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Chipper Jones is looking as good as ever

KISSIMMEE, Fla. - For Chipper Jones, it all started in the back yard with his dad.

They would grab the bats and balls, set up behind their Florida home and take turns imitating the best lineups of the era. Young Chipper was a Dodgers fan, so he had to transform himself into Mike Scioscia, Reggie Smith or Rick Monday for authenticity's sake. Never mind that he was a right-handed hitter, and they all batted from the other side of the plate.

'I would see my dad switch back and forth, so I would say, 'I can do that,' Jones recalled. 'It got to the point where I preferred hitting left-handed when I was young.'

He can remember back as far as 6, and was probably just a toddler - 'I had a bat in my crib,' he quipped - when his education in the art of switch-hitting began. The elder Jones said it would be easier to hit breaking balls from a right-handed pitcher if he swung lefty. Chipper quickly found that dad knew what he was talking about. Before long, the youngster was switching back and forth with ease.

Oh, what a feeling it was to get hold of one during those carefree days of childhood. To rock back on his left heel before launching the bat forward at just the right moment. To feel the tingling in his hands as that thin piece of lumber made contact with all the power and speed he could muster. To watch the ball soaring off into the haze of a muggy summer evening.

There was nothing better than that. OK, one thing was better - to see the look on his father's face.

'I loved impressing my dad,' Jones said. 'Every time I hit the ball on the sweet spot, he would track the ball, then turn around at look at me. I enjoyed seeing those reactions from him, because I knew he was impressed.'

Three decades later, Jones is still impressing.

He'll turn 37 in the opening weeks of the season, but he's never been better as a hitter. Last year, the Atlanta Braves third baseman won his first batting title with a career-best .364 average. Jones just missed out in 2007 when Matt Holliday nipped him on the final day of the season.

Sure, there are flecks of gray in Jones' hair, and wrinkles have invaded around the edges of a face that once seemed perpetually youthful. But he carries himself like a ballplayer who knows there's no one you'd rather have standing at the plate with the game on the line.

He doesn't walk so much as strut: slow, purposeful, exuding confidence and a bit of cockiness as his shoulders rock up and down, gently but distinctly, sort of like John Wayne in a baseball uniform. And when Jones strolls into the batter's box - no matter which side it might be - he looks as though he's been preparing for that moment his whole life.

Which he has been, of course.

'One of the best feelings you can have as a ballplayer is having 50,000 people sitting on every pitch when you're in the batter's box, just waiting to come out of their seats,' Jones said in a drawling monotone that contradicts his emotions. 'When you center one and send it out of the park, bring them to their feet to applaud your performance, that's as good as it gets.

'Because,' he quickly adds, 'hitting a baseball is without a doubt the hardest thing to do in professional sports. To be able to do it as well as anybody, that feels good.'

Growing up, Jones tried to model himself after Mickey Mantle and Eddie Murray, the two greatest switch-hitters in baseball history. He may wind up eclipsing them, already holding the distinction of being the only one of their ilk with both a .300 career average and 400 homers.

Jones is hitting .310 over his 14-year career, better than either Mantle (.298) and Murray (.287). There's still some work to do on the home run line, where Mantle leads (536), Murray is second (504) and Jones ranks a distant third among switch-hitters with 408.

But clearly, he's getting closer to a pretty exclusive neighborhood.

'When I was 6 years old, I wanted to stand next to Mickey Mantle and Eddie Murray,' Jones said. 'To stand here 30 years later and be next on the list behind those two, it's quite satisfying and gratifying. I know all the hard work has paid off. I've done it the right way. I've gone out and put together a long, successful career that I'm really proud of.'

Terry Pendleton, the National League MVP in 1991 and now the Braves' hitting coach, is quick to note Jones' natural gifts as a hitter.

'He's been blessed by God,' Pendleton said. 'God touched him and said, 'You're a hitter.'

But chalking it all up to genetics or a higher power does not tell the whole story. No one spends more time in the batting cage or studying tape of opposing pitchers. No one watches from the dugout more intently when it's not his turn to hit, absorbing every little nuance he can pick up on the mound.

'He's a student of the game. He's a student of hitting,' Pendleton said. 'People don't understand the mental part of it. He works at it. He understands it.'

Before Jones' steps in the box, he already has an idea of what he wants to do.

Facing some pitchers, he'll try to drive it out of the park. But when he's up against someone who's especially tough, he'll merely try to hit it back up the middle. Situations also dictate the approach. There are times that call for homers, then there are times that call for making contact. Jones will adjust accordingly. He's even keenly aware of how his own body feels, knowing he must shorten his stroke when he's a bit stiff or not picking up the ball as quickly as normal.

In fact, Jones credits a bum right shoulder for his first batting title. He was bothered most of 2008 by tendinitis, which prevented him from getting much power on his swing. So he sacrificed homers (22) and RBIs (75) for average, finishing 27 points above his previous career high.

'If I go out there and try to hit .350, I think I can do it,' he said. 'But I have to be able to find that balance between average and power. In order for me to put up the power numbers that everybody expects from me, I have to sacrifice a little average. ... I'm looking for more of a happy medium this year.'

Jones is the only everyday player left from those great Braves teams of the 1990s and early 2000s. He'd like to play his entire career in Atlanta, but knows there are no guarantees. Greg Maddux, Andruw Jones and John Smoltz all wound up playing elsewhere after long stints as his teammate.

'I would love to play here till I retire,' Jones said. 'We'll see how it works out. I know nothing is a given. I'm reminded of that every time I see one of our icons go play somewhere else.'

Entering the final year of his contract, he's had preliminary talks with the team on an extension. Those discussions should pick up steam now that the Braves have taken care of more pressing matters, signing a couple of starting pitchers (Derek Lowe and Kenshin Kawakami) and adding another threat to the batting order (Garret Anderson).

'All things are in play right now, whether it be free agency, whether it's getting traded, whatever,' Jones said. 'Hopefully an extension will come before those other two.'

As hard as it was for Braves fans to watch someone such as Smoltz depart during the past offseason, it's nearly impossible to envision this team without No. 10. A starting pitcher only takes the field every fifth day. Jones has been out there for nearly 1,900 games, though a series of nagging injuries have kept him from playing a full season since 2003.

Looking to stop that streak, Jones took six weeks off after the season to let his shoulder heal, then dove into a grueling workout routine. When he reported to spring training, he looked as strong and fit as any of those 20-somethings in the clubhouse.

'He's just one of those guys who comes in every day and gets his work done,' outfielder Jeff Francoeur said. 'He doesn't say much. He just goes about it. Chipper has never been a vocal leader. He lets his playing do his talking.'

But Jones will speak out when he feels it's necessary. After Smoltz shockingly signed with the Boston Red Sox, saying they had made a vastly superior offer to Atlanta's, the third baseman he left behind ripped into management for letting a pillar of the franchise get away.

'I was frustrated. The fans of Atlanta were frustrated. And we vented,' Jones said. 'When you've gone to battle for 16 years with one guy, when there's no one you'd rather have on the mound in a must-win game, and we don't allow him to end his career here, well, I had a problem with it.'

Jones' criticism was muted by the signing of Lowe, Kawakami and Anderson. He met with general manager Frank Wren and patched things up. Now, they're all focused on returning this franchise to the place it held while winning 14 straight division championships, not the wreck of a team that lost 90 games a year ago and missed the playoffs for the third season in a row.

'I feel proud that I've been in this uniform this long,' Jones said. 'Hopefully, four or five more years will follow, then I can ride off into the sunset and call it a really good career.'