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Chipper Jones: .400 and holding

POSTED: June 18, 2008 5:01 a.m.
/The Associated Press

Atlanta Braves' Chipper Jones bats in a baseball game against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Pittsburgh. It's not that often that someone reaches the heat of summer with his average still above .400.

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ATLANTA — Bobby Doerr had the best seat in the house for the last player to hit .400, and he was still around as a coach when the most enduring run at the hallowed mark came up short.

Now, from his home in Oregon, the oldest living player in the Baseball Hall of Fame is rooting for Chipper Jones.

"I hope he can go ahead and do it," the 90-year-old Doerr said, reached by phone between fishing trips. "That would be good for baseball."

The Atlanta Braves third baseman is off to the best start of his career, going into a weekend series against Philadelphia with a staggering .418 average.

But it’s only June, so Jones refuses to get too excited.

"I don’t think anybody can do it," he said bluntly.

Still, the very fact that Jones has made it this far — the deepest into the season anyone has been at .400 in eight seasons — is enough to at least stir the memories of Ted Williams, the last player to average four hits for every 10 at-bats, a milestone that’s stood the test of time for 67 years.

Jones, the son of a coach, was virtually born with a bat in his hand. He knows what he’s up against.

"The simple fact of the matter is that no one has done it in a very, very long time," he said. "And we’re talking about maybe the greatest hitter ever to step on the field is the one who did it. Man, I just don’t see myself in the same league as him. I really don’t."

Four-hundred.

Think about it.

In a sport that cherishes numbers, .400 is one that stands like a beacon far off shore — in sight but out of reach, a rare nugget in a Holy Grail of remarkable feats (Cy Young’s 511 wins, Hack Wilson’s 190-RBI season) that can’t be duplicated in this modern era.

Doerr, a teammate and good friend of Williams, remembers that 1941 season like it was yesterday. The Splendid Splinter went into the final day with an average that would have rounded up to .400 — though, ahead of his time as always, he didn’t think that was good enough.

(The Elias Sports Bureau says he was right on the mark; it wouldn’t consider .3996, his average going into that last day, to be a .400 season.)

Boston Red Sox manager Joe Cronin gave Williams the option of sitting out a doubleheader at Philadelphia to protect his average. Williams wouldn’t hear of it, deciding to play both games. As any longtime fan of the game can recite by heart, he went 6-of-8 that day, finishing with a .406 average.

"There was no way he was going to sit that out," Doerr said. "He didn’t want to be a .400 hitter that way."

Doerr, who was referred to as "the silent captain" of the Red Sox by Williams, provides some insight into the sort of mind it takes to hit .400.

"I fished with Ted. I was with him for years, since he first broke into baseball. We were close friends," Doerr recounted. "Anything he did was a challenge. I think Chipper Jones is the same way. He probably has that makeup to handle it better than a lot of players."

While the laid-back Jones doesn’t have Williams’ fiery personality, they certainly take the same studious approach onto the field.

Williams was one of the first players to use a lighter bat, and he wouldn’t leave it on the ground in the spring because he feared it would soak up moisture and become slightly heavier.

"He knew half an ounce made a big difference," Doerr said. "That’s how sharp Ted was. He used to have a scale in the clubhouse to weight his bats. He would bone them down to get the handle just like he wanted. He was so ahead of everybody on things like that, the little detail things."

Between at-bats, Jones can often be seen in the dugout thumbing through scouting reports. He always goes to the plate with a purpose.

"The game situation dictates what I’m trying to do," he said. "If I lead off the inning and we’re down by two runs, I’m not trying to go deep, I’m trying to get a rally started. If the game is tied in the eighth inning and the offense is struggling, that might be the time to try to juice the ball.

"Sometimes," Jones continued, "I let the game dictate what I’m trying to do up there. There’s a lot of those gimmick defenses. If the second baseman is playing me in right field and the shortstop is playing me behind second base, I feel like I can guide the ball up the middle of the field or through that hole at shortstop to get a base hit."

According to Elias, Jones is the first player to be at .400 this late in the season since a pair of players in 2000. Colorado’s Todd Helton stayed there through June 10, while Nomar Garciaparra of the Red Sox held on until July 20. Both finished with .372 averages to win the batting crowns in their respective leagues.

