“Are you saying you’re sorry?”
I’m standing in a spacious Texas Rangers clubhouse, on a gorgeous spring morning, speaking to a trim and talkative Andruw Jones.
His legs are back. His smile is back. Even his -- gasp -- swing might be back.
Later this day at Surprise Stadium, he will stroke through a fastball from new Dodger Claudio Vargas, driving it off the left-field bullpen roof for his first home run of the spring.
A nasty bite of the hand that still feeds him $22 million.
Haunting Frank McCourt still.
Jones seems to know this, he seems to sense that no matter what happens, last season will follow him like a swatch of toilet paper stuck to his cleats. He spends the last 20 minutes of his morning conversation hinting at remorse and regret, and I finally just have to know.
“Are you saying you’re sorry?”
Are you sorry for showing up at spring training looking like a blue manatee? Sorry for not working hard enough to fix that weight? Sorry for ripping the fans who booed you for that weight? Sorry for asking to be put on the disabled list so you could disappear from those boos?
The Dodgers gave you $36.2 million, and in exchange you gave them a batting average of .158, three home runs and 25 extra pounds, and so you’re finally sorry?
Andruw Jones pauses. He looks down. He wraps his fingers tight around the handle of a bat. He nods.
“Yes, you could put it that way,” he says. “Yes, in fact, put it exactly that way.”
“Put it what way?”
“I am sorry I didn’t stand up to my reputation,” he says. “I am sorry for what I put everyone through. I am sorry I did not make it work.”
A couple of hours later Monday, upstairs in a spartan suite, moments after Jones hit his home run, I convey this apology to Dodgers General Manager Ned Colletti.
Now it is Colletti’s turn to pause, to look down, to tighten his grip.
“Humbleness is a nice trait,” he finally says, and leaves it at that.
The first thing you notice about Andruw Jones this spring is the one thing you don’t notice.
“He showed up missing a boiler,” a Rangers official says.
“Like night and day,” Rangers hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo says.
Jones smiles; it seems all he does here is smile.
“Oh, I lost quite a few pounds,” he says. “Somewhere in the 20s.”
Now he loses the weight. Now he hits the home run. Now he is being paid $500,000 plus incentives, the deal of the year if he performs. Wonderful.
By leaving the Dodgers this winter after requesting and receiving his release with deferred payments, Jones shed more than a few pounds.
“Last season was the worst year of my life, by far,” he says. “I got off on everybody’s bad side. I couldn’t turn it around. It really hurt.”
He had been the centerpiece winter signing, a slugger who could play a Gold Glove center field and swing a World Series bat, and I even wrote he was a bargain.
The moment I saw him in spring training, I knew I was wrong. When he stepped to the plate at Holman Field, he was so fat, I audibly gasped.
“I know I was heavy, but I thought it would be OK,” he says. “I was light the previous year and didn’t do well. I thought the weight would work.”
It did not. He not only struggled, but looked enormously awkward in doing so.
The fans began lightly booing, Jones acted as if he didn’t care, then the booing grew strong, crazy strong, the worst Dodger Stadium booing of a Dodger that I have heard in 21 years of covering games there.
“I said I didn’t care, but I heard them, and it wasn’t any fun,” he says. “I’ve never known a home player to be booed like that.”
By the middle of September, after a knee surgery and a minor league stint and more boos, he went to Manager Joe Torre with a request.
“I said, ‘Joe, I just need to go home,’ ” Jones recalls.
He was sent home, never to return, and if there’s ever any question why players love Torre, you should have seen him Monday when he was asked about Jones’ finger-in-the-eye homer.
“I’m happy for him,” Torre says. “I hurt for him last year. He is certainly a lot better guy than he was portrayed to be.”
There are several theories about Jones’ downfall.
Although he has denied using performance-enhancing drugs, his weight gain and power decrease are classic symptoms of steroid users who suddenly stop.
As a kid from Curacao who had spent his major league life with the Atlanta Braves, he also had difficultly adjusting to his first new city and new team.
“It was his first time out of the nest, he felt a great deal of pressure, and he dug his own hole,” Torre says.
Jones says it was a mixture of things.
“I think it took me a year to realize that I was no longer in Atlanta,” he says. “By then, it was too late.”
Everyone involved says there was no way he could return.
Says Jones: “I became too much of a distraction, I could never get past it.”
Says Colletti: “He was not up to repeating this experience in Los Angeles.”
Like Torre says, Andruw Jones is not a bad guy. In fact, he seems like a pretty good guy who made some bad decisions.
So he moves on, but not so fast, as Dodgers fans at the Rangers’ spring home Monday surrounded him with, yes, more boos.
At least, I think those boos were for him.
In his first plate appearance, in a matchup straight from Colletti’s worst nightmares, in a duel that represented potentially 83 million lost Dodgers dollars, Jones faced a guy named Jason Schmidt.
Who struck him out looking