Chipper wasn’t the Braves’ first choice – just the best

He had something to do with a lot of those flags. (AJC photo by Jason Getz)

Chipper Jones had a lot to do with a lot of those flags out there. (AJC photo by Jason Getz)

Buzzard’s luck, one AJC writer called it. I  know. I was the writer, and I was describing the Braves’ plight in the 1990 draft. A forlorn franchise — its last winning season had been in 1983 — had finally been graced with the No. 1 overall pick, and the guy the Braves (and every other team) wanted most had scared them off.

So: Buzzard’s luck, which is what occurs when you can’t kill anything and nothing will die. Bobby Cox, then the Braves’ general manager, had spent the weekend before the draft in Texas, trying to convince the high school pitcher Todd Van Poppel to sign with the Braves. No sale. Van Poppel stuck to his stated position: He wanted to play college ball for the Texas Longhorns, meaning that any team drafting him would likely wind up with nothing.

Which, for an already forlorn franchise, would have been a new nadir: You get to exercise the No. 1 pick and you net a big fat zero. Speaking of that possibility, Cox said: “That would be the worst thing that could ever happen in this world.” (As we know, Cox sometimes overstates.)

So it was with a heavy heart that the Braves turned to Plan B. There are some who will insist today that the Braves wound up taking The Guy They Really Wanted All Along, but that’s revisionist history. Van Poppel was the guy they preferred, but they couldn’t chance taking him. Choosing to err on the side of safety, they settled — and that, at the time, seemed the operative verb — for a shortstop from Jacksonville.

Here was how a guy in the AJC (me again) assessed the pick, whose name was Larry Wayne Jones Jr.: “Nothing against Chipper, said to be cut from the same estimable cloth as Robin Yount and Alan Trammell, but Van Poppel seems an arm from the ages.”

Nobody knew it at the time — certainly I didn’t know it — but that June draft was the moment when the Braves’ rotten luck began to change into something approaching serendipity. By the end of the month, team president Stan Kasten had persuaded Cox to replace the hard-bitten Russ Nixon as manager. By the end of the year, John Schuerholz had arrived from Kansas City to become GM. By the time the Braves reported to spring training in West Palm Beach, they’d signed free agents Terry Pendleton, Sid Bream and Rafael Belliard.

And marinating in the minors was the young man who would become the second-best everyday Atlanta Brave (after only Henry Aaron) ever. We kind of forgot about Chipper Jones in the giddy worst-to-first season of 1991 and the pulsating runs of ‘92 and ‘93, but by 1995 he was here and he was so obviously gifted that the Braves had allowed Pendleton, the 1991 National League MVP, to leave as a free agent to clear a position.

To say that Chipper Jones turned this club into a winner would be historically incorrect. They were three division titles into their run by the time he became a full-time Atlanta Brave. But he was the guy who served as the bridge from that first wave of excellence to something far greater. It still sounds crazy, but here’s the fact: Chipper Jones, who made his major-league debut at 21, turned 34 before he played on a big-league team that didn’t finish first over a completed season.

If he wasn’t the foundation, he became the cornerstone. Turns out he was even better than advertised. He’ll finish more than 200 home runs and 200 RBI’s ahead of Yount, who was a first-ballot Hall of Famer. (Trammell, the other point of comparison, hasn’t and won’t make it to Cooperstown.) He won a batting title at 36, and even at 40 he’s within sight of .300. The shortstop from Jacksonville became one of the greatest third basemen in the history of the sport.

As for Todd Van Poppel: He wound up being taken with the 14th pick of Round 1 by the Oakland A’s, the defending World Series champs. Turning his back on college life, he signed with the A’s for $1.2 million. (His agent was, wouldn’t you know, the dreaded Scott Boras, and Oakland wasn’t yet into Billy Beane’s Moneyball.) He spent parts of 11 seasons in the majors, playing for six different organizations, winning 40 games and losing 52. He retired in 2004.

