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Jurrjens getting a shot with his favorite team

POSTED: March 3, 2008 5:00 a.m.
The Associated Press/

Atlanta Braves pitcher Jair Jurrjens stretches during a spring training workout Monday in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

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KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Jair Jurrjens was only 6 years old when his father passed on a family tradition.

Fast asleep at their home on the idyllic island of Curacao, Jurrjens awoke to all sorts of commotion going on in the living room. He hustled out to see his older brother carrying around their father, the two of them gleefully celebrating a victory by their favorite team.

Francisco Cabrera had just come through with a two-out, two-run single in the bottom of the ninth that sent the Atlanta Braves to the 1992 World Series.

"My dad was a Braves fan since Hank Aaron was playing there," Jurrjens said. "He woke me up when Cabrera got that base hit. He woke up the whole neighborhood."

From that day forward, Carl Jurrjens’ boy was a Braves fan, too. He faithfully followed those powerful teams of the 1990s, cheering on players such as Terry Pendleton, Jeff Blauser and his personal favorite, David Justice.

So, as one might imagine, there was another celebration on that tiny island just north of Venezuela when Jair — now all grown up and quite a pitching prospect — was acquired by the Braves during the offseason.

"I was very, very happy," Carl Jurrjens said Wednesday, speaking by telephone from Curacao.

Twenty-two-year-old Jair (pronounced Ji-EER) is one of the Atlanta’s top pitching prospects, given a legitimate chance this spring to land a spot in a rotation that already includes John Smoltz, Tim Hudson and Tom Glavine.

Jurrjens showed his potential when he started seven games for Detroit late last season, going 3-1 with a 4.70 ERA. In the pressure of a pennant race, he allowed only one hit in his second major league start, leading the Tigers to a 2-1 victory over the eventual AL East-champion Cleveland Indians.

The Braves were so impressed they dealt shortstop Edgar Renteria, a five-time All-Star who batted .332 last season, for the young right-hander and another prospect.

"I think they’re crazy," Jurrjens joked. "It would be an honor to be one of the five starters here. There’s a lot of Hall of Famers in that group. I’m coming in and trying to impress. There’s a lot of pressure."

Atlanta won’t look so crazy if Jurrjens, a slender pitcher who throws with surprising power, much like a young Pedro Martinez, steps into the void that will soon be available in an aging rotation: Glavine turns 42 before opening day, while Smoltz will be 41 in May.

Jurrjens may not be around at the start of the season, but the Braves clearly believe it’s just a matter of time.

"Obviously, he’s got the stuff," third baseman Chipper Jones said. "Like any young player, he needs a little refining here and there. But the kid’s got the world by the tail. I look for big things out of him. I’d love to see him in that four or five slot because he’s got a power arm. We like power arms."

In an interesting twist, Jurrjens landed with the Braves shortly after the team cut ties with the most famous player from Curacao, 10-time Gold Glover Andruw Jones, who had spent his entire career with Atlanta before signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers over the winter.

Jurrjens, who speaks four languages, gives a nod to his Caribbean roots by wearing a shell necklace on the mound. But it’s no longer that improbable for someone from the Dutch-ruled island of 138,000 to make it to the big leagues.

Baseball has long been a popular sport in Curacao, along with soccer, and Jones making it to the big leagues while still in teens (not to mention hitting two homers in his first World Series game) only increased the number of youngsters back home picking up a bat and ball.

Carl Jurrjens was a big baseball fan long before Jones came along, taking note of Aaron’s career while the Braves were still in Milwaukee.

"I followed the Braves since I was a little guy," the dad said. "I loved Hank Aaron."

When the Braves began broadcasting nearly all their games over Ted Turner’s superstation, Jurrjens was able to watch down in Curacao. He endured some terrible teams through the 1980s, but everything changed in ‘91 when Atlanta went from worst-to-first and made it all the way to Game 7 of the World Series.

A year later, the Braves were on the verge of losing to Pittsburgh in the NL championship series when Cabrera, a little-known pinch-hitter, came through with one of the most dramatic hits in baseball history.

No one celebrated more than Carl Jurrjens.

"I was screaming," he said. "That was an exciting moment for me. I was a very happy man. I woke everybody up. Yeah, man."

Jair Jurrjens grew up on the island playing mostly third base. He had a good glove and was a fast runner, his father remembered, but his career went in a different direction when he got a chance to pitch at age 16 with a major league scout in attendance.

"The scout told me to forget everything else because he needs to be pitching," Carl Jurrjens said.

Even though Jair signed with the Tigers the following year and quickly worked his way through the minor leagues, there was little doubt that a piece of his heart remained with the Braves. Now, there are no divided loyalties.

"When I got traded, all my old teammates called me to say, ‘You’re finally going to your favorite team,"’ Jurrjens said. "They knew. Every time I played PlayStation, I always played with the Braves."

His father has never attended a Braves game in person, but that will soon change. Jair is working on arrangements to fly in his father for spring training, and he’ll surely be in Atlanta when his kid pitches for the first time at Turner Field.

"I want to see the stadium in Atlanta," Carl Jurrjens said. "I heard it’s very beautiful."



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