• Hall of Fame

    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.

    Hoss not ready for pasture just yet

    By Jonathan Michael Knott

    As you have no doubt heard by now, veteran third baseman Chipper Jones recently ended speculation that he might retire after this season by announcing his intention to play one more year at the “hot corner” for the Braves.

    While I was pleasantly surprised by the news–I honestly thought he would hang it up after this season–I was even more surprised by the mixed reaction within Braves nation.  Many fans, like me, are delighted to know that we’ll see old “Hoss” in the lineup for at least one more year.  There were other Braves fans, however, who weren’t nearly as pleased by the news.

    The naysayers feel he’s too often injured and too many miles past his prime to be worth the kind of cash he pulls down. They argue that the 13 mil due Chipper next year is simply too much cheddar, given his current production, and that money could be better spent on younger talent if he would step aside.  Some go as far as to say he OWES it to the team to step aside and let someone else play.  But would the Braves really be better off without him?

    We all know what he has meant to this team through the years. Have a look at this Hall of Fame resume, starting with his career numbers: .305/.403/.533/.937, 2,589 hits, 519 doubles, 449 homers and 1,549 RBI. And those stats would look even more impressive if not for a catastrophic knee injury, which sidelined him for a year and half in the prime of his career.  Among switch hitters, he is second all-time in RBI’s and third in homeruns. Only two switch hitters, Mickey Mantle and Eddie Murray, have accomplished more on a baseball diamond than Chipper Jones, and they’ve both been enshrined in Cooperstown.

    Jones' 1,549 RBI are 2nd-most all time among switch hitters

    His trophy case is well stocked. He was the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1999, and a strong case could be made that he deserved to have at least one more MVP trophy on his mantle than he was ever awarded.  He’s earned 2 Silver Slugger awards, a batting title, and he’s been named to 6 NL all-star teams.  And then there was the crime of the century in ’95, when Chipper was robbed of Rookie of the Year honors. The ROY award that year went to an experienced professional Japanese pitcher, Hideo Nomo (to call Nomo a “rookie” is akin to calling Kobe Bryant an “amateur athlete” when he suits up for the U.S. Olympic basketball team).

    But yes, I know… none of that matters NOW, right?  In this era of the stat-driven fantasy baseball fan, the question is almost always “what has he done for us lately?”

    Glad you asked. For the month of August, he’s hitting .386 with a 1.059 OPS in 57 at-bats. Obviously, the old man is still quite capable of going on a tear.

    I will concede that his year-to-date stats,.281/.352/.472/.823 with 13 HR and 58 RBI in 97 games, while solid, fall well short of his career averages.   But a closer look at the numbers paints a clearer picture of his value to this ballclub.  He’s batting .221 with the bases empty. Not pretty. And that, in and of itself, may support the contention that he ought to retire.  HOWEVER, add a baserunner to the equation and we get a different hitter. Chipper’s currently hitting .365 with runners on base, .397 with runners in scoring position, .370 with RISP and 2 outs, and .500 with the bases loaded.

    By Chipper’s own admission he’s not quite the player he used to be, but he still possesses the same 20-15 vision for which the legendary Ted Williams was known, and there is nothing wrong with his bat speed.

    He can still play the field too. He’s no DH, folks.  While he’s lost a little range from side to side, he compensates with great instincts, and he still makes the charging-barehanded-pickup play as well as anyone in the game.

    At 13 mill, is he overpriced? Maybe. Maybe not.  But how many other hitters at that salary level would you rather have with a bat in his hands with the game on the line?  Anyone?  Take Yankees Shortstop Derek Jeter, for instance.  Jeter, who will earn several million more than Jones next year, is nowhere near the clutch performer at age 37 that Chipper is at age 39.  Jeter’s teammate, Mark Texieria, earns nearly twice as much as Chipper, and while his overall numbers are better… with the game on the line, I’d still rather have #10 in the box.

