• Exclusives

    Cooperstown Bound: The Incredible Career of Chipper Jones

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The crowd gathered around the 23-year-old peach-fuzzed kid, who stared into the sea of microphones and cameras, and responded to question after question following a four-hit, four-RBI performance to help lift his team to victory.

    Part of that media scrum late in the evening on June 6, 1995, inside the cramped no-frills locker room of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, included a 22-year-old peach-fuzzed kid holding a pen and a notepad. At some point amid the back-and-forth, the novice reporter summoned up the courage to ask the young baseball player what he hit to drive in two runs in a bases-loaded fourth inning, and followed up with a question about approach given that hit came on the first pitch while the other four at-bats of the night were worked deep into the count.

    The kid in the spotlight provided a quick analysis of his performance, giving the kid holding the notebook a couple of quotes that would land in a college newspaper’s weekly summary of recent Braves games.

    Some 277 months after that exchange, both those kids have kids of their own, are immersed into new realities, carry a few extra pounds and, yes, both have facial hair tinged with gray. Welcome to middle age, Chipper Jones, who Sunday will take his rightful place in baseball’s Hall of Fame, the crowning achievement of a 19-year career which produced a World Series title, an MVP award, All-Star games and 10,614 plate appearances – all with one team.

    The blunt numbers scream Hall of Famer, but for Chipper Jones – a kid from Pierson, Fla. – it goes far beyond just the raw data. It goes to something etched on a plaque hanging in my Braves Room, a quote that sums up the essence of Jones’ relationship with the team he signed with in 1990, the team I’ve loved since the late 1970s and a team that I covered a bit from time to time during a previous life.

    “I’m a southern kid and I wanted to play in a southern town where I felt comfortable.”

    That comfort level brings much discomfort for opposing fanbases, most notably the one who pledges allegiance to the New York Mets. Chipper made a livelihood out of crushing the Mets, from hitting 49 career homers against the team from Flushing in 245 games to his famous smash job against New York during the 1999 race for the National League East title, in which he belted seven homers while hitting .400 with a 1.510 OPS in 12 games.

    But this story goes beyond the numbers. It goes to a relationship between father and son, the elder imparting wisdom and spinning yarns of heroes of yesteryear, of games watched together, of batting practice and little league and travel ball, of going away to play baseball in high school, of growing up and making mistakes and learning to be a man – lessons we have to learn regardless of athletic prowess or lack thereof.

    For me, it goes to the moments. I saw his first major-league hit – Sept. 14, 1993 against the Reds, in the midst of the last great pennant race, a chopper to third base that Juan Samuel could not field in time to throw out the fleet-footed switch-hitter. I saw his last major-league hit – Oct. 5, 2012 against the Cardinals in the NL wild-card game (a game remembered for the worst officiating call I’ve witnessed in 40 years of attending and covering sporting events), another infield single in his final at-bat as a major-leaguer.

    In between, I was fortunate to be in the building when Chipper celebrated winning two pennants and a World Series championship, was a member of the press asking him about the disappointment of losing the first two World Series games at home in 1999, covered him belting a home run in Atlanta in the 2000 All-Star game, and countless other moments as fan and sports writer that are blurred by the passage of time.

    During that stretch, I grew up, got married, became a dad, changed careers and started coaching baseball. Chipper is one of a select few I always pointed to when players and parents would ask for somebody in the majors for their children to watch and learn how to play the game. He never took a pitch off, wanted to be in the lineup every day, wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, and put his heart and soul into every game in which he took the field.

    Friday night, I sat in SunTrust Park with my oldest son. Jonny Venters, who the Braves acquired from Tampa Bay the night before, made his first appearance with Atlanta since that 2012 wild-card game. When I showed my son a tweet by Kevin McAlpin of 680 The Fan and 93.7 FM stating how long it had been since Venters pitched for the Braves, my son immediately replied: “Chipper’s final game.”

    It was interesting to watch the All-American boy with the good looks and the immense talent grow up before our eyes. Consider the greats of that era of Braves baseball. Glavine was drafted in 1984. Smoltz was traded for in 1987. Neither transaction moved the needle because, to be blunt, the Braves were irrelevant in a town captivated with Hawks basketball (and I loved me some Atlanta’s Air Force back then) and college football and little else, especially a baseball team that finished buried in the old NL West every year from 1985-1990.

    Maddux? Sure, that was a huge move, but it came in the winter following the 1992 season, after the Braves had captured the city’s heart and soul with two consecutive NL pennants. Cox? He managed here from 1978-1981, left for Toronto, then came home to serve as general manager starting in 1986 until he moved back to the dugout in 1990, during the aforementioned awful years. Even Schuerholz, the architect of that worst-to-first 1991 squad, had been here nearly three full seasons before Chipper arrived.

    The point being: Chipper went from start to finish in the midst of one of the greatest runs in American pro sports history, with all eyes on him, with the pressure of a city and a fanbase eager to shake its reputation of being a bad sports town. And Chipper delivered, often in dramatic, “did you see that?!” fashion. Even his last homer, the walkoff blast off Jonathan Papelbon on the Sunday before Labor Day in 2012, still elicits tremendous emotion nearly six years later.

    I started my third year of college as a 20-year-old when I sat in old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and watched Chipper leg out an infield single for his first knock in the majors. I sat in Turner Field as a 39-year-old husband and father of two, with my oldest son by my side, when Chipper legged out an infield single in the ninth inning of the 2012 wild-card game in his final at-bat.

    Off the field, Chipper made his share of mistakes. His biography, “Ballplayer,” written by the fantastic former Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer Carroll Rogers Walton – who was more than kind to a young sportswriter trying to find his way once upon a time – is a tremendous tell-all of that side of the guy who went from hot-shot, cocky top prospect to franchise icon.

    And now the journey arrives this weekend in Cooperstown, and enshrinement in the hall of baseball immortals. I’ll spend Sunday in a hotel room next to SunTrust Park at a private watch party before the Braves game with the Dodgers, and I’ll lift a glass in honor of a player who brought this fanbase so much joy for two decades.

    Seventy-eight days after Chipper’s first big-league hit, a song was released that played constantly on radio during my college days. “Mr. Jones” became Counting Crows’ biggest hit, and I think often of this lyric from that song anytime I think about Chipper’s journey:

    “We all wanna be big stars,

    “But we don’t know why, and we don’t know how,

    “But when everybody loves me,

    “I wanna be just about as happy as I can be.”

    Suffice to say, Chipper became one of the biggest stars of all. And it sounds like he’s happy with his life. Any of us who go through life pray for happiness and contentment. That transcends any success we find in our chosen profession. As someone who is in that place, I’m so happy Chipper has found that peace.

    Sunday, in a small village in upstate New York, he will cement his rightful place amid the greatest of the greats. And to think, we’ve been watching this journey for a quarter-century.

    Well done, kid.

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.