Looking back on Andruw Jones, and the collapse of the 'Beef Animal'

Sometimes you're the bull, and sometimes you end up with a poorly translated Chinese tattoo on your neck.

My memories of Andruw Jones are bookended by two in particular, both of which occurred in Yankee Stadium. Here is 1996 Andruw.

Andruw1996fox_medium

In this World Series, 19-year-old Andruw became the youngest player ever to hit a home run in the World Series. He did so in his very first at-bat, and just for good measure, he did so in his second, too.

After the Braves' Game 1 win, Joe Buck giddily declared the game "Hurricane Ahhh-ndruw," pronounced like that, because this is before Andruw presumably threw in the towel and said, "**** it, just call me Andrew." The Braves, defending champions of the world, were on the national stage for the fourth time in five World Series, and owner Ted Turner had long ago decided that by virtue of their place on national cable, they were "America's Team."

The Braves were better than they had ever been. After they took a 2-0 series lead, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist argued that the Braves were better than the 1927 Yankees, let alone the 1996 Yankees. They supplemented one of the best pitching rotations in the history of baseball with a seemingly limitless supply of of farm talent in the lineup. Over the last five years, they'd produced Chipper Jones and David Justice and Ryan Klesko and Javy Lopez and Jermaine Dye.

And now they had Andruw, who Braves fans reckoned to be their very own Ken Griffey, Jr. (They were not as wrong about that as they probably sound to you.) I was 13. The Braves were going to go 131-31 and win every World Series until I was 25 years old with a wife and a kid on the way, and worked as a structural engineer from a window office on the 20th floor of a high-rise in San Francisco. By then, if the Braves stopped winning, I'd have so much going for me that I wouldn't really mind.

2011. Here is a different Andruw, in a different Yankee Stadium.

4_medium

He's big and fat and he has trash all over him. He's wearing New Balances, which are the most Thirtysomething Man shoes. He has a tattoo on his neck that was supposed to read "bull" in Chinese, but actually translates to "beef animal," which is appropriate as all get-out. He still has that perpetual smile. I swear to God I have never seen a human being smile more often than Andruw; it's almost as though his face is just like that.

I think my decade-ago self would see 34-year-old Andruw in pinstripes and snivel something like, "typical. Yankees buying all the talent because they can't develop their own." Ah ha ha ha ha. No, little fella, it ain't like that. Dude's lucky to have a job.

But he's only 34 here!

Nope. Dude skipped his 30s and went straight to 43.

* * *

When I was 13 I told the owner at the baseball card shop I always went to, "I've been keeping my eye on Andruw Jones. This kid in double-A now." Two things. First, I was 13 and calling people older than me, "kid," because I thought talking like that would make me seem like something other than a short, skinny kid with Spalding knockoff pumps and a mismatched Mossimo shirt.

Second, that was when I realized that Andruw was only five years older than me. I had five years to be as cool as he was. Hell, I had five years to become an adult in the first place. I was out of dice.

* * *

It's very, very difficult to get a handle on a voting class that didn't send Jeff Bagwell to the Hall of Fame, so determining the odds of a borderline guy like Andruw Jones is just about impossible. I reckon he probably won't get in, and also think he probably should.

He's playing in Japan this year. If his MLB career has ended at age 35, he has 434 home runs and nearly 2,000 hits to show for it. He's also saddled with a reputation for being lazy, even in his early, skinny years. The voters won't like that.

Now, the voters do tend to overvalue defense, but Andruw might be one of the only guys whose defense was as valuable as we're supposed to believe. He has a career 24.1 defensive WAR, which is to say, more or less, that in a vacuum his defensive play alone gave his teams 24 more wins than they would have with an average center fielder.

That's the best career outfield dWAR of all time. In other words, if you take stock in that statistic, you could reasonably conclude that Andruw might be the best defensive outfielder in the history of baseball.

I'm trying to think of a defensive play of Andruw's that stands out, like Otis Nixon leaping the wall or Rafael Belliard sprinting 900 feet for a catch in foul territory. I can't think of one. Even early on in Andruw's career, even when he was winning Gold Glove after Gold Glove, folks were saying that he still didn't get all the credit he deserved, because he had such a great grip on the position, and was so damned fast, that he could make almost every catch look a lot less difficult than it was. Other players would need to take a diving stab; Andruw simply glided over and brought it down, because he knew where he needed to go before anyone else would, and because he was quick enough to get there.

