LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – If Chipper Jones is not a lion in winter, he’s damn sure a lion in late autumn. He’ll be 39 in April and his 17 years of major league service with one team is the most for any active player, one more than the Yankees’ Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada, or Boston’s Tim Wakefield.
He’s an Atlanta icon, the longest-serving uniformed Brave now with Bobby Cox retired from managing. Jones ranks third among switch-hitters with 436 homers and second with a .306 average, and he leads the majors with 206 game-winning RBI since 1995.
Widely considered to be one of the two or three best players to ever wear an Atlanta Braves uniform, Jones will likely be elected into the Baseball Hall of Famer someday.
But for now, he’s got his sights set on immediate goals. Jones is coming off season-ending surgery in August to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. He set out to defy skeptics who didn’t think he could come back strong, and so far he’s done that.
He’s had one of his best spring trainings, ranked among National League leaders with a .407 average, eight doubles, four homers and 15 RBIs in 59 at-bats before Monday..
I sat down with Jones for a candid, wide-ranging Q&A as the Braves prepared to leave spring training and get the season underway. This is the first part of the full interview, a smaller version of which is running in the Tuesday print edition of the AJC.
The second part of the full interview will be posted here Tuesday. Here we go:
Were you always the best player on your teams as a kid?
No. I played on a lot of teams where I played with older guys. When I was in Little League and 9 years old, I played with 11- and 12-year-olds. When I was 13, I was playing with 15- and 16-year-olds. When I got to the American Legion, I was 14 or 15 playing with 17- and 18-year-olds.
I think that was a big part of my development, the fact that all the way up through my adolescent years, I was playing against older, better talent and having to up my game to be able to hang with them.
What about as a pro?
Oh, no. I mean, on certain days back in the day, probably. But not on a consistent basis. Not on a day when we were playing the Giants or things like that. But I like to try and give off the impression that I was. [Jones smiles.)
I was just talking about on your own team.
Oh, on my team? You play with the [Greg] Madduxes and [Tom] Glavines, you play with the McGriffs and Terry Pendletons, guys like that, it would be awfully brash to say you were the best player on the field.
How has the perception of you changed over the years?
[Takes deep breath.] I don’t know, that would be hard to say. You would be something you would have to poll the city of Atlanta on. Certainly I would hope that people would say I’ve continued to be a leader and a winner. I think I’ve kind of transformed from a young kid that kind of kept his mouth shut and just followed the lead of the veterans, to being a good mentor for the young guys here later on in my career. But again, that’s not for me to say.
If you hadn’t become a baseball player, what would you be doing today?
I would probably have one or both of Chip [Caray] and Joe [Simpson]’s jobs. I wanted to be a broadcaster bad. I was going to major in communications. If I couldn’t be in the game I wanted to be close to it. I felt like my knowledge of the game was upper-echelon. As far as whether I could relay it to the people, I don’t know. But it was something that I would have liked to have given a whirl.
So are you more inclined to do that or to coach when you’re done playing? Or neither?
Just because it would probably be part-time, I would probably enjoy broadcasting more. Obviously coaching, that’s a full-time thing and it’d be like I was still playing, to my family. If I could get a part-time gig doing some Braves home games, that would be very enticing to me.
Did you always want to be a ballplayer most of all?
Yeah, I always wanted to play baseball. I played all sports growing up, but in the spring I knew where my bread was buttered and what I enjoyed working at the most, and that was baseball.
When did baseball become your favorite sport?
That’s hard to say. Gosh, I loved playing football. I had a blast playing football, though I didn’t necessarily enjoy working at the game of football. I loved going into the gym and shooting hoops, but basketball was kind of a pipe dream, because basketball season interrupted baseball season, and I just couldn’t have that.
I think I probably would have enjoyed working at the game of basketball, probably would have had a ton of fun playing the game of basketball, especially as good a team as we had at my high school. We won state two out of three years that I was there, and I know I could have contributed to those teams, but I couldn’t because it went eight or 10 games into the baseball season.
Were you a good football player?
I was an all-state wide receiver in high school, and my senior year I led the state of Florida in catches.
What’s the best advice you ever got from one or both of your parents?
Let’s see. My dad always told me never forget where you came from. Not just mentally, but monetarily; always help the people that helped you get to where you are, don’t forget about them. That’s something I’ve always tried to incorporate into some of my charities, where I give back to the place and the area and the people that gave me such great opportunities when I was a kid.
And one thing my mom always said was, have that necessary arrogance when you walk out there on the field. You might not be the best player on the field, but when you walk out there, at least you think you are.
Biggest regret that you care to share with us?
Probably early on in my career, not being more private. You know, I lived a lot of my personal life on the front page of the sports section early on in my career. If I had things to do over again, I would have kept that a lot more private.
How about professionally, any regrets?
I can’t really say that I would change any decision that I made professionally. I’m thoroughly content with the career that I’ve had up to this point.
Who’s the best position player you ever played with?
Wow, that’s tough. That is really tough. [Long pause, head down.]. I would say Gary Sheffield, Andruw Jones and … probably Terry Pendleton.
Best player you ever played against?
Best pitcher you’ve faced?
That’s a toss-up. Probably Roger Clemens would be at the top. Pedro[Martinez] would be 1A. Not including Maddux; I never faced [Maddux] when he was with Chicago [before Maddux joined the Braves].
What pitcher owned you that people wouldn’t have expected to have handled you the way he did?
Woody Williams. I think I was 0-for-21 or 0-for-22 before I finally got him, and I think I ended up 2-for-28 or 2-for-30, something like that. I mean bad numbers.
Best pitcher that you ever hit well, past or present?
Randy. Randy Johnson.
Now that Bobby’s out of the dugout, have you thought anymore about what was his bigget impact on you?
I’ve often thought about it, the consistency that he displays on a daily basis. It doesn’t matter. Five-game winning streak, five-game losing streak, same attitude, same mentality – today’s the day we’re either going to break the streak, or continue the streak. Just his consistency every day is what will be missed.
What’s the transition been like to Fredi Gonzalez, for you and for the team?
Simple. There have been some little differences down here [at spring training]. There’s been a little more attention to detail, as far as situational play. That has been a little different..But the fact of the matter is that we come in here for a few hours every morning, it’s fast-paced, you get your work in, you work your tail off for those three hours, and you’re done.
Not a lot of rules. You can tell a lot about where and how Bobby has influenced Fredi. I think that would have been the only manager that could have come in here and made the transition as easy as it has been, for both player and coaches.
Which baseball player do you respect most for how he’s handled himself, personally and professionally?
Probably [Derek] Jeter. He’s a guy that is in the biggest market in America. He’s won numerous championships. He’s handled it with class and grace. He’s kept his name out of the newspapers and tabloids. He’s kept his private life private.
Just having gotten to know him over the past couple of[World Baseball Classics], you really realize why he is where he is and why he is who he is. He deserives every accolade that he gets. He’s a great, great ambassador for his team and the game.
Does he make you at all jealous?
Well, who wouldn’t be jealous? And there was a time in my career where there was, you know, some animosity there. But like the old saying goes, you can’t judge a book by its cover. Once I got to know the guy, I love the guy to death now, and I’m honored to call him a friend.
– David O’Brien, Braves/MIB Blog