Chipper Jones had the worst first half of his life, but missing out on an All-Star appearance for the second straight year might turn out to be the key to the best second half of his career. With his dad recovering from an angioplasty procedure, Chipper spent the break in July with Larry Wayne Jones Sr. at Chipper's ranch outside Houston. It was then, and during another in-person tuneup when the Braves played the Astros the first week of August, that the elder Jones schooled the chip off the old block on how to cure his hitting woes. Jones had tried everything, probably even some of the things his father was suggesting, but his father's is the only hitting language Chipper can truly communicate in. So finally, raising his hands, keeping his plant foot firmer and getting quieter in the batter's box all translated.
The second-half surge has coincided with one by the Braves, and has made the absurd notion of maintaining his string of eight straight 100-RBI seasons more attainable than laughable. If he gets there, Jones will tie Sammy Sosa for the record of nine-straight, a streak certain to end this season for Sosa. Although Chipper credits and respects all his hitting instructors with Atlanta, he says the only one who was able to reach him in the straight-forward manner of his father was Don Baylor. While many major-league coaches bristle at outside influences, and fathers like John Giambi are careful to keep a low profile, Terry Pendleton invites Larry Sr.'s influence. The goal is to make Chipper more productive. Pendleton and Jones Sr. have been known to breakdown tape and brainstorm together on coaching. Another dual benefit for the Braves and Jones was a recurring hamstring injury that prompted him to request a return to the infield because the dashes in left field kept the injury from ever fully healing. A shortstop coming up in the Braves system, Jones was never comfortable in the outfield, nor with being a defensive liability. The relative inactivity as an outfielder drained his intensity, not an issue back at third base, a position which requires the quickest reflexes of any defensive player. In turn, with Chipper back in the infield, the Braves have their most veteran presence at the heart of mound conferences and defensive huddles. It's helped restore the swagger to the team and his teammates.
The Atlanta pitching staff finished first or second in the league in ERA from 1992 through 2002. If they get back there after slipping in 2003, it may be the most impressive job that Leo Mazzone has done in his 15 years next to Bobby Cox on the bench. Mazzone has never changed his approach, but after mostly system-raised pitching talent through the team's unprecedented run of 12 straight division titles, the majority of his 2004 staff is from somewhere else. Russ Ortiz came off a World Series with the Giants, and still hasn't harnessed his propensity for high walk totals, but Mazzone doesn't care. As he put it, "it's part of who he is as a pitcher. I'm gonna tell a guy to stop walking people and throw strikes who's got more wins than anyone in baseball since 2001?!" Mike Hampton seemed lost after helping the Mets to the 2000 World Series, then fell apart in Coors Field and the weight of an exorbitant contract and expectations. His first year under Mazzone, he bounced back by doubling his win total to 14, and even earlier this year when Hampton started off 1-7, Mazzone had no criticism of the way he was throwing. The Braves simply weren't scoring for him. Hampton recently reeled off seven straight wins. Jaret Wright might be the best reclamation project of them all, while those who leave the system have had mixed success at best. Jason Schmidt finally found a mean streak, and has become the best pitcher in the league after underachieving in Pittsburgh and his early days as a Giant. The man he was traded for, Denny Neagle helped Atlanta to a World Series, but now burdens the Rockies with one of the worst contracts in baseball. Kevin Millwood tossed a no-hitter his first month as a Phillie, but they would gladly have traded him at various points this summer. Damian Moss and Bruce Chen struggle to keep big-league jobs. Jason Marquis has continued to develop as a Cardinal. Antonio Alfonseca has become a productive and feared pitcher again. Mike Remlinger got a good deal out of his performance as a Brave, but the Cubs haven't come close to getting their return. Tom Glavine. Greg Maddux. Kerry Ligtenberg. John Rocker. Some of it is coincidence, injury, age, circumstance. But the overall pattern is obvious. I asked Leo the first thing he did with Tom Martin when they acquired him from the Dodgers. "I told him to simplify. Get rid of all that unnecessary garbage in your motion. Just come set and go." Martin responded enthusiastically, and has quickly adapted the Mazzone mantra: "establish your fastball down and away." It's the most important pitch to master in baseball in Mazzone's mind, and the only thing that can make for an effective fastball in.
It was great to see Dr. Jack Llewellyn ambling around Turner Field Sunday, albeit with a cane. The sports psychologist famous for counseling John Smoltz and Paul O'Neill, and lately trying to help Tony Stewart channel his aggression; was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in January, likely triggered by a car accident last October. An author, and under exclusive contract to the Braves, Llewellyn is making remarkable progress, aided in no small measure by his god-given knack for healthy brain activity. A sure sign "Dr. Jack" was doing better, telling a series of off-color jokes that might even make the Braves official joke-meister Mazzone blush. Might.
Former Brave Jermaine Dye's health concerns are strictly physical, although no one's sure exactly what's going on inside his left thumb. The latest in a growing chain of odd mishaps was the first week of August in the Metrodome, jamming his glove thumb diving for a ball. Dye had been enjoying a huge bounce back season, after setting the record for the lowest batting average in A's history in 2003, while still battling the effects of the freak broken leg he suffered in the 2001 playoffs, and new knee and shoulder ailments. If Oakland holds on and makes the postseason, it will likely be without a full-time contribution from their 6-foot-5 right fielder. After gutting through the injury off and on for a month, Dye had to come out of last Sunday's game with the Devil Rays in the fourth inning. The pain, almost exclusively when he hits, was too severe. Dye sat out the entire White Sox series, spending an hour with trainer Larry Davis every day for alternating ice and heat treatments, followed by electro stimulation. By Thursday afternoon, the thumb had calmed enough for Dye to take his first batting practice of the week, and he plans to return in Toronto this weekend. Dye's resigned to the fact that he'll likely continue to sit about once every three games, missing eight in 23 games since the injury. His goal is to hold out long enough to get a cortisone shot for the playoffs.