According to his dWAR, Andruw won about four games for the Braves with his glove alone. If a player does that with his bat, he might be an All-Star. There have been thousands and thousands of outfielders across baseball history, and none of them did what Andruw has done. That has to mean something.

* * *

I call him by his first name for no good reason.

* * *

I guess it was ... 2007? I was 24, and my life's ambitions, which had floated adrift for years, finally hit an iceberg. In the years prior I had abruptly stopped caring about formal education, just barely graduated high school, and dropped out of college after a semester. I blew most of the $2000 of savings I'd stuffed away from summer jobs on a sound system for my 1990 Oldsmobile. I worked dead-end, $8-an-hour jobs to support an addiction to writing, which might, maybe, someday, actually get me some money in return. In 2007 I landed a couple freelance things, and decided to quit my job and sustain myself on them. Lots of grits and Texas Pete, lots of late rent fees, lots of Coinstar receipts for seven bucks. My waterbed, which I had gladly accepted because it was free, was punctured by a stray cat, so I spent the next few months sleeping on my floor. Nothing was nice, and nothing was going anywhere.

Andruw's own crash came a year later, and I give the Braves' front office all the credit in the world for apparently seeing it coming (although surely not in such historic fashion). Throughout his 12 seasons in Atlanta, he remained defensively brilliant. At the plate, he hovered around .260, but he furnished plenty of power (including a franchise-record 51 home runs in 2005), and statistics both raw and advanced say very nice things about his value as a ballplayer during those years.

The Braves declined to retain Andruw, and the Dodgers picked him up on a two-year, $36 million deal. He showed up to Spring Training considerably out of shape, and then this followed.

Year Age Tm G PA HR RBI BA OBP SLG OPS+
2004 27 ATL 154 646 29 91 .261 .345 .488 112
2005 28 ATL 160 672 51 128 .263 .347 .575 136
2006 29 ATL 156 669 41 129 .262 .363 .531 126
2007 30 ATL 154 659 26 94 .222 .311 .413 87
2008 31 LAD 75 238 3 14 .158 .256 .249 35
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 6/6/2013.

I didn't even bother watching him on the Dodgers. I just gawked at his numbers every so often with curious disbelief. He collapsed from one of baseball's premier outfielders to perhaps the very worst everyday player in the game. He hit the disabled list a couple times, because that's what happens when you suddenly fall out of shape. His value in the outfield evaporated, too: in a single season, his dWAR fell from an excellent 2.2 to a miserable -0.5. It was all just ... gone.

That wasn't an off-year. It stayed gone. The Dodgers paid Andruw about $14 million for his abominable 2008; when they cut bait, he was forced to take a one-year contract with the Rangers for $500,000 -- an instant 96-percent pay cut. He spent the next few years bouncing around as a platoon guy who never saw more than 300 at-bats a season and almost surely never will again.

It isn't sad or painful to see or anything like that, but it is worth noting that he was once the 170-pound, five-tool phenomenon, making history in Yankee Stadium ... and 15 years later, not only was he in pinstripes himself, he would have made Yankee pinstripes look like a goddang Mercator projection of his pinstripes, had he tried to fit into the size he used to. He had low mobility, he looked 44 years old, he was round, and again, there's something about that trash-confetti shower that is entirely appropriate.

And last Christmas he dragged his wife down the stairs, grabbed her by the neck, and told her he was going to kill her. And now he's in Japan, and that is that is that.

* * *

I think about collapses a lot. I figure that some folks go their entire life without seeing one. I wonder whether someone should see one, and I'm tempted to think so, because these days I don't take too many steps in this life without reminding myself how capable this life is of beating the shit out of me.

As for Andruw's collapse, I doubt he's very concerned about it, because he made $14 million for his trouble in that grand, hilarious, God-awful 2008. This isn't really just about him. I'm more struck by the broader reminder that the things that make you great, the things that seem inseparable from you, can just ... leave. You might observe their exit and you might not. Maybe there will be reasons, and maybe there won't.

Oh you know what, I finally remembered a good one. It's a completely phenomenal off-the-wall catch, captured via camcorder from some nameless clip-reel cable show, because that is what we have decided he is worth.

GIF via @bubbaprog.

Photo credit: Stephen Dunn / Getty Images

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