Walk-year stumble

Tim Brown

LOS ANGELES – After a couple hours watching the big screen over the manager's office door, Andruw Jones hoisted himself from the couch and gathered gear from the bottom of his locker.

He slipped into his spikes. Cap, glove, sunglasses. He took a step toward the hallway that led to the stairway that led to the corridor that led to the field.

A stranger approached, no doubt bringing questions about the first three months of his 12th season. He was batting less than .200.

Seeing as Jones already had made a move to the door, the stranger offered to accompany him as far as the dugout.

"I don't walk with anyone but my family and teammates," he said.

"Well, I could be family for the next 100 feet."

"No," Jones said, "I don't think you could be part of my family."

These days, apparently, it's friend or foe, in or out, walk or stand.

He shrugged.

"Just pressing too much, trying to do too much," he said. "I'm not productive or being consistent. I'm just going to put these three months behind me and look forward to the second half. That's the part of the season that counts."

He hit a home run Wednesday night, his 14th. It was his only hit amid four strikeouts. The RBI was his 48th, a lot considering his batting average is 62 points below his career average and his strikeouts are at career highs. Yet, he is batting .210 with runners in scoring position, .193 with men on base, clearly groping for something familiar.

And, he is a few months from leaving the only organization he's ever known, 14-plus years after the Atlanta Braves signed him out of Curacao, 11 years since we met him as the 19-year-old with a child's smile, homering twice in the first three innings in the first World Series game he ever played, and at Yankee Stadium.

Terry Pendleton, the Braves' hitting coach, still remembers the final time he pulled off the uniform of what he thought was his one and only – the St. Louis Cardinals. That was almost 17 years ago, trudging away, the big money waiting, still thinking, "Now what?"

"I didn't know what was on the other side," he said. "Turned out, it was better. But, none of us know that. We do know what we have to leave behind."

Pendleton went from a .230 hitter with the Cardinals to National League MVP for the Braves, and now he's massaging Jones' walk year, urging him to ignore the team marketing that's moved on to other players, the teammates who joke, "Andruw, if you really want to stay, this isn't the way to do it," tying Jones' statistical plummet with the Braves' traditional reluctance to spend with the high-revenue organizations.

So, free agency likely waits. He'll come out with fellow top-enders Torii Hunter and Ichiro Suzuki, with second-tier center fielders Mike Cameron, Aaron Rowand and, if you like him there, Eric Byrnes. And he'll come out with agent Scott Boras cutting the wake for a 30-year-old, nine-time Gold Glove winner who usually hits at least 30 home runs, and occasionally more than 40.

He's also a guy who has not exactly torn through his walk year, who bulked up in the offseason and seems more bound at the plate because of it, and who recently was labeled overrated defensively by a respected national baseball writer, based on a decline in putouts in center field. Jones' putouts actually have increased this season, and he could challenge his career high of 493, set when he was 22 years old.

He also overran a grounded single to center field Thursday night, a rare error that cost the Braves a run, maybe two. Fans in the Dodger Stadium mocked him with chants of, "Annn-Droo! Annn-Droo!" He stared at the replay on the video board and shook his head.

Jones said he hasn't given much of a thought to free agency, though Boras said he'd met with Jones on three occasions – in the offseason, during spring training and again 2½ weeks ago, when the Braves were in Cleveland.

As it relates to free agency, Jones said, "It really doesn't matter how good of a season I have. They know what kind of a player I am. They don't go on one year. I'm sure everybody wants to have a great year every year. Sometimes it's just not going your way."

Generally, the scouts agree, Andruw Jones remains a youngish, vibrant player on both sides of the ball.

"It's not that he can't play anymore," an AL personnel man said. "He can still play. He's just having one of those bastard-type first halves."

Scouts grade players on a scale of 20 to 80. This scout put Jones at 65 to 70 as an outfielder. He said Jones is better than Gary Matthews Jr., Grady Sizemore and Rowand, not as good as Carlos Beltran, Hunter or Ichiro.

Overall, he said, Jones remains one of the top handful of center fielders in the game.

"I laugh when I hear people rip on him," he said. "He's still pretty darn good, still an above-average center fielder. How many guys at age 30 are better than they were three or four years ago? He's still a good player. I mean, he's not a stiff or anything like that.

"Some guys handle the free-agent process differently. You don't see too many of Scott's guys have a poor walk year. He really prepares them."

With Jones, Boras said, he will stress durability, production, and the broader view of a dozen seasons, a career's work, rather than any single season. While in Cleveland, Boras said, he soothed Jones with the perspective that any player can have the same two months he's just endured.

"Here's what's happening," Boras said he told him. "You're having a career. Name me the player, and I'll give you the eight [down] weeks."

Among his recent clients, J.D. Drew, Carlos Beltran, Jason Varitek, and Barry Zito had big walk years. Drew even had a career year – 2006 – that only Boras knew was a walk year.

"It's about making them comfortable," Boras said. "With each athlete it's different, there's a different type of preparation."

Derek Lowe, a client of Boras', had a difficult 2004, saved his best for October and turned that into a four-year, $36-million contract with the Dodgers, who, at the time, were criticized for over-spending. Lowe has become one of the more reliable pitchers in the game.

"The main thing is, it doesn't matter," Lowe said. "If you're going to get an Andruw Jones – that's 35 home runs, 110 RBI every year – it speaks for itself. There's this perception the only thing that matters is that one year, which is false.

"There's no pill Scott gives you. It's not like he sends you different food to eat. He gives you, more than anything, peace of mind."

Jones seems OK with that. He nearly fell down swinging at a Brad Penny fastball last night, and three innings later with the bases loaded hit a fly ball 394 feet. Juan Pierre caught it a half-foot from the top of the wall, that close to a grand slam.

"The mental part, we could talk about all day," Pendleton said. "But, he's got to decide, 'I'm going to do this.' The best thing he could do is not think. That would be the best thing. But, when you're going like he is, you walk in the box and feel like it's 0-and-2 already. You get to 1-and-2 and you're feeling like you're onto something.

"He's been fine, though. Absolutely. His attitude hasn't changed. You wouldn't know he's hitting .200. Other guys would be pouting around here, mad at the world, acting like they're the only ones in the world."

Jones, still standing at his locker, shook his head. It's a slump. Nothing more.

"This might be my last year with the Braves," he said. "I never thought about those things before. So, I don't think about it. It's another day to come out and have fun. I don't think about that stuff."

Then, only then, he walked down the hallway that led to the stairs that led to the corridor that led to the dugout. Alone.