Berkman is batting .377.
While Jones rubs his psyche raw over at-bats gone and at-bats to come, Berkman mostly lets the last swing lie and the coming swing come.
"You know, to be honest with you, the only at-bats I ever think about are the at-bats I have with runners in scoring position," he said last week when the Astros were in Pittsburgh. "I don't want it to sound bad, but I honestly could care less about hitting with nobody on base. If I get a hit, that's great. If I hit a double or something, a solo home run, that helps us. But, really, the ones I grind over are the at-bats with runners on base and particularly with a chance to drive in a run."
By the drive home, even that's gone. Morning? Never.
"I really don't think about it," he said. "I usually ask, 'Who do we got this series?' right before the series starts. But, I really don't think about it too much before I get to the ballpark. Even then, I've been in the league long enough now where I've seen most guys, so I know pretty much what most guys feature and what they try to do. And the reality is, there's only so many places they can throw a ball."
They are an unusual hardball breed, the switch-hitters who stand in the middle of a lineup, hit for power and average, and do it a lot. There's Jones and Berkman. Mark Teixeira hits behind Jones. Carlos Beltran in New York. Carlos Guillen has had his moments in Detroit and Milton Bradley is having a strong season in Texas. They share a concern there'll never be enough left-handers to keep their right-side strokes reliable. They share a workload twice that of most of their teammates. And they share the luxury of never having had a slider run away and out of their reach.
Jones and Berkman happen to be the best at it right now, Jones in particular. He arrived at 400 career home runs last week (and he nicked, yes, Kyle Kendrick for No. 401), getting there with career averages of .310 from the left side and .310 from the right side. In his past 14 seasons, he's hit for a higher average left-handed seven times and right-handed seven times.
Now Berkman, a natural lefty, is batting .419 from the right side. And Jones, a natural righty, is batting .450 from the right side. They both insist they see more left-handed pitching than ever before. And their mechanical approaches are remarkably similar, as are their tendencies. They have spray power left-handed, and consider themselves most dangerous to left-center field. They have pull power right-handed, and otherwise try to stay up the middle and to right field.
"Exactly the same thing," Jones said.
Yet, while Jones obsesses over his right side, Berkman, true to his nature, pretty much makes sure he's wearing the helmet with the left ear flap and leaves it at that. He said his only dedicated work on his right-handed swing is batting practice before a left-hander is scheduled to pitch. Having said that, he went off and took his first round of batting practice last Thursday from the left side, though the Pirates were starting lefty Paul Maholm that night.
"I really worry a lot more about my left-handed swing and focus on that side," he said. "Right-handed, not that I don't do things, but I don't do near as much. I feel like I'm more of a hacker right-handed. I go out there and just do the best that I can. Left-handed, I've got much more mechanically sound swing. I think I have learned some things about my right-handed swing over the last couple years that have helped me."
Like, Jones said with a nod, keeping his weight back, his hands back, his body still, using his hands. Just like Jones.
"He and I," Jones said, "have both had the same struggles."
They simply relate to them differently. Jones carries himself regally, Berkman like a guy trudging into a library with an overdue book in his arms. Jones fills out a uniform in the right places. Berkman fills out the other places. Jones probably wears out three video players a season. Berkman could show up to the ballpark a couple hours late after not being able to get a cab from in front of the Pittsburgh Cheesecake Factory in 93-degree heat and still get a hit. Which he did last week.
"As long as he's here by 7," his manager, Cecil Cooper, muttered.
Rich Donnelly, the long-time big-league coach who now serves in the Pirates' minor leagues, watched Berkman arrive. Berkman was tucking in his shirt, buckling his belt, shaking his head.
"You watch him, he never looks like he's not going to get a hit," Donnelly said. "And then you're wrong – he gets three."
Often, they're all over the field, too. A ball in the gap, a ball through the right side, maybe a ball over the fence. Donnelly called Berkman and Jones "Heinz hitters."
"They both," he said, "have 57 different ways to get hits."
Well, that's the plan. That's why they stuck with switch-hitting, why they still do, even when it sometimes feels all screwed up.
Another ballgame a couple hours away, Jones said there was no way he would hit .400 for the season. Couldn't fathom 3½ more months of this.
"You know, 60, 70 years ago when starting pitchers threw 350, 400 innings and you could rely on facing that guy four or five times in a game, maybe," Jones had said. "Because that gives an offensive player a chance to make adjustments during a game. You know? You ought to be able to get at least one hit if you face a guy that much. Now, especially in our case, we're getting a lefty specialist in the seventh inning, we're getting a closer in the ninth, that leaves you only two or three at-bats against that night's starter. So, if you're not spot-on with your game plan and your swing, you can have a long night."
Still, it's almost mid-June, and Jones is still going, still carrying his last at-bats around with him long enough to dump them on the next night's pitcher, still putting oh-fers between himself and .400.
Cox, the only big league manager Jones has ever had, couldn't say there could be an entire season of this. But, he knows what he's seen so far.
"It's a miracle," he said, "somebody this time of year is hitting .418. He hits everything."
An inside fastball? Seriously?
- Lance Berkman