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Despite having no allegiances to him whatsoever, I took Larry Johnson's retirement in 2001 harder than the death of the high-top fade. I was only 10 years old when the gold-toothed man-child Johnson led the most dominant college basketball team of my lifetime, the 1990 UNLV Runnin' Rebels, to a national championship.
Even now, I can vividly recall rookie-of-the-year honors, Grandmama, a blown knee, paternity suit showdowns with The Reign Man, a secondary roll with the Knicks, the slap fight with Alonzo, the four-point play against Indy (his swan song), more injuries, and then his abrupt retirement. Looking back, it all felt like one of those middle school biology videos where a plant's growth and decay is demonstrated in 10 seconds of super-fast-forwarding. Makes you suddenly feel old.
I mention this because Act I of Andruw Jones' career leaves me with a similar feeling. Although he's only 28 and in the prime of his career, the mere thought of Jones as an established veteran seems surreal. With his precocious ascent through the minors, the record-setting two home runs in his World Series debut in 1996, and a grace in the field that was (and still is) downright beautiful to watch, the 19-year-old Andruw Jones arrived like a home-run hitting Peter Pan. He was the quintessential phenom -- supremely talented, absurdly young and carefree. But now it's nine years later, the phenom is a distant memory, and Andruw's career is steering closer to an evaluation than a projection. After nearly a decade of gifted/lackadaisical/graceful/frustrating/smiling Andruw, the enigmatic center fielder has left Braves fans thoroughly confused. Even his ever-present smirk taunts us, like he's aware of our incessant attempts to get a grip on him, only he's thinking, "Not in this lifetime, pal." Then again, maybe the smirk is a self-defense mechanism. When Andruw arrived in the majors in '96, he didn't just have astronomical expectations, he had Griffey potential -- a five-tool player who seemed to float around the diamond without a care in the world. Minus the picture-perfect swing, he made the exceptional seem effortless, much like Griffey did during the '90s.
But what truly defined Andruw was his prowess in the field, where he made the spectacular seem pedestrian and the impossible seem spectacular. As he zeroes in on his eighth straight Gold Glove, I'll just go ahead and say it: I never got to see Willie Mays patrol center field, but I got to see Andruw Jones. Blasphemous as that may be, I'll risk the lightning bolt. The second the ball cracks off the bat, he's inexplicably halfway to the catch. I have a theory that no one has ever actually seen Andruw Jones get a jump on the ball, we just know it occurred. Kind of like the onetime rise of Creed.
During his absolute peak, Andruw would taunt hitters by playing dangerously, ridiculously, unheard-of shallow just because he could. No ball was going to beat his jump to the wall, so why not take away the bloop single while you're at it? As if looking for a new challenge, Andruw has continued his defensive dominance even while gradually adopting a body type that can best be described as "voluptuous." It's like watching the Hamburglar play center better than anyone else in the game. But for all his defensive excellence, the initial expectations for Andruw have remained unrealized. Every year brings new hope of a breakout season (he even had a mini-one in 2000, the only time he batted over .300), yet ultimately disappoints. Nearly a decade removed from his rookie season, he's a .269 career hitter, has a powerful yet inconsistent bat and is no longer a threat on the basepaths (apparently his magical fat-man speed doesn't translate here).