He digs a hole for his left foot in the back of the batter’s box, then backs up three or four steps. Using his trademark blond ash bat with the single blue stripe, he thumps the dirt out of his left shoe then the right, as he peers out to the pitcher.
After he settles into his stance, Jones taps the bat once on the outside of the plate, once on the inside as if to calibrate its dimensions one more time and takes two easy swings through the strike zone. He brings the bat back to his left shoulder and waggles it.
Now he and everybody else watching is ready.
Braves fans have seen it thousands of times. So many times, it’s hard to imagine not seeing it anymore. But after the Braves close the last homestand of the regular season this weekend against the Mets, those walk-ups are numbered.
Even in a sport that relishes routine, Jones has been a constant. Not much has changed in the figure he cuts at the plate, whether it was as a wiry 23-year-old helping to bring the Braves their first World Series title in 1995 or the 40-year-old with shoddy knees taking his farewell swings. Jones is as much a fixture in Atlanta as traffic on the Downtown Connector, humidity in the summertime and the chop.
The love affairs that last work two ways. To appreciate the one between a ballplayer and this city is to see it through his eyes, remembering how Jones got to Atlanta, why he stayed here all these years and why he thinks he’ll never really leave.
The assumption is that Jones grew up in rural central Florida a Braves fan. Actually, the Braves were third on his list, behind the Dodgers and Orioles — his dad’s two favorite teams — then his pick of the two teams then on national TV, between the Braves and Cubs.
But fate and a little geography planted a seed for the shortstop-turned-third baseman, who would become the Atlanta Braves’ only other No. 1 overall draft pick besides Bob Horner.
Jones was 15 years old on a June Saturday in 1987 when he set foot in his first major league stadium, Atlanta-Fulton County.
“I remember walking out through the tunnel and just thinking, ’My goodness, how green is that grass?’” Jones said. “And I looked around and I was like, ’I’m going to play on that field one day.’”
Before he and his American Legion teammates could get settled in their upper deck seats on the third base side, the Cincinnati Reds homered twice in the first four pitches off Doyle Alexander.
“Kal Daniels and Tracy Jones,” Jones recalls 25 years later, not needing to pause to remember who hit them.
The Braves took the lead in the bottom of the third inning on a three-run homer by Dale Murphy, which was followed by a brush-back pitch to Ken Griffey Sr., who proceeded to homer too. Reds pitcher Bill Gullickson hit the next batter — shortstop Andres Thomas — on the left shoulder with his next pitch.
A brawl ensued. Gullickson emerged from the pile-up with a bruise on the left side of his face and Thomas with a sprained ankle — and a future Hall-of-Fame switch-hitter realized what he wanted to do with his life.
“I was hooked,” Jones said.
That is probably why Jones reacted like he did to a phone call three years later, the day after graduation at the Bolles School in Jacksonville. He was at a beach house with his girlfriend and a few buddies, getting ready for their prom.
His high school baseball coach was calling. The Braves wanted to meet for dinner in two hours. So Jones spent his prom night eating dinner at the Olive Garden in Daytona Beach, Fla., with Braves scouts and his parents.
Then, like now, he had no regrets.
“You’re talking about probably the single biggest day of my life,” Jones said. “And it’s not prom.”
The Braves wanted to know if they drafted Jones No. 1 overall, would he sign?
“In a heartbeat,” was his response, and within a few hours, Jones and the team had worked out his $275,000 signing bonus, plus another $68,000 to offset college tuition.
That became the trusting model for how the player and his team have conducted business ever since. Jones gave the Braves year in and year out production and they gave him a chance to win, which they’ve done in all but two of his 19 seasons. He signed four long-term contracts, never once arriving at spring training of a free agent year without one.
Jones got a fire truck ride down Peachtree Street as a rookie, a National League MVP award and eight All-Star appearances. He played for a Hall of Fame manager in Bobby Cox and behind one of the best pitching staffs in history with Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, sharpening his baseball mind against some of the greats.
There was only one time in his 23 years with the organization when Jones questioned the franchise’s true interest in him and it lasted as long as it took him to call a meeting. The Braves had just won their 12th straight division title in 2003 and were looking to shed payroll. His name popped up in trade rumors. Jones had 10-and-5 rights as a veteran player, meaning he could veto any trade, but didn’t want to stay if he wasn’t wanted.
“I called John [Schuerholz] and Stan [Kasten] in one time just to ask them,” Jones said. “’Are you getting calls? Are you considering trading me? Are you cutting payroll?’ They assured me that while some moves might be made, I wasn’t considered one of them.”
Jones has lived in Atlanta since 1992 when he and his first wife, who was from Atlanta, got married. “I think we suit each other,” Jones said of Atlanta, citing both his and the city’s laid-back attitude and a love of the outdoors.
It was the end of that marriage that tested his relationship with Atlanta fans, after he admitted to an extramarital affair that resulted in a son. But how he took responsibility for his actions and the directness with which he handled himself through the media won many of them back.
“I don’t presume to live in a glass house,” Jones said. “I messed up. I moved on. But I think you garner a certain amount of forgiveness when you stand up and you say you’re sorry. You say you messed up.”
Jones has endured the challenges of remaining in one place throughout his career, but he has also reaped rewards for it.
Jones will relive select moments of his career in the Braves video room, a 10-by-30 foot space outside the Braves clubhouse.
He fast-forwards through his walk-up song and his set-up and stops when the pitcher releases the ball. He’ll study the pitch, his swing and the flight of the ball, the home run, but usually just once. Then he’ll rewind it and watch the fans’ reaction.
The same way fans have watched Jones all these years, he’s been watching them too.
“That’s one of the things I will miss the most, is being able to step up to the plate with the game on the line and bring 40,000 people out of their seat with one swing,” Jones said. “It’s such an amazing feeling. It’s something that I’ve been rehearsing over and over in my mind since I was 4 or 5 years old.”
From that draft day in 1990 when Jones first put on a Braves cap, he has worn only a Braves’ uniform. It’s been the traditional one at that, with the exception of 70 games in 1992 when he wore a big “D” on his chest for the then-Braves affiliate Durham Bulls.
When Jones finally takes his uniform off at the end of this season, even he can’t imagine it will be for good. That just might be the last time for the spikes, something, say, a hitting coach wouldn’t have to wear.
“That’s why I don’t think I’ll get all that misty when I take the uniform off for the last time or I’ll walk out of the clubhouse for the last time,” Jones said. “I feel fairly confident that I’ll walk back through those doors and don that uniform again at some point.”