• Exclusives

    Chipper stands a step above them all

    By Bud L. Ellis

    Chipper Jones debuted in the big leagues as a shortstop in1993

    ATLANTA — In the spring of 1994, a 21-year-old converted shortstop found himself trying to make a major-league roster. At the same time, a 21-year-old college student found himself trying to make his mark as sports editor of his college newspaper.

    And on the airwaves that spring, a song worked its way toward the top spot on the charts.

    Whenever a radio station dials up one of those “90s Weekends,” it’s only a matter of time before the sounds of Counting Crows filters through the speakers, singing of “Mr. Jones and me …”

    That former shortstop, one Larry Wayne Jones Jr., would not make the Atlanta Braves’ opening-day roster, a knee injury suffered in March scuttling a season that would be shelved by a player’s strike five months later. A few blocks up Capitol Avenue from old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, this correspondent tried to wrap his arms around covering more than a dozen Division I sports for the weekly fishwrapper at Georgia State University.

    And whenever I heard “Mr. Jones and me,” I thought about the player Atlanta had made the top overall pick in the June 1990 draft (one year before I graduated from high school), and I thought of myself (one with far less ability to hit a curveball), and I wondered where this long, meandering road called life would lead.

    Fast forward to today, on a sun-splashed spring day in 2012. Chipper Jones sat at a table in the press box in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., and confirmed what many of us have speculated, pondered and debated for the better part of the past three years:

    Chipper’s hanging up his spikes at the end of the upcoming season.

    I hung up my newspaper press pass a few years earlier, moving on to another chapter of my life. Whether I was a young scribe trying to elbow my way through the press scrum in the old crowded locker room at the old stadium, or writing stories in the Turner Field press box, or chatting it up in the dugout at spring training, I was blessed to cover some of the best players this generation has witnessed.

    But Chipper stands a step above them all.

     

    In 2000, I sat in the overflow press seating at Turner Field, covering the All-Star Game. Three weeks earlier, on assignment covering a weekend series, I had talked to Chipper and several other Braves about the upcoming Midsummer’s Classic, and how cool it would be to play the game in your home park. Chipper spoke that Sunday morning with the same enthusiasm I see today from my two Little League-playing sons on gameday.

    Three weeks later, Chipper went 3-for-3 with a home run in the All-Star Game. The picture of him following the flight of his home run adorned the front page of our special game section the next morning, my game story sitting next to it. That front page hangs in my office to this day.

    The previous year, Chipper rose to new heights, carrying an injury-depleted Braves team to its fifth pennant of the decade. Jones hit .319 with 45 homers, winning NL MVP honors. More personally to me, Chipper helped push the Braves into the World Series, giving me a chance to cover my first and only Fall Classic.

    In 1995, I found myself sitting in the upper reaches of the old stadium for the World Series, as a fan. And here was Jones, 19 months removed from ripping apart that knee in spring training, starting at third base and batting third for a powerhouse team that won Atlanta its first major professional sports world championship.

    Thirteen years after Chipper rode amid the ticker tape down Peachtree Street, he had morphed into the only viable reason to watch the Braves. Atlanta struggled mightily in 2008, losing 90 games for the first time in 18 seasons. I know. I watched and blogged about every game for a website, and for the final six weeks, Chipper’s pursuit of a batting crown was the only compelling reason to watch.

    Jones got there, winning the title with a .364 average. It was yet another notch on a belt full of accomplishments, a list that makes Chipper a slam-dunk, no-questions-asked first-ballot Hall of Famer. These eyes have seen a lot of ball in the past 30-plus years, but Chipper stands at the head of the class.

    He didn’t take steroids. He didn’t dog it on the field. He gave everything he had, remaining loyal to the organization that made him the top pick so very long ago. He restructured his contract. He changed positions. He did everything you would want a leader to do, and he did it with a part-swagger, part-grin that drove opponents crazy, and made you feel blessed he was wearing your team’s uni.

    Like so many times whenever I heard that old Counting Crows song during my college years, I don’t know where the road will take me. But I know where I will be on Sept. 30: standing in Turner Field with my two sons, at the final home game of the 2012 season, to say thank you to the greatest Atlanta Brave to ever don the tomahawk.

    Like the song says, “We all want to be big stars, but we don’t know why and we don’t know how.” Chipper Jones figured out how, and the end result is a career that those of us fortunate enough to see it unfold will never forget.

    –30—

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    Follow Bud L. Ellis on Twitter @bud006