Hindsight tells us that Van Poppel and Boras bluffed their way into what seemed a better situation, but the Braves were the ones who made out like bandits. (Rule of thumb: Being a bandit beats the heck out of being a buzzard.) They took the shortstop from Jacksonville, and for more than two decades they’ve counted their blessings. They might have wanted someone else, but they landed the player of their dreams.

By Mark Bradley

80 comments Add your comment

Well said

September 28th, 2012
11:08 am

I could care less about being first… but that is a first rate column. As someone in their mid-30s that started loving baseball with the Island of Misfit toys that were the mid 80s Braves, I became spoiled, but always appreciated their greatness. Good column indeed.

SC

September 28th, 2012
11:10 am

CHIPPER!! He’s First!

Aaron

September 28th, 2012
11:15 am

Gonna be very odd not seeing him at third next year.

D L LAWRENCE

September 28th, 2012
11:16 am

chipper jones is and was the most overated professional athelete of all time which includes all sports.

Island Bravo

September 28th, 2012
11:17 am

I love the fact that he not only stayed loyal to the organization for his long career, but took pay cuts to help the team get better. Unselfishness and loyalty are disappearing traits in sports, it seems, and Chipper had them.

Jamaaliver

September 28th, 2012
11:22 am

Greatest player in Atlanta Sports History. (Aaron belongs to Milwaukee as much as Atlanta)

#1 Draft pick. Entire career with one team.

All Star, MVP, World Champion.

Thanks, Chipper. Class act all the way.

Matt

September 28th, 2012
11:27 am

@ D L-you, Sir or Madam, don’t know what you are talking about.

Tami

September 28th, 2012
11:30 am

Great article, Mark. Tonight is going to be one of those special, chill-bump nights down at the Ted. One that we may never, ever forget. Thank you SO MUCH, Chipper. We have known for a few years now that this day would soon come. Who knew that it would come so fast! We will miss you more than you will miss us. 1st ballot HOF-er in 2017 (or is it 2018), in my book! Hope I get to go to C-town to witness it!

BusterBrave

September 28th, 2012
11:32 am

Remember the “debacle” of that draft and your esteemed opinion back then…..thanks for ownin’ up,Van Poppel was the “Ryan Leaf” of the baseball draft back then,sometimes as the sayin’ goes, “It’ better to be lucky than right” (good)…..after years of despair,the baseball gods smiled on the Atlanta Braves…….

D L LAWRENCE

September 28th, 2012
11:44 am

Mr. Bradley would you please have the comments by (name changed to avoid moderation removed? thank you

Heisenberg

September 28th, 2012
11:47 am

“Van Poppel was the “Ryan Leaf” of the baseball draft back then”
***************

Or the Sam Bowie of the NBA draft.

DILLIGAF

September 28th, 2012
11:51 am

Great column Mark!

D L……
Your mommy wants to know why you’re out of the basement.
waaaaaaa……..crybaby

Name Changed to Avoid Moderation

September 28th, 2012
11:51 am

I’m afraid you on your own with this one DL. Make your statement and be prepared to stand behind it. MB will not protect you, big boy.

BusterBrave

September 28th, 2012
11:57 am

@ Heisenberg,you get it brotha’……Sam Bowie…..good one too…….

Ostrich Racer

September 28th, 2012
12:08 pm

Over a 2,500 game career, Chipper hit over .300, with an OBP over .400 and Slugging Percentage over .500. He’s the only switch hitter to do it. That is huge, and Atlanta got to see the whole thing.

Time

September 28th, 2012
12:09 pm

One of the rare days I can say good column Bradley. Think it’s going to be even stranger seeing a Braves team without Jones next year than it was seeing them without Bobby the last two.

rico carty

September 28th, 2012
12:12 pm

Godspeed, Chipper Jones. He is the true Mr. Brave. Greatest Atlanta Brave of all-time. He has provided so much joy to Braves fans through the years. I never understood how any person who called themselves a Braves fan could be down on this guy. He played through pain and yet never made excuses.