The bum thumb didn't hamper Jermaine's hobby of haircutting, which he's been dabbling in since he was 14. In 16 years, he finally cut his first redhead as Bobby Kielty leaned over the clubhouse sink prior to Thursday's day game. It was also almost certainly the lone time Dye's administered shaved sides with a buzzcut on top in his sidelight.
As any competitive team is when you get to September, the A's are a banged-up club. Both Kielty and Erubiel Durazo walk around with huge towel wraps for their backs. Mark Kotsay slowly creeps around the clubhouse with a deep bruise to the back of his kneecap, and Eric Byrnes strolls by with electrode tape buzzing from the attachments on his left biceps. Byrnes got beaned again in Chicago, in the same spot where the swelling and discoloring from two previous hits has moved down from the triceps to the bicep. Mark McLemore's been nursing a bad knee all season, and now they're all heading for the turf in Toronto. But a master of conserving energy, "Mac" hasn't lost his clubhouse flavor or instinct for old baseball saws. As Oakland prepared to face Jose Contreras, McLemore reminded anyone who would listen, "to hit the sinker, you've got to eat the sinker," as he grabbed another Crispy Cream cruller.
Manager Ken Macha would love to rest more of his veterans; Scott Hatteberg hasn't had a day off since June 18. But with so many regulars already out or ailing, he hasn't had a chance to rest. Macha will get help from Triple-A Sacramento, including prized outfielder Nick Swisher. But the Rivercats are in the PCL playoffs, and Macha doesn't like to clutter his bench with more than three or four additional extras. Esteban German is already back with the big club, with Justin Lehr on the way, but Swisher will only make his big league debut if Macha sees a need, and chances for him to play. Don't look for Joe Blanton's fastball this September unless there's an unexpected pitching injury.
This is the fourth straight August the A's have won at least 20 games. Eric Chavez, who has been there for all of them, has a simple explanation: "We just have really good players." Though Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, Ramon Hernandez and Keith Foulke have all departed, the "Big Three" of Hudson, Mulder and Zito form the common denominator. Chavez says it goes beyond that though, noting the past contributions of Cory Lidle and Ted Lilly. This year, Rich Harden's in the No. 4 role, along with a 10-win contribution from Mark Redman. Chavez says good teams just "figure it out" and start jelling by August. Plus, despite the ongoing injuries, the return of Chavez and Tim Hudson from extended absences ignited the club.
Hatteberg said the team knew something special was happening again when they went 7-4 on a trip through Texas, New York and Minnesota. Even though they came home to lose back-to-back series against Detroit and Kansas City of all teams, Oakland lost only once the rest of the month and still maintains the best home record in the majors. Unlike most contenders who robotically tell you, "we can only control what we can do," Hatteberg and his teammates openly acknowledge scoreboard watching. From August 15 when Anaheim crept within half a game, through Aug. 25, the difference never changed between the two teams. The A's were openly rooting for the Red Sox to sweep the Angels. But Boston's not only beating on Anaheim, the Red Sox are 5-1 against the A's and are back in the Bay Area next week. The A's still believe it will come down to six of their last nine games, head-to-head with the Angels.
Across the bay, the Giants strive to join the postseason for a third straight year. Barry Bonds hit a pair of meteors Sunday night in Atlanta off former teammate Russ Ortiz, with Hank Aaron looking on from the ESPN booth. The first, was the second longest in Turner Field history, 467 feet, 28 rows up in the right-field seats. There scrambling for No. 695 was Sam Haggins of suburban Fayetteville, Ga. A lifetime Braves fan, Haggins has converted to the Giants during their visits, solely because of Bonds. He was wearing the No. 25 Bonds jersey to prove it. Haggins goes to every game Bonds plays in Atlanta, normally sitting out by the home run record-setter in the left-field stands. This night, in those distant right-field bleachers, where no one had EVER hit a ball in a game; fantasy married reality. When security found the man who recovered the blast, there was never any doubt Haggins would give up the ball. Sam would not only give Barry what he wanted, but get a chance to meet the Giant after the game. For his hustle and devotion, among other keepsakes, Haggins now has an official Bonds jersey, signed by the man himself.
If Bonds wasn't whacking tape measure home runs off everybody, everywhere, I might be tempted to credit Marquis Grissom for Sunday's salvos. Grissom is an Atlanta native, the 14th of 15 children born to Marion and Julia Grissom. He now makes his home just outside town in Fairburn, where he stays when the Giants visit. With a night game after Saturday afternoon's game, it was time for another Grissom family feast Saturday night -- for 110! Marquis has about 40 nieces and nephews alone, about three dozen of them showing up last Saturday for pork roast, chicken, deep-fried fish, barbecued ribs, collard greens, mashed potatoes, corn, and many more items than I could possibly copy down. Among the 110 chowing down was Bonds, rookie Cody Ransom, and selected coaches. It was Bonds' first invitation to this family feast, and he loved it, even posing for pictures and signing autographs for the nieces and nephews, but mostly just blending in ... and eating. But at 10:30 p.m., just like everyone else, relative, superstar or not, Barry got the boot. Four hours was enough gluttony for one night, and Marquis needed his sleep. By the way, Marquis reached base three times himself on Sunday.
Gary Miller is a reporter and play-by-play announcer for ESPN's major league baseball coverage.