Dozens of young players in Israel Baseball’s enrichment program enjoyed a treat this week when former Atlanta Braves center fielder Andruw Jones ran a practice for them.
“As a special assistant to the Braves general manager,” notes Jones, “I spend a lot of time talking the language of baseball to kids, showing them the fundamentals. I have a good understanding of this game, but not matter who you are, you never have a full understanding,” he says, stressing the importance of constant improvement.
A trip to Israel had been percolating with Jones for several years thanks to a close Israeli friend living in the United States. The push came in the form of that friend’s brother’s wedding. “I have a lot of Jewish friends and I’ve always wanted to come to Israel,” says Jones. “Coming to Israel with an Israeli meant I could enjoy it more, get the local perspective and eat hummus instead of McDonald’s.”
Jones spent two hours sharing his knowledge and expertise with the local players under the hot June sun at the Baptist Village in Petah Tikva. He moved from group to group, offering hands-on coaching tips, from how to be an effective short stop, to the best way to field a fly ball in the outfield, to how to maximize batting practice. He answered a slew of questions, and kept the players riveted as he shared his experiences with them.
The Curaçaoan-born Jones, 41, toured Israel with close friend and sports agent Orlanda Cepeda, Jr.
Before heading to the field for the practice, Jones chatted about his time in Israel. With a nod at Cepeda, his very tall travel companion, he laughed: “One of the highlights for me was seeing my big friend floating on top of the water” in the Dead Sea. He was also struck by the proximity of the conflict in Syria following a trip to the northern border at Quneitra. “The army took us really close to the border and we could see what was happening on the other side. It was eye opening.”
Jones’ visit comes just a few months after Seattle Mariners’ Robinson Cano visited Israel and spent time with the Israeli players. “Cano went home and told many friends and colleagues about his positive experience with our players in Israel,” says Peter Kurz, the President of the Israel Association of Baseball. “We hope that Andruw Jones’ visit is one of many more to come now that the word about our local program has spread among the major league community in the United States.”
The former Atlanta Braves outfielder grew up on the Caribbean island of Curaçao. In 1993, at the age of 16, he signed with the Atlanta Braves organization. After three years in the minor leagues, he debuted with the Braves in 1996. In Game 1 of that year’s World Series, Jones became the youngest player ever to hit a home run in the postseason, and the second player ever to homer in his first two World Series at bats in the 12-1 victory over the New York Yankees.
He was just getting started. His long list of achievements in his 11 years with the Braves includes being a 5-Time All-Star (2000, 2002–03, 2005–06); a 10-Time National League Gold Glove Award Winner (1998-2007); leading the majors with 51 home runs in 2005; the National League Silver Slugger Award in 2005, the National League Hank Aaron Award as the league’s best offensive player in 2005; and many more. After leaving the Braves, between 2008 and 2012 he played for the LA Dodgers, the Texas Rangers, the Chicago White Sox and the New York Yankees.
As a player on the 2013 World Baseball Classic Team Netherlands, and a bench coach for the team in 2017, Jones was very familiar with Team Israel at last year’s tournament, because his team faced them twice – once in the first round, which ended in a victory for Israel, and then in the second round, where Netherlands turned the tables and won. His connection goes even further back because, he recalls, Team Israel manager Jerry Weinstein was his coach in junior collage in 1989-90.
But last year’s rivalry didn’t stop Jones from being excited about Israel baseball and the trajectory local players are on. “Hopefully I will see one of you guys playing in the major leagues,” he told the excited crowd of players following the practice. “There is talent here,” he said of the players he had coached. “I can see it in their eyes, they’re willing to learn. The game is here.”