He’d come close. A torrid run through camp the previous spring, inspired by the opportunity created by Ron Gant breaking his leg in a motorcycle accident, ended with the 21-year-old prodigy in a heap up the first base line. An awkward move to avoid a tag after he grounded out to shortstop against Terry Mulholland and the New York Yankees, left his anterior cruciate ligament in shreds and his future in doubt.
Even now, after a Hall of Fame 19-year career with the Braves, Jones can’t watch that footage without wincing.
“I can’t watch that video and not cringe, not get goose bumps, not tear up even to this day, and there’s been 26 years since that happened,” Jones said. “It’s one of the single most important times of my life. It’s one of the few times I’ve been at a crossroads, where I thought ‘OK, I’m pretty good at what I do, I’ve got the world in front of me, and now because this happened, I’ve got no idea. My career could be over. This could just be a speedbump. I don’t know.’ I’ve never had that kind of uncertainty in my entire life.”
MORE FROM THE SERIES
» About the series
» FURMAN BISHER: Atlanta's finest moment
» SPRING TRAINING: Starting with replacement players
» MARK BRADLEY: A subdued season, a giddy ending
» BUILDING THE BRAVES: How the championship team was built
On what should have been his first Major League start on Opening Day in 1994, Jones was post op. Just hours after surgery, he was in his room at Piedmont Hospital, with the Braves and San Diego Padres on in the background, when Jones asked his father to turn off the TV.
“I felt like it should have been me in left field,” Jones said. “I had a lot of work and a lot of hell in front of me and whether or not the Braves won that night didn’t particularly matter to me. I wanted to regroup and figure out what was going to be ahead of me, and what was going to help me put that uniform on with those guys the quickest.”
Doctors told him the graft in his knee would need six months to heal and 10 months of rehabilitation to fully recover.
“They were trying to tell me that the ‘94 season was a complete wash,” said Jones, who’d gotten three at-bats during a September call-up in 1993. “But I had never healed the same way as everybody else.”
Six months would put him back at the start of October, in time for postseason play. Jones targeted September.
His first hurdle in rehab was range of motion, then the stationary bike. By the four-month mark, Jones was hitting, running the bases, and taking groundballs – without hesitation.
“From about the end of July, I knew I was good,” Jones said. “And I was going to make it as hard as I could on them to keep me from playing in September or October. If I showed them I was running around the bases unfazed, if I was hitting bombs from both sides of the plate in BP, if I was taking groundballs and turning double plays, making that bare-handed play coming in, that’s basically all I can do. I was going to try to make it as hard as I could on them because I wanted to play in ‘94.”
Then came the strike. Looking back on it now, at age 47, Jones realizes what a fortunate thing it turned out to be.
“I don’t think there’s a bigger beneficiary of the ‘94 strike than me,” Jones said. “We went on strike, the World Series was cancelled, and I got not only September and October but November and December, January, February, March and April to make sure that I was fully recovered from that injury. As opposed to having 10-12 months, I had 12 to 14 months of rehab, and I was motivated. I was big, I was strong and ready to go once the strike ended up in ‘95.”
After instructional ball, Jones spent the winter either working out with his buddy and minor league teammate Mike Hostetler at Sprayberry High School and Georgia Tech or his father at home in Pierson, Fla. Once the strike officially ended April 2 and major league players reported to camp two days later, Jones had three weeks to get in game shape. He played in all 11 games he could – hitting .241 (7-for-29) – and it was enough.
“I was probably more prepared than 90 percent of the big leaguers because I had something else driving me,” Jones said. “Coming back from the injury, proving that I was not only worthy of being a big leaguer but healthy. ... I had it taken away from me in the spring of 94, I wasn’t about to have it taken away from me by lack of performance in the spring of 95.”
He opened the season at third base, after the free agent departure of Terry Pendleton, who had mentored Jones throughout his comeback.
The Braves tried to convince Jones to wear a brace on his surgically-repaired left knee, similar to the big bulky contraption veteran first baseman Sid Bream wore late in his career. Jones wanted no part of it and quickly proved he had no need for it either.
In front of a smallish crowd of 32,045 on Opening Day at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, Jones faced Terry Mulholland again. This time Mulholland was pitching for the San Francisco Giants. This time Jones hit a ball to the right side of the infield and through, for a base hit. It was the Braves’ third hit in a string of six straight to start the game and the season. Jones’ RBI single sparked a four-run inning and helped the Braves to a 12-5 victory.
“For me, after the first inning of that first game, I knew we were a force to be reckoned with,” Jones said. “It let everybody know that this team is different, this team is loaded, and this team is focused. And we never really stopped after that.”
Jones played 140 games of the 144-game strike-shortened regular season on his surgically-repaired left knee. He took some typical rookie lumps while hitting .265 for the season but he also lived up to his tremendous potential by hitting 23 home runs and driving in 86 runs, while batting third in the lineup ahead of Fred McGriff and David Justice.
Jones made a run at National League rookie of the year, before getting edged out by Hideo Nomo, the 26-year-old Japanese-born pitcher.
Jones became the face of the wave of young talent - including Javy Lopez, Ryan Klesko, Pedro Borbon and Brad Clontz – that not only helped bring home Atlanta’s first World Series title but set the stage for 11 more division titles.
“We were the perfect storm of young guys combined with veteran guys, Hall of Famers, guys who have been through the World Series losses,” Jones said of the group that would celebrate a World Series championship months later. “Me, Javy, Klesko, Pedro Borbon, Brad Clontz, we were the perfect storm of idiocy and just not really knowing what we were getting into ... meshing with our pitching staff and Fred McGriff and David Justice and Marquis Grissom and the other parts of the puzzle.”