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Braves Throwback Thursday: On Andruw Jones, the phenom who rocketed to Atlanta at age 19

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Twenty-four years ago this week, Jones made his MLB debut

New York Yankees v Atlanta Braves
Andruw Jones made his major-league debut with the Atlanta Braves this week in 1996. He homered in his second game, and later hit two homers in Game 1 of the World Series. (Getty Images)
Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

The Atlanta Braves on Wednesday completed a two-game series at the new Yankee Stadium, across the street from where one of the team’s all-time greats was introduced to a national audience.

On Oct. 20, 1996, 19-year-old Andruw Jones homered twice in a 12-1 Braves romp over the New York Yankees at old Yankee Stadium in Game 1 of the World Series. It was a star-making performance for Jones, who just nine weeks prior had been in the minor leagues.

Jones made his major-league debut with the Braves on Aug. 15, 1996, 24 years ago this week. Batting second and playing right field, he went 1-for-5 with a ninth-inning RBI single as Atlanta rallied for an 8-5 victory over the Phillies in Philadelphia.

But it wasn’t as if Jones was an unknown among Braves fans — quite the contrary. Hardcore followers of the team had known about him for literally YEARS at that point.

Signed for $46,000 by the Braves at age 16 on July 1, 1993, Jones had dominated the youth leagues on the Carribean island of Curaçao, where his father was also a noted amateur player. By age 13, he was playing alongside his father and other adults.

At 15, Jones played for the Curaçao national youth team at a tournament in Puerto Rico. It was there that Braves scout Giovanni Viceisza spotted him, and filed his name away for the next year’s international free agency signing period.

Jones was first mentioned by Atlanta media on July 3, 1993, when Braves beat reporter I.J. Rosenberg filed the following note in his “Clubhouse Confidential” column (note that he misspelled Jones’ first name):

“The Braves had a new face in the clubhouse Friday. Andrew Jones, a recent free agent signee from the south Caribbean island of Curaçao, off the coast of Venezuela. Jones, 16, is on his way to West Palm Beach, Fla., where he will join the club’s rookie league team. However, he will only be able to practice with the team because major league rules state that he can’t participate until he is 17. Jones is being escorted by his father and Carlo Rios, who is the Braves’ Latin American Supervisor.”

Jones got into 63 minor-league games as a 17-year-old in 1994, splitting time between the Braves’ Gulf Coast League team in West Palm Beach and its Appalachian Rookie League team in Danville, Va. He batted .290/.368/.412 with 14 doubles, three homers, 26 RBIs and 21 steals.

That August, Rosenberg listed him as the Braves’ No. 4 prospect, noting that he was the “best all-around athlete in the organization.” (The three prospects listed ahead of him were outfielder Damon Hollins, shortstop Glenn Williams and pitcher Terrell Wade, none of whom went on to glory).

It was the following year at Class-A Macon of the South Atlantic League that Jones’ legend was born. In 139 games with the M-Braves, he batted .277/.372/.512 with 41 doubles, 25 homers, 100 RBIs and 56 steals.

J.J. Cooper, now a fixture at Baseball America, was a young sports writer with the Macon Telegraph in 1995. Earlier this year, he wrote about seeing Jones hit three home runs in one game for Macon.

“I was seeing the kind of prospect you dream of seeing,” Cooper wrote. “The kind you could go years without ever coming across.”

Venerable Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Furman Bisher traveled to Macon that July to see what all the fuss was about. He quoted various scouts comparing Jones to the likes of Roberto Clemente, Ken Griffey Jr., Andre Dawson, Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds.

At some point that year that Braves’ TV announcers Skip Caray and Pete Van Wieren began to mention Jones with regularity during major-league broadcasts, reeling off some insane stat line that always ended with the phrase “… and he’s only 18 years old!” At season’s end, he was named Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year.

In September, after Jones had won most every postseason award for which he was eligible, AJC columnist Tim Tucker started to dream on Jones the future Atlanta Brave. Tucker conservatively (and now comically) projected Jones would reach Atlanta “in 1998.”

The Braves won the World Series in 1995, and began 1996 with an outfield that included Marquis Grissom in center, Ryan Klesko in left and David Justice in right. In fairness, there was no reason to believe Jones would get anywhere near at Atlanta that season.