I always wanted him to get to the 500 HR and 3000 Hit levels, but time just ran out. Too many games lost to injuries. He probably could’ve done this had he gone to the AL, but he was and forever will be an Atlanta Brave.

I can’t be there tonight, but for all that there, let this man hear you. We will really miss him.

Time

September 28th, 2012
12:12 pm

@Jamaaliver – I agree, Aaron was more Milwaukee than he was Atlanta. I’d say Chipper is THE greatest player in Atlanta history, narrowly edging out Nique.

sidslid

September 28th, 2012
12:19 pm

Mark, you are too hard on yourself. Team was in dire need of pitching back then. Glavine looked like a bust. On the “‘27 Yankees” scale, I would give this prediction a 5.

BiggDawgK

September 28th, 2012
12:22 pm

MB kudos for owning up to a column from many years ago. It would have been easy to pretend you knew young Larry was a better choice than the giant ego and faulty arm of todd van pooper but you are man enough to admit even the best of us (like you and me) can make a mistake.

I will admit I am petty for having laughed several times over the years at van poppel’s failure to ever make any impact anywhere. Despite his perplexing love for (ugh) the gators, Chipper has been a DGB.

Stinger 2

September 28th, 2012
12:24 pm

Chipper Jones record speaks for itself. Everyone has a right to express their opinion
about where he should rank as a Braves player if they care to do so. I will say that I have supported him on these AJC blogs when he has received negative remarks from those who try to be cute and comical with their disparaging remarks. Trying to extablish a reputation as a comedian by using Chipper (or any other player for that matter) as a butt of your “jokes” is way out of line.

Ostrich Racer

September 28th, 2012
12:25 pm

Also, Mark, I think I’d put Dale Murphy in the all-time greatest Atlanta Brave conversation. Best player in the game for about 5 years — back-to-back MVPs, a couple of 30/30 seasons when that meant something. He kept the Braves afloat during some bad times.

Tumbledown

September 28th, 2012
12:25 pm

D.L. – chipper jones is and was the most overated professional athelete of all time which includes all sports.

Okay, D. L., there is alot of work to do to back up your incredible claim. Let’s go back to the beginning of sports and review how each and every athlete was rated. I wonder if we really need to go back before Roman times. Were they even considered professional athletes back then? This is a huge project.

Tumbledown

September 28th, 2012
12:27 pm

By the way, I believe Chipper should be a first ballot hall of famer.

sidslid

September 28th, 2012
12:28 pm

My ‘”greatest in Atlanta” would be Smoltz. His numbers make Eckersley look like Dan Kolb. Although Glavine and Maddux had more Cy Youngs, they tended to disappoint in the post season. Smoltzie and Javy Lopez were our post-season heros (Javy’s jack against the Dodgers in game 1 got us rolling in 95 and he was MVP of the epic Cardinal series in 96).

Sage of Bluesland

September 28th, 2012
12:29 pm

Many don’t even know that story, which I’m glad MB wrote about (and even owned up to being so wrong about). I remember feeling a little letdown that this “phenom” pitcher was essentially turning us down, only to acquiesce when a great team at the time (the A’s) drafted him. I felt duped. The Braves were wretched–but they were finally trying to build from the ground up (something that Bobby Cox-the-GM doesn’t get enough credit for, as opposed to Schuerholz getting too much credit, as he left a sinking ship in the Royals).

I’m glad to see karma had the final vote, yet again.

But, the Braves had the last laugh, thankfully, and it truly has been a remarkable run for all. Thank you for the wonderful times, Chipper.

Jim lanham

September 28th, 2012
12:31 pm

Yeah dl Lawrence… He’s overrated.. A career. 300 hitter 400+ hrs 2700+ hits. Idiot.

