• John Schuerholz

    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.

    Anthopoulos Hiring Restores Hope

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Alex Anthopoulos may never lead the Atlanta Braves to a World Series championship. But amid a dark and stormy winter, the new general manager of the disgraced franchise provided something during his first day on the job Monday that felt completely unattainable through the first six weeks of the worst offseason in team history.

    Hope.

    Capping a process that accelerated over the weekend and culminated in news breaking in the overnight hours, the 40-year-old sat behind a microphone at SunTrust Park on Monday afternoon, the 12th general manager in Braves history beginning a tenure that starts under immense scrutiny and the looming storm clouds of Major League Baseball’s investigation looming on the horizon.

    Braves Chairman Terry McGuirk introduced new Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos at Sun Trust Park on Monday

    Braves Chairman Terry McGuirk introduced new Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos at Sun Trust Park on Monday

    But even though there undoubtedly will be stiff penalties handed down and time will be needed for the paying public to move beyond the scandal, Anthopoulos and Braves chairman Terry McGuirk sounded all the right notes in Monday’s announcement. And for this organization, getting the optics right is almost as critical in the healing process.

    McGuirk began by apologizing to the Braves fanbase for the front office scandal that forced disgraced former general manager John Coppolella to resign on Oct. 2.  He remained tight lipped about the nature of the misdeeds, revealing only that he expects Major League Baseball to announce the findings of its investigation into the Braves’ rules violations, along with resulting penalties, within the next two weeks.

    As notable as who appeared during the 30-minute press conference was who did not speak. Team president John Hart was not on stage, having been removed of any influence on baseball decisions beyond an advisory role, a necessary move for a baseball lifer who either was guilty of letting Coppolella run amuck, or too disengaged to notice.

    Longtime general manager John Schuerholz was not present on stage, either. Longtime manager Bobby Cox sat in the audience along manager Brian Snitker.

    Let’s now pause to consider this for a moment. Today has to be the first time the Braves made a major announcement without Cox, Schuerholz and/or Hart offering the voice of the franchise since 1985, the season before Cox returned to Atlanta as general manager and a decade before Atlanta won its lone World Series title.

    For a disenchanted fanbase long-since sick of hearing about “The Braves Way,” this was the right move.

    So, too, is hiring Anthopoulos, who made his mark in Toronto as a general manager not afraid to swing and miss in firing on a big deal. There were more hits than misses in building a team that reached the AL championship series in 2015-16, and time spent in the Dodgers’ front office helping bring Los Angeles its first pennant since 1988 certainly helps, too.

    New Braves General Manager Alex Anthopoulos

    New Braves General Manager Alex Anthopoulos

    The fact Atlanta was able to hire Anthopoulos, one of the brighter young minds in baseball with a desire to win, is impressive. Given the current climate surrounding the franchise, it’s nothing short of a best-case scenario. For the fans, bloggers and columnists who have screamed for weeks about cleaning house and steering clear of a list of former GMs closer to retirement than relevance, this is about as good as it gets.

    Certainly, there is risk. Unless the Braves already have an idea what level of sanctions will be passed down, there is that uncertainty looming over whoever landed in the GM’s chair. There clearly are holes on the major-league roster, including the bullpen and third base and the needed move to clear room for Ronald Acuna in the outfield by March.

    But the upside is enormous, which Anthopoulos mentioned repeatedly in his opening address as GM. With baseball’s best farm system and opening revenue streams and a major-league roster already sprinkled with promising young and controllable talent, the national narrative on this day started shifting back to the pre-October storyline.

    The Braves are getting close. The better days are coming, and soon.

    The baseball decisions to come in the next few weeks will loom large for the 2018 season, one in which Atlanta looks to snap a four-season string of 90-plus losses while appeasing fans and business partners who will sting from the scandal and pending sanctions for some time to come. But at least Anthopoulos fills the gaping hole in the front office, consolidating control into a single voice, one that has built a pennant contender, one that was involved in a World Series run last month.

    And that guy holds the keys to the kingdom, one that does not seem as dire as it did before the weekend began. The honeymoon will not last long and he surely will be tasked with trading some of the overpacked pantry of prospects to address immediate needs. But in Anthopoulos the Braves have their man for the next four years.

    Again, they have hope.

    —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.

    The “Braves Way” Is Dead. Here’s the Path Forward from Scandal

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Nearly two weeks have elapsed since the house of cards once called the Atlanta Braves front office collapsed, blown away by a chorus of gale-force gusts produced by Major League Baseball’s ongoing investigation into allegations of scandalous behavior.

    We shall not invoke the name of the former general manager who resigned on the opening day of the offseason. I frankly do not care if he ever is heard from again, to be quite honest.