However, Justice injured his shoulder in mid-May and was lost for the year. The Braves called up 22-year-old Jermaine Dye from Triple-A Richmond to replace him, and Dye acquitted himself well, batting .281/.304/.459 with 12 homers in 98 games that season.

Jones, meanwhile, was racing through the minor leagues. He began the season at high Class-A Durham, where he batted .313/.419/.605 with 17 homers in 86 games before being promoted to Double-A Greenville.

He stayed just 38 games at Greenville, batting .369/.432/.675 with 12 homers and 37 RBIs before getting called up to Triple-A. He hit .378/.391/.826 with 5 homers 12 games before Braves officials decided they’d seen enough.

On Aug. 14, Atlanta traded fourth outfielder Mark Whiten to the Seattle Mariners for minor-league pitcher Roger Blanco. The following night, Andruw Jones was in the lineup in Philadelphia.

(At three minor-league levels in 1996, Jones hit .339/.421/.652 with 34 homers, 92 RBIs and 30 steals in just 116 games. After the season, he was named Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year again. He and the New York Mets’ Gregg Jefferies in 1986 and 1987 are the only players so honored twice in the 39-year history of the award.)

“One of my biggest dreams just came true,” Jones told the AJC prior to his big-league debut. “And I’ve got to prove I can help this team win the division and make it to the World Series.”

The next night vs. Pittsburgh at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta, Jones hit his first major-league home run, a fifth-inning solo shot off future teammate Denny Neagle in a 5-4 Braves win. He also tripled in his first at-bat, scoring ahead of an RBI single by Chipper Jones.

Here’s video of Jones’ first MLB homer:

Jones homered twice in his sixth major-league game, a 3-2 loss to Cincinnati in 13 innings Aug. 22. By Aug. 25, he was the subject of a sports front-page feature story in the AJC, written by Joe Strauss and entitled “Wow from Curaçao.”

“Andruw has been blessed with special ability,” Braves scouting director Paul Snyder told the AJC. “He stands out no matter how long you’ve been in this business or how many players you’ve seen. You only need to see him once to understand.”

Jones split time with Dye in right field the rest of the season, with Dye also rotating with Klesko in left and Jones occasionally spelling Grissom in center. In 31 games for the Braves that year, Jones batted .217/.265/.443 with five home runs and 13 RBIs.

Jones played sparingly in the Division Series sweep of the Los Angeles Dodgers and started just one of the first six games of the National League Championship Series against the Cardinals. Batting seventh and starting in left field in Game 7, Jones keyed a 15-0 Braves rout with two hits and three runs batted in — singling home a run as part of a six-run first inning, then ripping a two-run homer in the sixth to help turn the pennant-clincher into a laugher.

Thus far in his rookie year, though, Jones had given no indication of what was coming in the World Series.

Jones started in left field and batted seventh in Game 1 at Old Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. In his first World Series at bat, he went deep against Yankees lefty Andy Pettitte, giving the Braves an early 2-0 lead.

The following inning against Brian Boehringer, he put Atlanta up 8-0 with a three-run shot. At 19 years old, Jones had bumped Hall-of-Famer Mickey Mantle from the record books as the youngest player to homer in a postseason game. (Mantle had been 20 when he went deep for the Yankees in Game 6 of the 1952 World Series.)

“This kid can really, really play,” Braves manager Bobby Cox told the AJC after the game. “He’s as good a prospect as you’ll ever see.”

Here’s video of Jones’ two World Series homers:

Jones drove in just one more run the remainder of that postseason as the Braves lost the series in six games. But heading into the 1996-97 offseason, the sky was the limit.

And yet still, he was not guaranteed a starting job for 1997. The Braves had five starter-quality outfielders for three spots.

Grissom was a four-time Gold Glove winner in center field, and was coming off a career-best season at the plate. Klesko was an emerging slugger who had hit 34 home runs in 1996, and was still blocked out of his natural position of first base by Fred McGriff.

Justice, a hero of the 1995 World Series, was still only 31 years and returning to health after a lost 1996. Dye and Jones had both shown promise as emerging young talents.

