(This is just one of several articles that will run in Sunday’s AJC special section on Chipper Jones. The section will be a collectors’ item so be sure to pick one up.)
Economics preclude me from following Chipper Jones into retirement. But there’s a side of me that wonders, “Now what?”
This column isn’t about Chipper Jones’ greatness as a baseball player (obvious). Or that he will end his Hall of Fame career with the same franchise that drafted him (reducing Todd Van Poppel to an amusing trivia question). Or that what we are witnessing in his final season seems pure fantasy: A 40-year-old athlete with creaky limbs manufacturing enough highlights to push his team into the playoffs.
Rather, this is about what really has set Chipper Jones apart: genuine, unfiltered, cold-slap honesty.
In the media, we tend to be drawn to the talkers. It’s simple: Our job is to tell stories, and it’s easier to paint pictures when locker-room voices are disseminating something more insightful than, “I hit a fastball.”
“Talkers” shouldn’t have a negative connotation. This isn’t about the turbo-lipped wonders who rarely stray far from a mirror or an agent. It’s not about the pre-packaged star who cares only about image and marketing. They sanitize every remark, orchestrate every public appearance. They’re like pretty yachts sitting in still waters.
Jones has had priorities beyond self-preservation. He says what he actually thinks, and what he thinks most often is correct. He arrived like a lot of young players, “thinking he had hung the moon,” Tom Glavine joked. He won a World Series as a rookie in 1995.
When the Braves didn’t win another title right away, it was Jones who said during the 1998 postseason what many others were thinking: “I think this business-type attitude hasn’t gotten the job done.”
And John Schuerholz probably spit up his coffee.
How many other athletes would have the courage to criticize the organization for not re-signing pitcher John Smoltz? “With all of the gambles that the Braves have taken on players, for a couple of million more dollars, you don’t gamble on John Smoltz …?” Jones said.
This time, it was Frank Wren’s turn to spit up his coffee.
Who else in spring training last year would call out critics for suggesting that Jones was playing only for the money? Quoting: “The cynical fan can really kiss my ass. There’s a bunch of true fans, and the people who actually want to take the time to get to know me know who I am. The guy who sits in his mom’s basement and types on his mom’s computer, I couldn’t really care less about.” (I resisted the temptation to drop my recorder and hug him.)
How many athletes, understanding the potential for misinterpretation, would declare that Jason Heyward needed to learn how to play with pain? The words: “[He] needs to realize [that] at 80 percent [he’s] a force. There are a bunch of his teammates that are out there playing with discomfort and not healthy.” (And soon, there was a brush fire.)
What player goes into his final spring training and makes waves? Jones criticizing performance-enhancing drug users, but admitted he thought about taking steroids earlier in his career. He shared a conversation with his father: “He said, ‘I can’t think of anything that would disappoint me more than finding out that you did something like that.’ I said, ‘Well, you don’t have to worry about that.’”
The Braves are losing a legend. The fans are losing a hero. I’m losing a reason to open my laptop.
Glavine said Jones matured after the early years. He developed into a leader.
“He probably rubbed some veteran guys the wrong way at the beginning, but I think we were all that way,” Glavine said. “Some veterans want to wring your neck, but the good players recognize that and [change]. I think it’s a natural progression. Also, mostly everything he said was true.”
Jones’ openness and honesty, he said said, “certainly puts him in a small group. Some guys say they’re accountable, but when they have a bad game suddenly they’re not around [for the media]. For a superstar to be accountable through good or bad is a rarity. It has served him well. You wish more guys would be like that.”
Henry Aaron said recently that Jones “falls into that category of players who have not only meant a lot to the Braves but to the city. When you see a ballplayer like this come along and you watch him for 19 or 20 years, sometimes you don’t fully appreciate him until after he’s gone.”
That’s not the case here. I’m just hoping to have him for a few more stories.
By Jeff Schultz