He helped win a World Series as a rookie, and not just as a ride-along — as a starting third baseman who drove in seven runs in his first seven postseason games. He carried a team that was minus Javy Lopez and Andres Galarraga to a division title four years later and was named National League MVP for his heavy lifting. He hit .364 and won a batting title when he was 36.
Yeah, Chipper Jones is a Hall of Famer.
And not just a get-in-on-his-eighth-year-of-eligibility Hall of Famer — a first-ballot lead-pipe cinch.
Steve Phillips, who used to be the Mets’ general manager and used to work for ESPN, said it best a while back: “Chipper Jones is the Derek Jeter of the National League.” It took our man Larry 12 full big-league seasons to play for a team that finished somewhere other than in first place, and a massive reason those Braves kept finishing first was No. 10.
The run of excellence was based on starting pitching, which meant different guys taking a turn every five days, but the everyday constant was Chipper. He was the best hitter, the lineup linchpin. He had to deliver for this team to keep finishing first, and he darn well did, week upon week, summer after blissful summer.
He hit .309 with 110 RBIs at age 24, .327 with 100 RBIs at age 30, .337 with 102 RBIs at age 35. For as much as Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux and John Smoltz meant to the Braves, Chipper meant more. One great pitcher could have a lesser season and the Braves could still win big; if No. 10 tweaked an oblique, the entire club felt it.
If he wasn’t quite the best everyday player in the sport (and there were years when he was close), he was surely the most important everyday player on the most important National League club. Other hitters came and went — David Justice and Fred McGriff, Gary Sheffield and Mark Teixeira, Jeff Francoeur and now Jason Heyward — but none anchored the batting order as resolutely as Chipper.
In the 44 years since the franchise moved South, only one everyday Brave has been better, and the new ballpark sits on a street named for him. Only Hank Aaron can be said to have done so much so well for so long as a baseball player in this city. Dale Murphy was great at his peak, but Murph’s peak lasted six seasons. Chipper’s endured into a second decade.
As is the case with consistent excellence, we got a little bored and started picking nits. Chipper got hurt too much and smiled too seldom and didn’t always play hard. (That last complaint was a sick joke — Chipper Jones always played hard.) Soon we’ll get the chance to watch someone else play third base and bat third in the order, and only in his absence will it hit us.
The guy we’ve been watching all those years was one of the best ever to play the game, and we have been ennobled to see him work. Whenever Chipper Jones chooses to walk away, Cooperstown awaits him five years hence.