Stinger 2

September 28th, 2012
12:36 pm

Chipper Jones record speaks for itself. I will let everyone else rank him in the Braves greatest player hierarchy and say this: I have been a stronger supporter than ever in the last few years because he has been the butt or jokes and received unwarranted critical remarks by certain AJC blogger who tries to be comical in his post to get himself annointed as a funny boy.

7 Amazing Feats

September 28th, 2012
12:36 pm

“The many amazing Feats of Chipper Jones” on ESPN.com. read it and you will start to think that Chipper is UNDER rated….

Mr. Hankey

September 28th, 2012
12:39 pm

I’m one that’s good at apologies, too, and I agree with everything you have said. Make no mistake, he’s earned our adoration, but, not to be a jerk, once this season is over and we’re all “loved” out on Chippa, can we please, please talk about something else. This is worse than Farve’s first retirement with all the gushiness or LaBron’s first “ring”. Goood god folks, our country is a mess, we’re about to re-elect a moron communist and the TERRORIST EXTREMIST MUSLIMS are stomping our flags and killing our ambassadors. “nuf Sed.

Driver 8

September 28th, 2012
12:47 pm

It was an amazing turn of events for the Braves, heretofore perennial losers in all aspects of the organization. Cox was in the 5th year of his 5 year rebuilding plan as GM and the Braves languished in last place.

I always go back to Cox’s unwillingness to trade an unproven Tom Glavine for Mike Greenwell of Boston as another master stroke. He was under fire for lack of progress and Greenwell would’ve been a quick fix (I thought they were crazy not to pull the trigger). Thank goodness for his patience and foresight.

Picking Galvine once again that draft grades coming out immediately after the draft are ridiculous. Would love to see the complete list of first round picks from that draft-any other first ballot HOFers out there.

Tumbledown

September 28th, 2012
12:51 pm

Mr. Hankey – All that stuff you mentioned is being discussed and debated by all sides. It is just not happening in a SPORTS SECTION AND BLOG. You have the right not to pay attention to this Chipper story.

Dawgdad (The Original)

September 28th, 2012
12:52 pm

Chipper a for sure first ballot hall of Famer, so give him 1A position as the greatest Atlanta athlete, but Murphy has to be 1B. Not as impressive stats, but Murph was the Braves back then, he carried them on his back, 2 MVP’s. Other than a few years, when Horner was healthy, he had no help whatsoever and the pitching consisting of Rick Mahler, Niekro, and pray for an nuclear attack, was pretty bad.

Tumbledown

September 28th, 2012
12:53 pm

Ok, the Chipper story is on the front page of the AJC. Mr. Hankey, I will give you that. But, all will die down soon, and we will be knee deep in the presidential race.

Matt Ryan's Dad

September 28th, 2012
12:57 pm

Great article, Mark. It’s good to know you were as wrong back then as you are about predictions now.

What's Important

September 28th, 2012
1:06 pm

Mr. Hankey, I believe most, if not all, of the bloggers on this story are aware of the state our country is in. That being said, this is a sports blog. If you wish to discuss the other situations there is certainly not a lack of them to go to. Don’t begrudge the people who have enjoyed Chipper’s career and who, for a few wonderful moments, would rather ponder upon and talk about something that actually causes people joy. Chipper’s storied career will end soon, unfortunately the rest will remain. I for one don’t need someone like you raining on my parade. As to your sign off, it should have read “shouldn’t have been Sed.”

Cobb Dawg

September 28th, 2012
1:06 pm

Great piece, MB. Here’s another piece of historical Braves trivia: In the 1970s, the Braves had the fifth overall pick in the draft and desperately wanted to take Lonnie Smith, who they envisioned as their center fielder of the future. But St. Louis, picking third, spoiled the party by selecting Smith, who had a great career with the Cards. The Braves then turned to the next player on their board and picked a lanky catcher from Oregon — one Brian Dale Murphy.

Stinger 2

September 28th, 2012
1:08 pm

Sonny Clusters: I wish to thank you for your post about Chipper on Jeff Schultz blog today. It was interesting and you said some nice words about him. I was impressed. What I said @12:36 was posted before I read your comments on JS blog.

