Four decisions over four decades that were most beneficial to the Atlanta Braves: Bill Bartholomay moving the team from Milwaukee to Atlanta in the 1960s, Ted Turner purchasing the team to keep it in Atlanta for his Superstation WTBS in the 1970s, Bobby Cox’s return to Atlanta in the 1980s and …
Todd Van Poppel telling the Braves, who had the first overall pick in the 1990 draft, that he wouldn’t sign with them if they selected him.
The spurned Braves instead turned to a high school shortstop named Larry Wayne Jones Jr.
Van Poppel went on to fashion a 40-52 career record and 5.58 ERA in and 359 games (98 starts), never winning more than seven games or saving more than two in any of his 11 seasons.
As for Chipper Jones, he’s entering his 19th and final season with the Braves and is the only switch-hitter in history with at least a .300 average and 450 home runs. Among switch-hitters, his 454 homers rank third behind Mickey Mantle and Eddie Murray, and his .935 OPS ranks third behind Mantle and Lance Berkman.
He is a certain future Hall of Famer, and a first-ballot choice in the view of a majority of writers that I’ve asked around the country.
In my opinion he’s also the best Brave of the Atlanta era, and ranks behind Hank Aaron as the second-best Braves position player in history. (The Hammer played only nine of his 23 seasons while the team was in Atlanta, and Greg Maddux spent 11 of his 23 seasons in Atlanta, which is why I give the Atlanta-era edge to Chipper over those two baseball luminaries.)
Cox likes to tell the story of how as GM in 1990, he went to Jacksonville, Fla., with longtime Braves scouting guru Paul Snyder to see Chipper, whom the Braves were considering taking with the No. 1 pick. Cox hadn’t seen enough pictures of him to recognize him by face, and told Snyder not to tell him which one Jones was from among the Bolles School players who were working out in T-shirts sans names or numbers.
Cox says it only took him a matter of seconds to pick out Jones. He just had that air about him. The way he carried himself.
As the kids say today, he had swag.
He still does, one month from his 40th birthday.
And he’s about as smart a baseball mind, and as candid, honest and entertaining an interview as any athlete I’ve covered, even if he occasionally finds a reporter to be a bit overzealous.
Chipper’s first major league season (other than a September callup) was 1995, which was also my first season as a major league beat writer. I was covering the Florida Marlins then, and I remember the first time I saw this hotshot kid from the Florida sticks, the one who’d blown his knee out a year before during spring training, delaying the arrival of the Braves Golden Child.
Like most outsider observers, the first thing you noticed was the confident way he carried himself. Perhaps a bit cocksure for someone so young. And then after you watched him play a game or two, you realized there was more substance than style.
He was the real thing.
As a beat reporter, I’ve had the good fortune of covering a handful of professional athletes and coaches/managers while they were bonafide icons in their cities: Dan Marino and Don Shula with the Dolphins; Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Chipper Jones and Bobby Cox with the Braves.
None was bigger than Marino and Shula in Miami, or Chipper and Bobby in Atlanta.
I covered Marino and Shula near the end of their long run in Miami. I got to see Chipper and Bobby while they were still near the top of their game in Atlanta.
Chipper totaled 53 homers and 206 RBIs during the first two seasons I covered the team in 2002-2003, and posted .920 or better OPS totals in six of the first seven seasons I was on the beat, though his games-played began to slide in 2004.
That’s one thing that people seem to forget about Jones — what a remarkably durable player he was for the first half of his career. After playing 140 games and helping the Braves win the World Series as a rookie in 1995, he averaged more than 157 games played in eight seasons from 1996 through 2003.
That included seasons of 158, 159 and 160 games played.
But what I’ll always remember is how he made playing the game so well look so easy. Seldom have we seen a great player make hitting look so natural, so innate. Chipper is the proverbial guy who could fall out of bed (or out of a deer stand, as it were) at the end of winter and hit .300.
He worked a lot harder at hitting than most people realize. He was old school in that he didn’t spend the winter — at least not for most of his career — working out with a personal trainer and watching everything he ate, then coming to camp with a six-brick midsection or the body of a tight end.
But he worked plenty in the offseason on his hitting. Because while he could roll out of bed and hit better than plenty of major leaguers, he couldn’t roll out of bed and hit .304 with a .402 OBP and .533 slugging percentage in more than 10,000 plate appearances and nearly 2,400 games.
That’s where his career numbers are today. And I crunched some stats, out of curiosity, to see what it might take to bring his average below .300. Folks, he could go 100-for-450 (.220) this season and still be a career .300 hitter.
That says plenty about the body of work that Chipper has produced.
The man hit .364 with a .470 OBP at age 36. And hit .309 with a .393 OBP, 30 homers and 110 RBIs at age 24.
He hit 41 doubles as a 25-year-old, and 42 doubles as a 35-year-old.
By the end of this season, he will have made about $170 million playing baseball. But he could have made plenty more.
He’s had his best friend since childhood, B.B. Abbott, as his agent. Not Scott Boras, who could have advised Chipper to take much larger contracts a couple of times as a free agent rather than stayed in Atlanta.
Abbott knew Chipper was most comfortable and productive playing in Atlanta for Cox. Chipper and B.B. worked with the Braves — they restructured his contract once to take some immediate burden off the team so they could make a run at other free agents — and made it workable for him to stay here and be the face of a franchise, a career-long Brave at a time when the only guys still doing that with one team were Cal Ripken Jr., Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera.
Jeter and Rivera don’t really count, do they? I say that because they’re with the Yankees – it’s not like they could have gone to another team for a bigger contract.
Perhaps the Braves gave Chipper a bigger extension – three years, $42 million – a few years ago than any other team would have offered at that point, given his declining health and playing time. But if there was any gold-watch aspect to that contract – and remember, Chipper hit .364 in 2008, and posted plus-1.000 OPS totals from 2006-2008 in a combined 1,611 plate appearances — then it was a pittance compared to what he’s given the Braves.
One stat or fact about Chipper that I always found amazing: From Little League through 2005, he never finished a completed season on a team that wasn’t in first place. At any level. Ever.
Think about that.
Swag, yes. But more than anything else, substance.
“SOUTHERN ACCENTS” by Tom Petty
There’s a southern accent, where I come from
The young’uns call it country
The yankees call it dumb
I got my own way of talkin’
But everything is done, with a southern accent
Where I come from
Now that drunk tank in Atlanta’s
Just a motel room to me
Think I might go work Orlando
If them orange groves don’t freeze
I got my own way of workin’
But everything is run, with a southern accent
Where I come from
For just a minute there I was dreaming
For just a minute it was all so real
For just a minute she was standing there, with me
There’s a dream I keep having
Where my mama comes to me
And kneels down over by the window
And says a prayer for me
I got my own way of prayin’
But everyone’s begun
With a sou thern accent
Where I come from
I got my own way of livin’
But everything gets done
With a southern accent
Where I come from
– David O’Brien, Braves/MIB blog