    But at some point, no matter how angry or embarrassed or betrayed or brokenhearted one is, you must look around at the altered landscape and assess the way forward. As the Braves leadership – using that term quite loosely – gathered in Orlando for its annual October organizational meetings, the focus undoubtedly was not so much on the 2018 roster as it was on how to emerge from the worst scandal in franchise history.

    Yes, it’s bad. It quite possibly may get worse once MLB announces its findings and subsequent punishments. No, it won’t set the franchise back a decade. Yes, it may rattle the very foundation that cracked a week ago Monday.

    But keep this in mind: SunTrust Park will be filled to capacity on March 29, 2018, when the Braves open the new season against Philadelphia. Advertisers likely are not leaving. No company with a business in The Battery is going to shut its doors.

    Liberty Media President and CEO Greg Maffei

    Liberty Media President and CEO Greg Maffei

    However, the Braves better be very aware their loyal fanbase – which has gone 22 years since experiencing a World Series title, 18 years without an NL pennant, 16 years with nary a postseason series triumph – looks at its baseball team with a skeptical eye in wake of this mess. Restoring that trust and unwavering support will not happen overnight, but there are a few things whoever is minding the store now and moving forward best keep in mind.

    Accountability

    We see it all the time, whether a public figure commits some sort of transgression or a corporation endures a security breach. Somebody gets behind a microphone, or writes a press release, or posts on social media some canned statement that says little.

    The Braves cannot go down that “blah, blah, blah” road. Somebody, be it John Hart or Terry McGuirk or John Schuerholz, better step up and own this. Pleasant? Nope. Necessary? Absolutely.

    Schuerholz is regarded by some as merely a figurehead driving deals for new stadiums and spring training complexes. Others think the Hall of Famer still is influencing baseball decisions. Hart, as director of the front office who was brought in to mentor the since-deposed GM, reports to McGuirk, the conduit between the faceless Liberty Media conglomerate and the baseball franchise it owns for purposes tax related.

    I have my doubts anybody on Liberty’s board of directors could name more than five players who wore an Atlanta uniform in 2017.

    Regardless, whoever serves as the mouthpiece moving forward better be open and honest. No corporate double-talk. The fans demand (and rightly deserve) to know who knew what, why this happened, what lessons have been learned and what is going to happen moving forward.

    And it better be sincere. If it’s bull, the fanbase will smell it from a mile away.

    Change

    Dumping the brash, somewhat disruptive and downright rude former GM was a no-brainer. Call it a resignation all you want, but the dude had no choice. In essence, he was fired, and he shouldn’t be the first one to pack their office.

    It is inconceivable to me and countless others I have talked to in recent days that this was a back-door, dimly lit, lone-wolf scenario. Those who knew the depth of the alleged transgressions had a moral obligation to speak up, and by not doing so, there must be payment.

    That payment amounts to taking a broom to the executive offices at SunTrust Park. Hart very well may view himself as a bridge to 2018. Schuerholz may fancy himself with a relevant role in the clean-up. McGuirk, who has not uttered a peep since the scandal broke, might feel far enough removed above the fray.

    Atlanta Braves Chairman and CEO Terry McGuirk

    Atlanta Braves Chairman and CEO Terry McGuirk

    Wrong, wrong and wrong. All three must go; if not now, certainly before spring training starts. If there ever was time to cut the cord from two decades ago, now is that time. Yes, that includes Bobby Cox, whose influence (along with Schuerholz) likely has played too much of a role in recent years, resumes and job titles be darned.

    And while we’re at it, once and for all, “The Braves Way” is dead and gone, never to be uttered again. It is worn out and rings hollower today than ever before.

    Contend

    This is easier said than done because, duh, every one of the 30 teams in baseball sets out to compete for a playoff spot each season. But arguably no team on the planet, in any league, at any level of the sport, needs a good 2018 season more than the Braves.

    Forty-eight months ago, Craig Kimbrel stood locked in the bullpen at Dodger Stadium as Los Angeles rallied for a victory that eliminated Atlanta from the NL Division Series. The great tear-down began a few months later, with the late years of this decade the target to return to the limelight with a team bolstered by young starts and a farm system plentiful in top prospects.

    There is no doubt the spotlight shines brightly on this franchise today, but for all the wrong reasons. Within that white-hot glow of scrutiny and skepticism, it may be easy to forget the Braves do have the best farm system in the majors, with several young players either already having ascended to the big leagues or sitting a year or two away.

    The right moves this offseason could accelerate the timeline to contention. That would not be a bad thing given how the Braves have screwed up the one thing that figured never to be shaken – its relationship with an adoring, loyal, generational fanbase that has waited patiently and trusted the process.

    That trust, that patience, is in scant supply these days. Even a run at a wildcard berth that carries beyond Labor Day would be a needed salve on the festering wound this scandal has left.

    The path forward may not be easy, but spare me the tears. The Braves deserve whatever punishment comes from this. The real question in my mind is how does the organization move forward.

    And you better believe we are watching. Closely.

    —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.