Braves honor retiring Chipper Jones tonight

Braves honor retiring Chipper Jones tonight

September 28th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Professional

Chipper Jones awaits his turn at bat against the Washington Nationals in the first inning at Turner Field in Atlanta, Georgia, on Friday, September 14.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

ATLANTA - The game never changed. Neither did the result.

In those days and years before Bobby Cox traded in his Atlanta Braves general manager's cap for that of manager, he and team scout Paul Snyder would play a little guessing game whenever they went to assess a potential draft pick.

"I would always tell Paul, 'Don't let me know which player we're looking at when they're exercising,'" Cox told the media a few months ago. "I wanted to pick them out, but I could never pick out the right guy."

Then came the spring of 1990, and Cox and Snyder found themselves at the prestigious Bolles School in Jacksonville, Fla., watching Chipper Jones.

"I told Paul, 'I think it's the third guy from the right in the first row,'" Cox recalled. "He said, 'You finally got one right.' But that was Chipper. He stood out like a sore thumb. He was a great athlete."

Twenty-two years later, the great athlete is saying goodbye to the only pro franchise he's ever played for, in and of itself a monumental achievement in the era of free agency, nine-figure contracts and fire sales when expectations fall short.

But when the Braves honor No. 10 this evening before a standing-room-only crowd at Turner Field before facing the New York Mets, none other than the guest of honor hopes this is a beginning rather than an end.

"I hope we can put together a long playoff run," the 40-year-old Jones said last week, mindful that a franchise that reached the World Series five times in the 1990s - winning it with him in the lineup in 1995 - hasn't returned there since 1999. "We're shooting for the stars. This team has big dreams, and I think we've got the talent to reach them."

Major League Baseball rarely has seen a greater talent than Larry Wayne Jones Jr. His career numbers - a .304 batting average, 1,623 RBIs, 2,724 hits, 468 homers, more game-winning hits than anyone in baseball the past 18 years, a .500 batting average (7-for-14) in All-Star Games - appear all but certain to make him a first-ballot Hall of Famer five years from now.

"I don't know how Chipper couldn't get 100 percent of the vote his first year of eligibility," said ESPN's Buster Olney, arguably the nation's premier baseball writer today.

"I know there will be people who'll say he didn't reach the big benchmarks of 3,000 hits and 500 home runs, but that's only because of injuries. He played third base on one of the most consistently great teams of the last two decades, is the best switch hitter of his generation and did it all without a hint of steroid use. How can anybody not vote for that?"

Added ESPN analyst Orel Hershiser: "Anybody who doesn't vote Chipper into the Hall of Fame is an idiot."

It all began the way a lot of athletic success stories used to begin in this country - on a family farm.

But what's made this native of Pierson, Fla. - "A one-caution-light town," Jones said - a real-life cross between the fictional baseball movies "The Natural" and "Field of Dreams" is his father, Larry Wayne Jones Sr.

That's how Chipper got his nickname, as in "a chip off the old block." It's also where he learned to hit, Larry handing the kid a sawed-off piece of PVC pipe for his first bat.

Beyond that, he also introduced his son to hunting and fishing, which has led Chipper to open the Double-10 Ranch in Texas.

So smitten was Larry and Lynn's only child with his father at that time that Larry could never beat his son to the front door when trying to sneak away for an early-morning hunt.

"Are you leaving without me?" Chipper would ask.

"Of course not," Larry would reply. "I was just going out to get the dogs. I couldn't leave without you."

But he wasn't about to coach his son at Taylor High School.

"I coached against Larry before Chipper came to us," said former Bolles coach Don Suriano. "He was a good baseball man. But he didn't want to be seen as one of those dads playing favorites to his son."

So Chipper went off to board at Bolles his sophomore year, suddenly forced to wear a coat and tie and grow up without mom and dad.

"They had one rule," Jones said recently of his parents, "and that was that coming home was not an option."

Jones became an all-state wide receiver on the Bulldogs football team. He led the baseball team to a state title his junior season and a return trip to the final game his senior year.

It's what happened the day before that final game that Suriano believes may have most led the Braves to use the No. 1 overall draft pick on him later that year and sign him for $400,000.

"We'd set up the whole tournament so that Chipper could pitch the final," Suriano said. "The day before the game, we're practicing and one of the older guys on the team is picking on one of the younger players out in the outfield. Chipper told him to stop, there was an argument and Chipper hit him. It wasn't a fight. It was one punch.

"But that night he came to me and told me his [pitching] hand was hurt. He'd broken it. I asked him if he thought he could pitch and he said yes. He threw the whole seven innings, but we ended up losing 3-2 because he couldn't get his breaking ball to work. But I think the toughness he showed that day was all the Braves needed to make him No. 1."

Chipper believes the workout he delivered in front of Cox and Snyder was bigger.

