07/14/08 5:45 PM ET
Chipper's Bronx visit moves father
Mantle's influence on All-Star spurs trip to Monument Park
By Bryan Hoch / MLB.com
The All-Star Game provides the natural setting for Larry Jones' first trip to New York City and to Yankee Stadium, but in a way, he has been there before -- living through the Yankees legend, who batted his way into the Jones' hearts over his storied Major League career.
"Mickey was an idol of mine growing up, and that's the reason Chipper is a switch-hitter," Larry Jones said on Monday. "When Mickey Mantle passed away, they had his funeral on television. Roy Clark got up and sang, 'Yesterday When I Was Young,' and I bawled like a baby.
"He was such a big influence, baseball-wise, in my life, and vicariously through his life. It's going to be unbelievable."
Jones had reasons to feel like a kid on Monday, with his parents in tow for the trip to New York and hitting .376 at the All-Star break. As fellow All-Star Brian McCann said of Jones, "He's acting like it's high school again."
Enjoying his sixth All-Star selection and his first since 2001, Jones sat in a ballroom at the Grand Hyatt hotel in New York, his parents tucked off in a corner just to his left. Within earshot, he reminisced about the tales of Mantle that his father had relayed to him, providing a measure of motivation that resounds to this day.
"I think [I remember] just the awesome power and seeing him walk up to the plate left-handed and hit a ball 500 feet, and then walk up the very next time right-handed and watch him hit another one 500 feet," Jones said.
"The amount of talent that could be in one body -- for so long, I've always heard that without a doubt he was the most talented baseball player that my father has ever seen don a baseball uniform. He's been around for 60 years and coached collegiate baseball for 30. He's been around. He's seen it."
The elder Jones recalled sitting in the seats at Baltimore's Memorial Stadium and watching a game with his uncle from the first row of the right-field bleachers and seeing Mantle hit a line drive into the last four or five rows of the seats.
That created the perfect opportunity for son to reward father years later, when Jones -- then a Minor Leaguer in the Braves system -- wound up signing at a baseball card show that featured Mantle as a headliner. It also set the stage for quite the unique collectible.
"I've got a signed Mickey Mantle baseball with his fingerprints in barbecue sauce," Larry Jones said. "He was eating barbecue, and Chipper walked up and asked, 'Would you sign this for my dad?' I've got it in plastic because I don't want the barbecue sauce fingerprints to go off it. I'm going to leave it to my grandkids."
Though Jones and Mets closer Billy Wagner are the elder statesmen of the National League All-Star team, Jones said he almost wanted to proclaim that he'd found the fountain of youth. His batting average has trickled down from its previous .400-plus levels, and Jones seemed pleased that the resulting questions had faded out.
"For 10 or 11 weeks, it was a great start to the season and it was fun to talk about for a while," Jones said. "I think everybody, myself included, knew that the day would come I'd be down to .370 and we wouldn't have to answer questions anymore.
"I think a guy like Ichiro [Suzuki] probably has the best chance, because he's capable of getting 250 or 260 hits a year. If he would mix in a few more walks, it might be possible. He's thrown a lot of at-bats out there. It's awfully tough in this day and age because of specialty pitchers."
Besides, Jones would rather focus his attention on serving as a mentor for some of the younger Braves, McCann included. The entire baseball world has noticed the skill set that McCann owns, but few get an up-close look at the way McCann runs off the adjustment process like Jones describes.
"I'm so proud of that kid," Jones said. "He's a student of the game, a cerebral player and a cerebral hitter. There's not too many young kids who you can sit down with and have them ask you what they're doing wrong, and they sit in front of the video and you show them. You tell them how to fix it and they can go right into the cage and apply that to the very next swing. It's quite a thrill, and it's fun."
As Jones and his father walk out toward Monument Park on Monday afternoon, Jones said he could think about any number of memories from his Yankee Stadium career. Some of them are much sweeter than others, like the game in 1999 when he took Orlando Hernandez deep for his first Bronx home run.
Rounding the bases in that July 16 contest, Jones couldn't help but picturing his parents applauding in the seats, and pinpointing the moment when his dad would have leaned over and said, "You know, our son just homered where Mickey Mantle played."
"It's awesome -- I've had a blast," Jones said. "I think it's a lot more about the experiences of playing there, and sometimes that's a distraction to the players who get caught up in the glamor of walking out on the field. You can play a four-hour game out there, and it feels like you're out there for 45 minutes. Time flies when you're having fun.
"There have been some really high moments -- I can think of a couple of World Series hits that I'll never forget -- and I can think of a couple that went against us. I was left standing on deck in '96 when Charlie Hayes caught Mark Lemke's popup. There are a lot of cool things both ways."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.