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Gwinnett slugger still seeking a shot
Gwinnett Braves outfielder Mitch Jones walks the field during practice Monday at Coolray Field in Lawrenceville. - photo by SARA GUEVARA
LAWRENCEVILLE — The opportunity to play professional baseball came fourfold for Gwinnett Braves outfielder Mitch Jones.

The opportunity to play in the Major Leagues has not happened nearly as often.

Drafted four times — by the Texas Rangers in 1997, the Baltimore Orioles in ’98 and ’99 and the New York Yankees in 2000 – Jones has only been called up to the Major Leagues twice in his career, and one of those times was just for one day.

“I was back down before being called up sunk in,” said Jones, who’s batting .243 with 10 home runs for the G-Braves.

The second time he was called up his stay was a bit longer.

Filling a roster spot for the Los Angeles Dodgers when Manny Ramirez was suspended for 50 games for violating the leagues substance abuse policy in 2009, Jones hit .308 and had an on base percentage of .400. But before he knew it, he was back down in the minor leagues after just eight games.

“I only had about 12 at bats, but it was good,” Jones said. “But it still left me wanting more.”

He’s still waiting.

“Early on in your career, you’re just trying to make your way up,” said Jones, who has played 1,124 minor league games compared to just eight in the majors. “There’s not really much frustration, it’s just putting in time.

“Once you get to the Triple-A level it feels like you just get stalled and you start yearning for an opportunity.”

That’s one of the reasons why Jones signed with the Atlanta Braves in Dec. 2009. With an experienced and talented outfield in Los Angeles, Jones knew his chances of being called up within that organization were slim. The Braves, meanwhile, were in somewhat of a predicament this past offseason in terms of who was playing where in the outfield. And before Jason Heyward ended any and all debate as to who would be starting in right, Jones figured his best chance at getting called up again was with the Braves.

His phone hasn’t rung yet, but he’s still confident in his chances.

“Obviously I’m a little bit older than some of the other free agents, but I still think I can help a big league team,” said Jones, who will turn 33 in October. “If I didn’t think I could do that, I wouldn’t play.”

The sound of his voice when discussing his past, present and future gives away a distinct feeling of uneasiness. That his career isn’t where he wants it to be, and in a way, he doesn’t know if he’ll ever get another shot in the show.

“He’s put a lot of pressure on himself,” Gwinnett manager Dave Brundage said. “He knows he hasn’t been himself, but he also knows that it’s just around the corner.

“He’s still hitting his homers, and he’s out to prove that there’s still more left in the tank.”

Looking back on his career, that tank is pretty impressive. Jones helped lead his team to a championship in each of his first three professional seasons and has been named a postseason all-star twice in his career.

In 2004, he smashed a career-high 39 home runs while playing for Double-A Trenton, which was two more homers than current Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard had that same year.

“He got called up and I went home,” Jones said. “The next season I couldn’t even get into Yankees spring training.
“That’s when I first hit a spot where I wasn’t moving.”

At least in terms of progression, because from 2004 until now, Jones has played on eight teams, including one in Japan. And the longer he’s been in the minor leagues, the more he sees younger guys get called up and guys his age walk away.

“It’s hard seeing all the guys I came up with either have a career or be out of baseball,” said Jones, who was a Topps Triple-A All-Star and hit a league-high 35 home runs last year in Albuquerque. “When you’re in your 30s, you should be in the prime of your career. I should be in the prime of my career.”

But he’s not, and although he occasionally gets called Crash Davis by some of his younger teammates, Jones isn’t ready to call himself a career minor leaguer. Nor is Brundage, who said Jones “wants to go out and make a name for himself and get an opportunity to play Major League Baseball.”

Whether that time comes this year or next, Jones knows that he’s not quite ready to give up the sport and head home to Utah to spend time with his wife and three small children aged 6, 4 and 1.

“She wants me to still play,” Jones said of his wife. “She’s been very supportive and I don’t know how she does it by herself with three kids.”

So when will he hang up the spikes?

“When I stop enjoying the game of baseball,” he said. “When you’ve played in minor league baseball this long people wonder how you stayed with it, and I still play because I love the game and I still feel like I have what it takes to help a Major League Baseball club.”
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