So, can Jones, a career .310 hitter in his 15th year, stay at .400 over an entire season? The odds are against him, of course, but here’s a few things working in his favor:

—He’s very selective, with a walk-to-strikeout ratio (35-to-22) that’s looks more suited to a leadoff hitter than someone who collected his 400th career homer on Thursday. Jones rarely swings at bad pitches, forcing the pitcher to put the ball where he wants it.

—He’s a switch-hitter, which usually gives him a better look at breaking balls since they’re moving toward his sweet spot rather than dipping away. While the book on Jones is make him bat right-handed (his natural side, by the way), it’s not working out so well this season; he was hitting .404 against righties, .442 vs. lefties.

—He’s batting in front of fellow switch-hitter Mark Teixeira, another of baseball’s most feared sluggers. While most teams still prefer to pitch around Jones, it’s not an easy choice, and he often gets to see pitches that wouldn’t have come his way without a less-imposing hitter in the on-deck circle.

But everyone from Doerr to Jones points out several key obstacles to anyone hitting .400 again:

—In Williams’ day, there were only eight teams in each league and no interleague play. The Red Sox played the other seven AL teams 22 times a year, giving hitters plenty of chances to get familiar with opposing hurlers.

—Relievers were an anomaly in the 1940s. Starters were expected to go the distance, or at least pitch seven or eight innings, so hitters got to face tiring pitchers who often worked more than 300 innings a year. Compare that with today’s game, in which most teams carry 11 or 12 pitchers and have all sorts of specialists for every situation. Plus, pitches such as the slider and split-finger fastball have made things tougher for the hitters.

"After the sixth inning of every game, every pitcher that’s in the game is there to get you out," Teixeira said. "Every pitcher has a specialty: left-handed, right-handed, sinkerballer, submariners, over the top, whatever. Every manager has a matchup in mind to get you out."

—The pressure on someone trying to hit .400 would be much greater today than it was in the 1940s, with all the television outlets, talk radio shows and Internet bloggers. Williams had his problems with the press, but he never faced the sort of media onslaught that follows anyone trying to do something out of the ordinary in this era. Besides, the year he batted .406, it had only been 11 years since the last .400 hitter (Bill Terry of the New York Giants in 1930).

"The type of pressure that would be on a hitter today wasn’t on Ted in that way," Doerr said. "The press was conscious he was hitting .400, but now there would be a big cloud hanging over ‘em."

The 36-year-old Jones has another factor working against him: He rarely beats out infield hits, having battled leg and foot problems the past few seasons. If anyone is going to hit .400, he figures it will be a singles hitter with speed, such as Seattle’s Ichiro Suzuki.

Atlanta pitcher Tom Glavine agrees.

"You figure a guy who’s going to hit .400 is a guy who is a contact hitter, beats out a lot of balls, has 25 or so infield hits a year," Glavine said. "Chipper’s not that kind of player. All his hits are getting through or over."

Doerr was a coach for the Toronto Blue Jays when George Brett made the most sustained run on .400 since Williams. In 1980, the Kansas City third baseman was hitting .401 on Sept. 4, according to Elias, but he fell off over the final month to finish at .390.

"I remember coaching in Kansas City the night he hit a double to put him at .400," Doerr said. "They stopped the game."

Frank White was a teammate of Brett’s on those great Kansas City teams of the 1970s and ‘80s. He, like everyone else on the Royals and much of the country, thought Brett was going to pull it off.

When Brett slumped in September, "it was a big disappointment for everyone," White added.

Actually, the highest average since Williams was put up by another Hall of Famer. In 1994, San Diego’s Tony Gwynn was at .394 when a strike ended the season in August.

Jones, who sat out that season with a knee injury, still remembers "the Tony Ticker" — the media’s running tab on Gwynn’s progress. Unfortunately, he didn’t get a chance to tack another six points on his average.

Jones is doing everything he can to maintain a sense of normalcy in a season that is becoming increasingly unusual. While at home, he goes out of his way NOT to think about .400, whether it’s playing with his kids or talking furniture with his wife.

"My mind-set is not going to change," he said, talking with a small group of reporters at his locker. "Obviously, it would be an exciting time. You take the six or seven people standing here right now and multiply it by about 10. Who doesn’t want that kind of attention?"

Check in again about a month from now.



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