In mid-February 1997, Braves general manager John Schuerholz told the AJC’s Jack Wilkinson “I’d much rather have more talent and fewer spots. Being on the other end is not fun.” And yet, even Schuerholz allowed that the only solution was “a trade.”

When that trade was finally made, it was to acquire another outfielder. With star pitchers Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux entering the final years of their contracts, the Braves traded away $27.7 million worth of salary over three seasons when they dealt Grissom and Justice to Cleveland for reliever Alan Embree and All-Star center fielder Kenny Lofton, who was entering the final year of his contract. (Dye was traded away in a separate deal two days later, going to Kansas City with pitching prospect Jamie Walker in exchange for utility infielder Keith Lockhart and outfielder Michael Tucker.)

Jones was still the youngest player in the majors in 1997, platooning with Tucker in right field and starting in center while Lofton was sidelined for six weeks with a hamstring injury. He was still below average as a hitter, batting .231/.329/.416 with 18 homers and 20 steals for a Braves team that lost in the NLCS to the Florida Marlins.

Lofton left as a free agent after that one season in Atlanta, re-signing with Cleveland. That finally opened up center field for Jones, who at age 21 became the player many had envisioned since his teenage years.

In 159 games for a 106-win Braves team, Jones batted .271/.321/.515 with 30 homers, 90 RBIs and 27 steals (in 31 attempts). He also won the first of 10 straight Gold Gloves.

(It’s ironic that the early media coverage of Jones focuses mostly on his powerful hitting and not his otherworldly fielding, the skill for which he would become best known during his career. Being stuck in the outfield corners rather than in center early on with Grissom and later Lofton around probably had something to do with that.)

Here’s a video of some of Jones’ greatest defensive plays, including his famed “Spider-Man” catch vs. Houston in 1999:

Jones remained a fixture in center field for the Braves for the next decade, never playing in fewer than 154 games. He hit at least 26 homers every year from 1998-2007, leading the league with an Atlanta-record 51 in 2005 and driving in 128 runs that year and 129 the next.

Jones’ production fell off dramatically in 2007, when he hit .222/.311/.413 with 26 homers and appeared lethargic and out-of-shape at age 30. He was allowed to leave as a free agent after that season, and signed a two-year, $36.2 million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Jones made it through less than one miserable season with the Dodgers, who released him after he posted a .505 OPS in 75 games. He finished that year with Texas, and was a semi-productive outfielder/DH for the Rangers, White Sox and Yankees through 2012.

After that season, Jones was involved in an ugly off-field incident early Christmas morning, when he was arrested on domestic battery charges. Nicole Jones, who accused Andruw of threatening to kill her, filed for divorce a short time later. (Jones eventually pleaded guilty, paid a fine and received probation.)

Unable to catch on with a major-league team, Jones spent the next two seasons with the Rakuten Golden Eagles of the Japan Pacific League. He formally retired in early 2016 at age 38, and was hired by the Braves as a special instructor shortly thereafter.

A five-time All-Star, Jones played a total of 17 seasons in the major leagues. He batted .254/.337/.486 (good for an OPS+ of 111) with 434 home runs and 1,289 RBIs, and was worth 62.7 WAR according to Baseball Reference.

But it was with the glove where Jones was legendary. He totaled 24.4 Defensive Wins Above Replacement, 22nd all-time and most ever for an outfielder (second place in that category among outfielders is Paul Blair at 18.8, tied for 61st all-time).

Jones began appearing on the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot in 2018, and after garnering 7.3% and 7.5% of the vote his first two years, shot up to 19.4% in 2020. In December 2018, Hall of Fame expert Jay Jaffe wrote on FanGraphs that Jones was “worthy of enshrinement” but might have to wait a few years to get the call.

On one hand, you could argue that Andruw Jones’ overall career failed to live up to the potential he displayed early in his career and at his peak. But in doing so, you also probably have to acknowledge how that standard might have been too high for anyone to achieve.

What we got was very good indeed, and incredibly fun to watch.

Darryl Palmer is a contributing writer for Talking Chop. Email him at darrylpalmerbraves4@gmail.com. No, that’s not his real name.

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com; SABR.org; Newspapers.com; Sporting News archive (via PaperofRecord.com); TheBaseballCube.com; MLB.com; SI.com; Baseball-Almanac.com