This interview was conducted in September 2012, but that doesn’t matter. The topic was his career, and Andruw Jones was weeks away from his final game. Contextually, nothing has changed in the two-plus years that these words went unpublished.
The longtime Atlanta Brave hit 434 home runs, but his legacy is defense. He won 10 straight Gold Gloves, and few center fielders have played the position with as much style and grace. Jones didn’t age particularly well, but in his prime, he was an outstanding player and an absolute joy to watch.
Andruw Jones on defense: “Coming up through the Braves organization, it was mainly about defense. In the late-’90s and early-’00s, the Braves were known for great pitching and putting the ball in the right location. That made it easier for me. Our defense would always line up to our pitching staff, and hitters would hit the ball where the defense was shifted to.
“Diving catches, making great catches, is always great. It’s a highlight, but it’s tough, a lot of beating to your body. What I did was try to play the hitters in the right spot. A lot of people said I played shallow, but I was not playing shallow. Maybe I was shallower than a lot of other outfielders, but I was playing who was hitting. Power hitters, I played deeper. I would play where I knew I could go to the fence in how many seconds, in how many feet. I could come in the same way.
“I think my first full year was my best defensive year. That was the first time I won the Gold Glove. If you look back, I probably had a lot of putouts in the later years, but I remember that first year. They trusted me. They put me in center field and let me play.
“As the years went by, I was probably not as fast, but I knew what to do a little better. I knew the league better and where to play the hitters. I got a little smarter. Maybe I was better then. I don’t know.”
On hitting: “I (originally) focused so much on defense that I wasn’t worried about my hitting until I had a coach named Merv Rettenmund. He came to Atlanta in 2000 and told me, ‘Hey, go to the plate with the same approach you take in center field.’ He opened my eyes to being more relaxed and just letting things happen, instead of trying to make them happen. I started using my instincts, just like I did in the outfield when I exploded toward where a ball was a hit. I had a great year that year. I hit .300 for the first time in the major leagues.
“Am I surprised that I’ve hit (over 400) home runs? If you add them up, yes. It’s a good number, but all I wanted was to be consistent. If it was 25-plus home runs every year, that’s what I wanted to do. If it was 100 runs I was going to drive in, that’s what I wanted to do every year. If I hit 40 (home runs), it was a plus, but I never was aiming for that type of number. My number was just being consistent.”
On defensive value and joie de vivre: “If you look around, most of the guys in the Hall of Fame – the shortstops and the center fielders – were great defensive players. Ozzie Smith had good numbers, but he was known for his defense. Willie Mays had great numbers, but his defense would rate way up there. Defense is important. When you look at each team, they want to have a good catcher, a good shortstop, and a good center fielder. The guys that cover those positions, if they hit, it’s a plus. But if they play good defense, the team will be successful.”
“I love go get the ball. I like when I put my head down and run to that spot and the ball will be right there. I think that’s the funnest thing for me, even though I would love to hit a home run. Just playing center field and someone hitting a ball in the gap and me putting my head down and running as fast as I can to that spot. When I look up, the ball is there and I catch it. That’s what I’ve always loved the most.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.