Baseball

It's June, and Jones is batting .400

ATLANTA — Bobby Doerr had the best seat in the house for the last player to hit .400.

Now, from his home in Oregon, the oldest living player in the Baseball Hall of Fame is rooting for Chipper Jones.

”I hope he can go ahead and do it,“ the 90-year-old Doerr said by phone. ”That would be good for baseball.“

The Atlanta Braves third baseman is off to the best start of his career, going into Saturday's game with a staggering .421 average.

But it's only June, so Jones refuses to get too excited.

”I don't think anybody can do it,“ he said bluntly.

Still, the very fact that Jones has made it this far — the deepest into the season anyone has been at .400 in eight seasons — is enough to at least stir the memories of Ted Williams, the last player to average four hits for every 10 at-bats, a milestone that's stood for 67 years.

Jones knows what he's up against.

”The simple fact of the matter is that no one has done it in a very, very long time,“ he said. ”And we're talking about maybe the greatest hitter ever to step on the field is the one who did it. Man, I just don't see myself in the same league as him. I really don't.“

In a sport that cherishes numbers, .400 is one that stands like a beacon far off shore — in sight but out of reach.

Doerr, a teammate and good friend of Williams, recalled that 1941 season. Williams went into the final day with an average that would have rounded up to .400

Boston Red Sox manager Joe Cronin gave Williams the option of sitting out a doubleheader to protect his average. Williams wouldn't hear of it. He went 6-for-8 that day, finishing with a .406 average.

”There was no way he was going to sit that out,“ Doerr said. ”He didn't want to be a .400 hitter that way.“

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Jones is the first to be at .400 this late in the season since a pair of players in 2000. Colorado's Todd Helton stayed there through June 10, while Nomar Garciaparra of the Red Sox held on until July 20. Both finished with .372 averages.

So, can Jones, a career .310 hitter in his 15th year, stay at .400 over an entire season? Here are a few things working in his favor:

■ He's very selective, with a walk-to-strikeout ratio (37-to-23) that's more suited to a leadoff hitter than someone with 400 homers.

■ He's a switch-hitter, which usually gives him a better look at breaking balls since they're moving toward his sweet spot rather than dipping away.

■ He's batting in front of fellow switch-hitter Mark Teixeira, another of baseball's most feared sluggers.

But there are key obstacles to anyone hitting .400 again:

■ In Williams' day, there were only eight teams in each league and no interleague play, giving hitters plenty of chances to get familiar with opposing hurlers.

■ Relievers were an anomaly in the 1940s. Starters were expected to go the distance, or at least pitch seven or eight innings, so hitters got to face tiring pitchers.

■ The pressure on someone trying to hit .400 would be much greater today than it was in the 1940s, with all the television outlets, talk radio shows and Internet bloggers.

Jones is doing everything he can to maintain a sense of normalcy in a season that is becoming increasingly unusual. While at home, he goes out of his way not to think about .400.

”My mind-set is not going to change,“ he said, talking with a small group of reporters. ”Obviously, it would be an exciting time. You take the six or seven people standing here right now and multiply it by about 10. Who doesn't want that kind of attention?“

Check in again about a month from now.

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