Chipper's jockstrap

September 28th, 2012
1:09 pm

D.L. Lawrence can’t hold me.

Hoosier Aaron

September 28th, 2012
1:14 pm

I thought I read this story about Chipper and Van Poppel several years ago…maybe it wasn’t true.

Kasten, Cox and Mr. Turner flew to Texas to see if Van Poppel could be signed.(Mr. Turner went because he would be signing the check, of course). After meeting with him, Mr. Turner said, “We’ll sign him (meaning, I’ll pay the money) if he’s the guy you want…but, I’m not sure he’s the guy that will win us a World Series. (It was implied that Mr. Turner didn’t think he wasn’t “tough enough”). Let’s go talk to the kid in Florida”. When they arrived in Florida, THAT kid had a broken hand from a little “scuffle”.
Mr. Turner said after meeting with Chipper, “He’s the one.”

That’s a pretty cool story….of course, it might be an exaggeration.

BusterBrave

September 28th, 2012
1:29 pm

@ Hoosier Aaron,obviously you ain’t from around here if you think Ted Turner ever knew about baseball, the ONLY thing he did as owner worth a damn was finally decide to hire real good baseball people who did know what they were doin’, got out of the damn way,and signed the checks !!!!!!

phil

September 28th, 2012
1:31 pm

Fine piece, Mark….

Lee in S GA

September 28th, 2012
1:32 pm

I was actually trying to remember who the 3rd baseman was before Chipper came to town. Then it hit me.. Terry Pendleton. It is hard to believe all of these years have passed since that time. Cherish the final weekend series because can you imagine looking back 10 to 12 years now and remembering Chipper playing 3rd.

Almost the Weekend

September 28th, 2012
1:40 pm

Ted Turner did manage the Braves once though.

P B Orr

September 28th, 2012
1:42 pm

Man we could use a batting coach next year.

Big Crimson 75

September 28th, 2012
1:51 pm

Good stuff Bradley.
Van Poppel was to be the next great Texan pitcher, following the likes of Nolan Ryan & Roger Clemens. He made it beyond clear he didn’t want to be a Brave. That said, their were many in Baseball talking up Chipper Jones as the better prospect before the draft.
I’ve got several axes to grind with Bobby Cox, the manager, however Cox the GM set up those great teams in the 90s.
Drafting Glavine, Avery, Chipper, Justice, trading for Smoltz — all Bobby’s moves.
Schuerholtz’ first draft pick as the Braves GM was Mike Kelly!! Remember, the guy was gonna be better than Barry Bonds coming out of ASU.

Escaped from Email Purgatory

September 28th, 2012
1:55 pm

Well said, Bradley.

As a living-in-my-parents-basement Braves fan, I’ve leveled more than my fair share of criticism at Chipper Jones over the years.

But when you look at his body of work and what he’s meant to the Braves’ organization, you can’t help but feel fortunate he was a Brave.

We saw something special. Glad he is able to retire a Brave. Hope the team sends him off with a …

Nope. I’m not gonna jinx it. But I have my fingers crossed.

Scott

September 28th, 2012
1:58 pm

Too bad you didn’t write, I think this kid is the better pick. Then you could gloat. Not much gloating from MB these days. He’s often wrong with his predictions. But at least you go back and admit it and that’s admirable.

Scott

September 28th, 2012
1:59 pm

Would be nice to have seen chipper’s excitement watching the braves in the 91 and 92 series. I bet he was happy he was a brave at that point and also being so close to jax.

1eyedJack

September 28th, 2012
2:21 pm

After taking guys like Glavine, Mercker, and Avery with first round choices, taking Van Poppel would appear to have been a major blunder, when you consider that providence put the best player in that draft up to the plate. But what if Van Poppel had had a chance to be tutored in the Braves organization and pitched for Leo Mazzone? Might his career have turned out differently?

Sometimes things have a way of working themselves out.