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