    And let us not forget the intangibles.  Chipper is the leader of this team, the face of this franchise and the unofficial assistant hitting coach.  Chipper is the elder statesman and a valuable mentor to younger players, who is skilled at offering up both encouragement and tough love, each in just the right dose.  On a team with 10 players who are 25 years of age or younger, what do you suppose that’s worth? 

    And to those who suggest it’s somehow greedy for Chipper not to retire at season’s end… “greedy”?  Really? Are we talking about the same “greedy” player who voluntarily restructured his contract to take less money so the team could add more talent? The same “greedy” all-star third baseman who once offered to relocate to left field (an offer the team accepted), so the Braves could add the bat of fellow heavy-hitting third baseman Vinny Castilla to the lineup?

    Chipper has bloody well earned the right to play out the remainder of his contract. Braves fans should appreciate that. We owe him our love, respect and support.  To suggest that he’s playing solely for a paycheck would be inconsistent with everything we’ve learned about him over the past 17 years.  He’s not returning for one more season merely because he has the contractual right to do so. He’s playing because he feels he can still help this Atlanta Braves ballclub. And he’s right.

    But if you’re still anxious to see Chipper clear the way for a younger replacement, don’t worry; you’ll get your wish soon enough.  For now, though, do yourself a favor and drive down to “The Ted” to watch this man play while you still can.  Bring your kids, and make sure they understand they’re watching one of the greatest third basemen and one of the greatest switch hitters to ever play the game.

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    Jersey retirement one more chance for fans to say ‘Thanks, Bobby’

    By Bud L. Ellis

    ATLANTA – They filled every nook and cranny of the ballyard that once upon a time was merely a paved patch of smartly lined parking spaces.

    Old. Young. Many who have never known, until this April, an Atlanta Braves team not managed by one Robert Joseph Cox. And some who may actually recall a soon-to-be 37-year-old managing the Braves to a 13-4 loss against Los Angeles on April 10, 1978, his first game as a major-league skipper.

    How fitting that the Dodgers’ winning pitcher that opening day so long ago, one Don Sutton, would stand behind the mic Friday evening on a temporary stage in the infield at Turner Field, that former parking lot that now calls itself the home of the Braves. And the man they turned out to honor indeed has changed in the past 33 years.

    Legendary former Braves manager, Bobby Cox

    More importantly, a baseball franchise and a city has evolved in that 1/3rd of a century, directly due to the guiding hand and fierce will to win of Bobby Cox, whose No. 6 took its rightful place high above the left-field seats, retired forever more. Friday’s jersey retirement ceremony gave a grateful franchise and an appreciative city one more chance to say “Thanks Bobby.”

    And in true Bobby Cox form, he deflected the accolades cast upon him by friends, family, former players and more than 50,000 fans. He started his thank-you speech by nodding toward Fredi Gonzalez, the first Braves’ manager not named Bobby Cox since Russ Nixon was relieved of his duties in June 1990, a move that brought Cox out of the general manager’s seat and back to his rightful place:

    The dugout.

    It would be Cox’s second tour of duty at the helm, his first a rough four-year stretch from 1978-1981 that resulted in three sub-.500 seasons. But Cox laid the foundation for a team that in 1982 under another young manager (some fella named Joe Torre) took baseball by storm, winning its first 13 games of the season and capturing the NL West Division title, just the Braves’ second postseason berth since fleeing Milwaukee for the Peach State in 1966.

    Brought back to the Braves as general manager after four solid years as manager in Toronto – capped by 99 victories and an AL East title in 1985 – Cox oversaw what would turn out to be a transformation of a struggling franchise into a model that became the envy of all of baseball. “The Braves Way” was to play the game hard, win with class and lose with dignity, and always put forth an effort that made a franchise and its fanbase proud.

    Thirty-three years ago, Bobby Cox managed a 97-loss team playing in a mostly empty stadium. Friday night, in a place that once sat as a mostly empty parking lot, Bobby Cox stood and received the ultimate honor a franchise can bestowe upon one of its own.

    —30—

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