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Braves' angel in outfield is not just any old Jones

NEW YORK — NEW YORK -- He was just 5 years old when Cal Ripken's streak started in 1982.

He is just seven years older than Little Jeffy Maier, the kid who sank the Orioles in the American League Championship Series.

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He was playing in an instructional league last October, and was in Single-A ball as late as June.

Still not old enough to legally drink the champagne that championship teams guzzle.

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But old enough to break a big city's heart.

Palmeiro and Bonilla and Alomar couldn't do it, but someone named Andruw Jones did.

Someone named Andruw Jones who was 19 years, 5 months and 28 days old yesterday -- extremely young to be playing left field for the Atlanta Braves and breaking records set by Mickey Mantle 44 years ago.

That's what Jones did last night when he hit home runs in his first two at-bats to start the Braves on their way to a 12-1 victory in Game 1 of the World Series at Yankee Stadium.

It was a heavenly night for Yankees haters.

A teen-ager did them in, and the festive Game 1 crowd turned surly and left early when rain started falling.

Within three innings, the Yankees went from heroes to bums in their fans' eyes, courtesy of Jones.

His homers guaranteed the rise of a new cry on the Big Apple's streets today: Got any hockey tickets?

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After a week of fawning, Yankees fans would give the following answers to a word association test today: Yankees? Losers. Manager Joe Torre? Idiot. Game 1 loser Andy Pettitte? Bum. Andruw Jones? God.

Never in Series history had a player so young hit a homer; Jones was one year, four months and 19 days younger than Mantle when the Mick hit one in 1952.

And only once before had a player hit homers in his first two Series at-bats. Oakland's Gene Tenace did it in 1972.

"It's a hell of an accomplishment for any player in the World Series, much less a youngster who just came to the big leagues," Torre said.

Pretty heady stuff for a guy who makes Armando Benitez look like a crusty veteran.

A guy who signed for $46,000 three years ago.

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A guy who grew up on Curacao, a small island off the coast of Venezuela.

Imagine: A kid from nowhere on the baseball map crushed the Yankees in the World Series.

"It's a special moment for me," Jones said. "I watched the Braves win the Series on TV last year. I never thought I would get here so soon."

The Yankees should have known they were in trouble when local legend Robert Merrill bungled the national anthem. But they knew they were in trouble when Jones put a 3-2 fastball from Pettitte 15 rows into the stands in the second inning.

"He can hit a ball as hard as anyone," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "He has all the tools. It doesn't take a genius to figure it out. The guy can really, really play."

For those who missed the first homer, Jones provided an instant replay in the third inning: Another 3-2 pitch (a slider from Brian Boehringer) and another ball into the left-field seats.

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The Braves have always expected big things from Jones, their best prospect, but they didn't expect them so soon.

It was just four years ago that he showed up at a tryout camp as a 15-year-old, ran a 60-yard dash in 7.1 seconds and signed on his 16th birthday.

His father, then 46 and a former player, finished in 7.5 seconds.

The Braves should have signed Dad, too.

After two years in the low minors, Jones started this year in Single-A, then was promoted to Double-A on June 19 and Triple-A on July 31. Two weeks after that, he was in the bigs.

"I have never seen a player go through a minor-league system as proficiently or as quickly as he did," Braves general manager John Schuerholz said. "There wasn't one guy in the organization that didn't recommend he come to the majors. One guy said Andruw was the best player he had ever seen. One guy said he was best player we have signed since Hank Aaron."

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Jones was named USA Today's Minor League Player of the Year for the second year in a row.

"He's about as good a prospect as anyone is going to see come into any organization," Cox said. "He's got outstanding tools. He is very intelligent. You don't treat him like a 19-year-old. You treat him like a 22- or 23-year-old who has been around four or five years."

The Yankees threw everything at Jones and the Braves last night. Joe DiMaggio threw out the first pitch. The ghosts of past Yankees greats were floating in the cool autumn air. The tabloids had turned up the heat as only they can.

"America's Team? No one asked for my vote!" one New York Post columnist roared at the Braves.

All that Yankees magic and big-city bravado lasted exactly one inning -- until Jones' first homer.

What World Series? What Yankee Stadium?

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"I really didn't follow baseball growing up," Jones said. "I didn't follow the Yankees."

He didn't know much about the tradition, Mantle, the records.

He just hit the ball.

It was a triumph of the uncluttered mind.

A kid from Curacao peeled the Big Apple.

Pub Date: 10/21/96


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