On the occasion of Chipper Jones’ election to the Baseball Hall of Fame — which came Wednesday with a whopping 97.2 percent of the vote — two vintage Chipper games, 17 years apart:
• October 3, 1995: Jones is playing third in his first-ever playoff game for the Atlanta Braves, and this year, they’ve drawn the Colorado Rockies in the first round. The game’s in Colorado, where multi-run innings lurk on every pitch. Bottom of the eighth, two Rockies on base. Andres Galarraga chops the second pitch he sees right at the 23-year-old rookie, but Jones keeps his composure and cuts down the lead runner. The Braves escape the inning only giving up one run, and in the top of the ninth, Jones rips a solo home run — his second of the game — to deep left center. The Braves win, 5-4, and 13 games later, they’ll be World Champions.
• July 3, 2012: It’s Chipper’s final season, his final Independence Day homestand, and on this day, he turns in what he calls the most complete game of his entire career: five-for-five, including two doubles, and two infield assists in a 10-3 victory over the Cubs. Three months later, he’ll walk away from the game for good.
The first game showed the world he was a rising force. The second showed he was the ultimate Brave. And Jones can still recall every detail of both; they’re burned into his memory, the same way Jones’ own saunter, smirk, and swing are burned into the memories of three generations of Braves fans. Even now, any time an Atlanta fan hears the opening chords and “All aboard! Aye! Aye! Aye!” of “Crazy Train,” Jones’ walkup music for his 5,000-plus plate appearances in Atlanta, there’s the urge to say, “Now batting … number 10 … CHIPPER JONES.”
“Crazy Train” is an appropriate anthem for Jones; he spent most of his career as the train, reliable, relentless, and unstoppable. Off the field, he got — by his own admission — a little too crazy, and it’s only in the last few years that his life is back on track.
As anyone who collected baseball cards in the early 1990s knows, the hottest prospect heading into the 1990 amateur draft was a Texas high school pitcher named Todd Van Poppel. The Braves made overtures to Poppel, but at this point in their history, the Braves stank so bad they made sewage smell like Thanksgiving dinner. Van Poppel said he wouldn’t play for the Braves, so they turned to their backup plan: a whippet-thin shortstop out of Jacksonville named Larry Wayne Jones Jr., nicknamed “Chipper.”
Twenty-eight years later, it’s safe to say the Braves’ backup plan paid off.
The Braves guided Jones ever upward through their farm system; he was the gem in a collection of young talent that the team promised would soon develop into champions. Jones got an eight-game cup of coffee at the end of the 1993 season, got dubbed “Golden Boy” by teammate David Justice, and entered 1994 with the realization that he might just be able to make a go of it at the major-league level.
“[Ron] Gant had been injured in [an offseason] motorcycle accident, and so they told me they were going to try me at third and left field,” Jones told Yahoo Sports. “That told me they wanted to get me in the lineup somewhere.” Jones’ confidence boomed … right up to the moment that he shredded his left knee legging out a spring training hit. He was done for the year, and, quite possibly, for much longer than that.
“It was a complete tear of the ACL,” Jones recalls. “Back then, in 1994, we didn’t know whether I’d be able to come back and play at the same level. It took me until midway through my rookie season before I regained my confidence.”
That confidence carried him through the next 17 seasons, through a 1999 MVP and a 2008 batting title, through 13 playoff berths — and, yes, only one world championship, thanks for pointing that out— and eight All-Star selections. He became a baseball icon, the finest switch-hitter since Mickey Mantle, and now, a near-unanimous selection to the Hall of Fame.
Through it all, through all the acclaim, Jones says he didn’t play for the individual honors, only the team. “I was concerned with only one thing, and that was what helped us win,” he says. “I looked at All-Star ballot voting every now and then, sure, but I didn’t look at my place in the game’s history.”
Jones preferred to focus on what was right in front of him rather than airy speculation: “The first time you walk into a stadium, you can look up there in the rafters and think about how it would feel to have your number retired,” he says, “but after that, I was immersed in the chess match of who I’d be facing that night.”
Jones punched out of baseball at age 40, still with pop in his bat; his OPS of .832 in 2012 bested each of the previous three seasons. He could have hung on a couple more years, jumped over to the American League, collected a fat paycheck for DH’ing. But that wasn’t ever his way; he committed to the Braves as a teenager, and he kept to that commitment for the next two decades.
“I never got to spring training of a free-agent year without a deal with the Braves,” Jones says. “I didn’t want to go anywhere else. It was a good marriage between myself and the Braves. They gave me a lot, and I tried to give back however I could.”
Amateur psychologists will note the irony of Jones describing his relationship with the Braves in marital terms; Jones’ off-field relationships were much more turbulent than anything that happened between the lines. The Golden Boy had gotten married young, and as his star rose, temptations grew too strong to resist.
“I was 25 years old [in 1997] and it was starting to hit me that I hadn’t experienced everything a guy in his twenties should have before settling down,” Jones wrote in his 2017 autobiography “Ballplayer.“ “I actually thought to myself, OK, screw it. I’m going to go out and make myself happy.”
Jones had, by his own admission, women scattered around the league, and fathered a child out of wedlock. He’s since apologized in print and in person, openly acknowledging the pain he brought to those who loved him — and he wishes he could give his younger self a few hard-earned lessons.
“I’d slap him upside his head and tell him to be a better person, a better teammate, a better husband, a better father,” Jones says. “To keep distractions and temptations out of arm’s reach. It cost me a lot. It cost me endorsements, but it cost me a lot more than that personally.”
Age has brought perspective, an awareness of the importance of family. After he retired, Jones sold his Double Dime Ranch in Texas and now lives in north Atlanta. He helms his own TV show, “Major League Bowhunter,” which gives him the chance to hunt with friends on-camera. He plays golf with his father and friends these days — a fella by the name of Smoltz tees it up with him every so often — and he runs all over the Atlanta suburbs going to the games and birthday parties of his six sons, all boys, aged 1 to 19. It’s a long, long way from the Braves clubhouse.
“I miss the 30 minutes before the game, the calm before the storm. I miss running out to my position at the top of the first, the excitement, the sights and smells of the ballpark,” he says. “But I’m so happy with my personal life, I don’t have an urge to get back into the uniform or the front office.”
Aside from a short stint talking to the Braves every spring training, the red-white-and-blue uniform stays on the hanger. Jones helps out with a touch of scouting for the amateur draft, and he hits about one game a homestand at SunTrust Park. It’s enough to stir the memories, but not enough to bring him back into the fold full-time. There’s hunting to be done, and there are carpools to be run. And Jones seems just fine with that.
“I am at peace,” he says, “moreso than you can possibly imagine.”
The Golden Boy is about to get cast in bronze … just like everyone always expected.
More Hall of Fame coverage from Yahoo Sports:
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