Recalling how he hit 20 homers in 25 batting-practice swings and barehanded a bad-hop grounder, Jones said, "I remember having the absolute most perfect day at the ballpark that I've ever had in my life while they were sitting in the stands. I remember thinking that if there is another guy on the planet that is better to take number one, then I want to see this guy."

Whether it was that workout or pitcher Todd Van Poppel telling the Braves he wouldn't sign with them, Chipper became a Brave, leading Cox to say this past spring, "I was so lucky to have guys like Chipper. It made my career."

It's a draft decision that's helped the Braves ever since, from Chipper's adoring fan base to his own numbers and the countless players he's helped along the way.

"I wouldn't be where I am today without Chipper," Braves catcher Brian McCann said. "Just his advice on hitting. The way he never lets us get too high or too low. He always gives you great advice, but he waits for you to ask. I can't imagine this team without him."

Former Brave Mark DeRosa, now with the Washington Nationals, recalls countless nights on the road with DeRosa and another former Brave and current National, Adam LaRoche, picking the eight-time All-Star's brain.

"He taught me how to watch video," DeRosa said. "How to approach every at-bat. I probably wouldn't be here right now without his help, and all you had to do was ask and he was always there for you."

If Jones returns to baseball in another capacity, Hershiser believes it should involve hitting.

"Chipper was one of the smartest hitters I ever faced, and I don't remember having much luck against him," said the 1988 Cy Young winner, perhaps remembering Jones went 4-for-8 against him with two homers.

"You could never outsmart him. He always seemed to be two pitches ahead of you. And he played to the score. If the Braves were three down, he wasn't trying to hit a home run. He just wanted to get on base and start a rally."

All of this, along with his rural Southern charm, has made Jones ridiculously popular in Atlanta, if not the entire nation. His No. 10 jersey has been MLB's biggest seller for the month of September. Friday night's game has been sold out for weeks.

"Other than Dale Murphy, I'd have to believe Chipper is the most popular Brave ever," said former Braves pitcher Tom Glavine, a fairly popular Brave himself. "Murphy's just the nicest guy ever, and everybody loves him. But they love Chipper, too, and I don't know that we'll ever see another player play their entire 19-year career for the same team. That's really special."

It hasn't all been perfect. Injuries - particularly in the past eight years - have cost Jones dearly in the career statistics department, not to mention their obvious negative impact on Atlanta's performances on the field.

From 1995 (his first full big-league season) through 2003, a span of nine years, he missed a total of 61 games, fewer than seven a season. From 2005 to Thursday night, he's missed 340 games, an average of 42.5 a season.

"When I'm at the plate, there are still plenty of days I feel as good as I ever have," said Jones, who this season has hit .292, clubbed 14 homers, driven in 62 runs and sparked at least five victories with last-inning hits.

"But when I get up in the morning my body, especially my knees, tells me I really am 40 years old and it's time to move on."

There's also the personal stuff that seems to plague too many rich and famous athletes and entertainers. His first marriage ended in divorce when it was discovered he'd been having an 18-month affair with a Hooters waitress that produced one son (14-year-old Matthew) out of wedlock.

After having three other sons - Trey, Shea and Tristan - with his wife (the former Sharon Logonov) of 12 years, Jones announced in June that the couple is separating.

Perhaps because of that, his children seem to be his biggest reason to leave the game now rather than possibly continue for another two or three years in the American League as a designated hitter.

"I want to be there for them," he told a baseball website earlier this month. "I want to be like my dad. And I need to do a better job, because he was there for me."

How much has Jones been missed at home while forging a Hall of Fame career over the past 19 summers?

"One thing I've never done with my family is go on a summer vacation," he told SportsonEarth.com. "What does that feel like? I want to know. And I want to do little things with them. Pick them up from school. Run pass patterns in the back yard. Shoot hoops. I'm looking forward to it."

But first comes one final playoff run, beginning with next Friday's wild-card game at Turner Field, most likely against the defending world champion St. Louis Cardinals. That's unless, of course, the Braves overtake the Nationals for the National League East title.

Part of the reason Jones has sat out more than 50 games this season is so, in his words, "I'd be ready to give my best in the postseason. I'd really like to help us get back to the World Series. It's been too long."

There is little doubt he still has the power at the plate to make that happen. On that Sept. 2 evening he smashed a walk-off home run against Phillies reliever Jonathan Papelbon, he told the media: "With two outs and the bases loaded in the ninth inning, I don't want anyone up there but me. That's the mentality I've always had, and that's never going to stop. I don't care if I'm 40 or 60."

Not that he wants to make too much of his final days as a Brave.

"I'm not giving any 'Win one for the Chipper' speeches," he said last week.

Beginning tonight, there should be plenty of those from everybody else.