Monday, January 15, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Chipper Jones winds down career as beloved Atlanta Brave

They say everyone has a nickname in Pierson, a tiny northeastern Florida town known for its ferns and farming.

Atlanta Braves third baseman Larry "Chipper" Jones, 40, got his at an early age, when his mother, Lynne, grew tired of calling her husband "Big Larry."

"Someone said he was a 'chip off the old block,' " said Larry Sr., "and it just kind of stuck."

Jones unique name was also fitting, considering he'll wrap up his 19-year career this season with a special place among the game's all-time greats. Jones, who announced in March he plans to retire, continues his farewell tour tonight with his first trip to Tropicana Field since 2006. Most say Jones' journey will end in Cooperstown.

"He's a Hall of Famer, it's a no-brainer to me," said Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin.

"He's one of the best switch-hitters of all time," said Fred McGriff, who played with Jones in Atlanta for five seasons (1993-97). "The numbers speak for themselves."

Jones joins Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Stan Musial and Lou Gehrig as the only players in history to have a .300 career batting average with at least 450 homers, 500 doubles, 1,400 walks, a .400 on-base percentage and a .500 slugging percentage. He's one of two switch-hitters with 2,500 hits and 1,500 RBIs (Eddie Murray). Braves president John Schuerholz puts Jones in the same class as fellow third basemen Brooks Robinson and George Brett.

"There's only one Chipper," Braves scouting director Tony DeMacio said.

The seven-time All-Star has been honored by opponents on road trips this year, from video tributes (like he will get at the Trop), to receiving a Stetson cowboy hat in Houston and the Braves centerfield flag at Wrigley Field. Cardinals fans shocked Jones with a standing ovation.

"The guys were making fun of me that St. Louis is so classy that they mowed No. 10 into the grass for me," Jones said.

Schuerholz has seen Jones' No. 10 worn by kids "decade after decade" in Atlanta, an example of how he's one of the most beloved Braves, along with Hank Aaron, Eddie Matthews and Dale Murphy.

"For the last 20 years, the face of the franchise has been Chipper Jones," Schuerholz said. "I think that says it all."

•••

After moving from DeLand to Pierson when he was 4, it was in the cow pastures of his family's 10-acre ranch where Jones' legend was born, and his switch-hitting style was sparked. Along with his childhood friend and longtime agent B.B. Abbott, Jones would pretend to be Dodgers players (his dad's favorite team) in makeshift games with B.B., who mimicked the Big Red Machine hitters of Pete Rose, Joe Morgan & Co., alternating batting from the right and left side.

"I used to try to convince Chipper that Johnny Bench was a left-handed hitter," Abbott said, laughing.

The elder Jones, a former high school and college baseball coach, idolized Mickey Mantle, and he helped his son learn how to switch-hit like the Yankee legend. He pitched to Chipper, with the barn — a strike zone painted into it — as the backstop.

Atlanta had the No. 1 pick in 1990, and as the organization built its dynasty on pitching, conventional wisdom had Texas right-hander Todd Van Poppel being the selection. But Van Poppel had a high asking price.

"It was neck-and-neck," DeMacio said of the draft room debate. "But it was Bobby (Cox), who said, 'We're taking Chipper.' "

Jones was at his Jacksonville Bolles High prom the night before the draft when he got the call that the Braves wanted to sign him. DeMacio, then an Atlanta scout, told the senior they could go to dinner anywhere he wanted, and Jones requested Olive Garden. The signing meeting took an hour — Jones asked for $300,000, the Braves offered $250,000. They met in the middle, roughly $1 million less than Van Poppel got from the A's at No. 14.

"And the rest," DeMacio says, "is history."

•••

Former Braves teammate Ron Gant said Jones seemed comfortable with being a No. 1 pick.

"There are a handful of guys that make the game look easy," said Gant, who played 16 seasons and now is an MLB Network analyst. "And he was one of those guys."

Jones helped lift the Braves to the World Series title in 1995, racking up 23 home runs and 86 RBIs, finishing second in rookie of the year voting.

"I just remember, at such a young age, he seemed like a veteran," said Larkin, an ESPN analyst. "Everything about him was smooth. We'd try to turn him to the right side (hitting), and it'd come back to bite us."

McGriff said Jones was a rare switch-hitter who was equally tough from both sides of the plate (he entered this season batting .305 against lefties, .304 against righties), helping the Braves win 13 consecutive division titles.

"We had a lot of talented guys in our lineup, but none that seemed always able to rise to the occasion and deliver the goods like Chipper Jones could do," Schuerholz said.

Jones garnered the respect of opposing fans and players, with Larkin saying he was "one of the guys I wanted to play with."

Said Rays bench coach Dave Martinez: "If you had to pick one player you wanted to emulate your career after, he'd be one of those guys."

•••

Abbott said it took a "perfect storm" for Jones to be a lifelong Brave, from the give-and-take in contract talks, to the long-lasting relationships that were built. Cox, the general manager who drafted him, was Jones' manager for most of his career, and Schuerholz was there from the beginning.

"If you were to tear his chest open, you'd see a heart bleeding Braves colors," Schuerholz said. "This guy is a true Brave. He could have gone anywhere, and we could have let him go. But he didn't and we didn't."

Abbott said Jones, the 1999 NL MVP, has pondered retirement for a while, considering he's "been playing hurt for three years." Jones has other passions, including his family and hunting. He has a TV show, Major League Bowhunter, and owns a 10,000-acre property, "Double Dime" ranch in Texas.

"I always ask him what he loves more, baseball or hunting, and it sometimes takes him a while to answer," Abbott said.

But Jones, reinvigorated in his final season, also loves his teammates, and winning, and wanted one last shot, especially after the Braves' September collapse last fall left a "sour taste in his mouth," Abbott said.

"He said, 'I'm going to put it on the field every single day, and hopefully finish the way we started,' " Abbott said of a world championship. "That would be storybook. A movie would be coming, I'm sure."

 
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