NEW YORK — The moon hung low in the dark Bronx sky, beaming down proudly on the lights of Yankee Stadium. Fans draped over the railings, cheering every hopeful crack of their heroes’ bats. Music blasted through the loudspeakers. Highlight footage flashed on the giant scoreboard. It was all New York, the lights, the noise, the hot coffee, the hooded sweatshirts, the guttural yells, the clenched fists, the announcer bellowing, “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the 1996 World Series…”
And then along came Jones.
Long, lean Jones.
Slow-talkin’ Jones, fast swingin’ Jo–
Well. You get the point.
With the first at-bat of his World Series life, Atlanta’s Andruw Jones, the kid from the islands, launched a 3-2 pitch over the head of Darryl Strawberry and into the leftfield seats, and shut every New York mouth — expect the ones hanging open in amazement.
And with his second at-bat, one inning later, Jones did it again, another 3-2 pitch, another wicked blast, this time to left-center, and Strawberry watched it go again, a stunned expression on his face. Two home runs? In his first two at- bats? Once upon a time, Strawberry, too, had been a young phenom. But Darryl was never this young.
Has any player been this young?
Here is the unlikely tapestry woven by this smiling teenager with the funny first name on Opening Night of the 1996 World Series: He was the youngest player out there. He was the least experienced player out there. He is making less money than any player out there. He comes from an island deep in the Caribbean better known for its beaches, where he sealed his first contract when he was 15 years old. He was too young to actually sign, so he and his father shook hands with the Atlanta man and drank a few beers.
And here he was, Sunday night, cracking open the game, driving in five runs, and smashing a mark held by the venerable Mickey Mantle — youngest player to hit a World Series homer — right in Mantle’s backyard.
The only question left unanswered was this: Is he related to Tiger Woods?
Along came Jones.
“Where were you during last year’s World Series?” someone asked Jones, after his amazing effort in the Braves’ 12-1 victory.
“I was in instructional ball,” he said, “trying to get better.”
Nineteen years old? Can that really be correct? Shouldn’t 19-year-olds be out washing their cars, or enrolling in freshman English, or expressing shock at how much the government takes out of their paychecks?
Nineteen years old? In the World Series? And hitting home runs? Well, don’t be too surprised. Jones has been coming like a freight train all season, starting in A ball in Durham, jumping to Double-A in Greenville, up to Triple-A in Richmond, and then the Big Show in Atlanta.
The whole journey — from A ball to the major leagues — took two months.
Some players take that long to get out of a batting slump.
But that was just the start. Once Jones got to Atlanta, he acted as if he’d
been there for years. In his second major league game, he cranked a home run
(I guess he was sick the night before). In the NL championship series, he hit a dinger in Game 7.
And Sunday night, he put his name up there forever, in that special space reserved for magic moments.
“Do you ever get nervous?” Jones was asked.
“In my first at-bat, I was nervous.”
“How about tonight?”
“No,” he smiled. “Not really.”
Now if other cities envy the Braves’ good fortune, they shouldn’t. It ain’t luck, folks. Jones was discovered because the Braves have a real commitment to international scouting — and not just some washed-up player keeping a paycheck by making a few trips around Puerto Rico. The Braves employ eyes and ears in the most unlikely places, including Australia, Holland and, yes, even the small island of Curacao, 40 miles north of Venezuela. And they listen to every tip.
So when a scout down there named Givanni Viceisza — who also runs the local welding shop — called to tell them of this Jones kid that had the whole island buzzing, the Braves wasted no time.
They had a man there before Andruw was shaving.
And what that man saw was raw talent, unfettered and thrilling. Young Jones could run. He could throw with speed. And he could torture the ball with his bat. One morning, he and his father, Henry, ran the 60-yard dash together. Andruw clocked 6.71. His father ran 7.21.
So never mind that Andruw did wrist curls with a sledgehammer, or that his batting gloves were loose and his pants were baggy. The Braves jumped on him, signed him up and watched him rise like the sun.
“What he did tonight was awesome,” said Atlanta’s Mark Lemke. “We are so fortunate to have him on this team.”
Baseball is fortunate, too. There is still a magic to this game, when you strip it free of lawyers, owners, TV blather- heads, money. It’s a game that lets old men feel young, and young men feel older. And every now and then, it opens the heavens for a kid with a big smile and a bigger bat and nothing to lose but his naivete.
Along came Jones.
We can only imagine who’ll come riding in tonight.
KEEPING UP WITH JONES
On Sunday night, the Braves’ Andruw Jones:
* Became the third-youngest player to start a World Series game behind Giants third baseman Fred Lindstrom (18 when he started at third base in 1924) and Cubs first baseman Phil Cavaretta (19 years and two months when he started at first base in 1935).
* Became the youngest player to hit a home run in a World Series game when he connected in the second inning against Andy Pettitte. Jones, born April 23, 1977, is 19 years, five months old. Mickey Mantle, born Oct. 20, 1931, held the previous record. He was 20 years, 11 months old when he hit his first Series homer in Game 6 of 1952 against Brooklyn.
* Became the second player to homer in his first two Series at- bats. Oakland’s Gene Tenace did it in the 1972 Series opener against Cincinnati. ATLANTA LEADS, 1-0
Sunday: Atlanta 12, New York 1
Today: at New York, 7:35 p.m.
Tuesday: at Atlanta, 8:15 p.m.
Wednesday: at Atlanta, 8:18 p.m.
Thursday: at Atlanta, 8:15 p.m.
Saturday: at New York, 8:01 p.m.
Sunday: at New York, 7:35 p.m.
All games on Fox(Channel 2)