- Melissa Isaacson, espnW.com
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GLENDALE, Ariz. -- It only seems like Andruw Jones is 40. But that's what happens when, as a 19-year-old, you knock baseball on its backside and everyone remembers.
It was 1996, Braves-Yankees World Series at Yankee Stadium, and the kid with the oddly spelled first name stepped to the plate against Andy Pettitte. If Jones was a phenom -- and indeed, he qualified, having been scouted by Atlanta at 15 and signed at 16 -- then few outside the Braves knew about him before that day.
Pettitte made his mistake with a fastball left a little too far over the plate, and a couple of innings later, Pettitte's replacement, Brian Boehringer, hung a slider. Jones turned on the first and launched a home run high over the left-field wall. The second he blasted over Monument Park, taking Mickey Mantle's place as the youngest player to homer in a World Series and becoming only the second player to hit a home run in his first two Series at-bats.
Ten Gold Gloves and five All-Star teams later, Jones is trying to resurrect his career. After 13 years, it's long enough to dismiss what has happened to him over the past two seasons as a natural downslide, exacerbated by torn cartilage and subsequent surgery during that period.
But "Whatever happened to Andruw Jones?" is not an easy question to answer. And the only question that should matter to the White Sox is whether it's too late to find him.
Unlike the Los Angeles Dodgers, who signed Jones to a two-year, $36.2 million deal in 2008 only to release him the following offseason while still owing him $22.1 million, the White Sox's investment is, like Jones' Texas Rangers contract in 2009, low-risk with good potential upside: one year for $500,000, including $1 million in performance incentives.
In 2008, Jones showed up for Dodgers camp overweight and out of shape and hit .158 for the season, the lowest average for a player with at least 200 at-bats since 1975. Last season, Jones won the final roster spot for the Rangers but played in only 82 games, mostly as a pinch-hitter.
"Not being healthy and not being in great shape to go out there and perform made all those things go that way," Jones said, "so I don't blame anyone but myself, and now I'm here to prove to myself I can still do it."
Jones, 32, came to the White Sox 15 pounds lighter and has responded so far in spring training, batting .353 in 17 at-bats with a double, a triple, three runs batted in and two stolen bases going into Wednesday's game.
Jones was booed lustily by Dodgers fans when his name was announced in the third inning Wednesday. One fan yelled "give us back our $28 million." He answered by lacing a double down the left-field line.
Jones hopes the Sox remember he can play a little defense as well.
"I still feel I can go out there and play 160 games or more in center field," he said. "People want to call it ego, but it's a fact. I take a lot of pride in my defense. I finally got good motion back from the knee injury. The ability is still there, the experience is still there. They didn't go away. I just have to work to be more consistent."
It's not so far from there to here. In 2007, Jones hit 26 home runs and drove in 94 runs though only hitting .222 while winning his 10th consecutive Gold Glove in his final season with Atlanta. The previous two seasons, he hit 51 and 41 homers, respectively. In 2008, he went on the disabled list for the first time in his career and didn't make the Dodgers' playoff roster.
"I was in one situation for such a long time, and I was so comfortable, I went to a different situation still with the mentality that nothing would change and things went a different way," Jones said of leaving Atlanta. "But it was a good thing for me to experience so I know it's a different life from me being so comfortable in one place."
In Texas, Jones said he found his swing again, at least temporarily, under the tutelage of current Cubs hitting instructor Rudy Jaramillo, who deduced that maybe Jones' biggest problem was lost confidence.
"That's what happens with hitters sometimes," Jaramillo said at the time. "They get lost."
Jones ended up hitting 17 home runs for the Rangers with an OPS of .782 while batting just .214 in 82 games.
This offseason, the Sox brought in two aging veterans in Jones and Omar Vizquel whom they had wanted for years. But no promises. Jones would play DH and, it was hoped, bring with him some of the power lost with the departures of Jermaine Dye and Jim Thome. Maybe he would play in the outfield some. But Jones has other ideas.
"I feel like I can still play every day," Jones said. "Not getting a chance made me want it more. This offseason, when the White Sox called and told me 'Andruw, we want you to be on the team and if you come in shape, you have a good chance to play every day here,' I worked my butt off, and I got myself in good shape, and now it's just a matter of showing them I can still play."
Jones was lustily booed against the Dodgers as he stepped to the plate on Wednesday, one fan yelling, "You owe us $28 million." Jones answered by lacing a run-scoring double down the left field line. Facing still more boos in his next at bat, he ripped a 2-2 pitch over the left field fence for a three-run homer, his first of the spring.
"I think Andruw is going to have an important role on our ballclub," said Guillen. "I talked to him early and the way he runs the bases, the way he plays the outfield right now ... There's still a lot of baseball left in his body."
With the Sox, Jones has rejoined Ozzie Guillen, a Braves teammate in 1998 and '99.
"He knows what I'm capable of doing," Jones said of Guillen, "but I still have to go out and do it."
If he does, it could be among general manager Kenny Williams' great pickups.
"It's fun, I like it here," Jones said, sounding 19 again. "It's almost like a second life again."
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
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