Chipper Jones doesn’t get nervous often. Certainly not like most of us do, but also not even as often like your average professional athlete might. It's one of the things that separates the great ones from the merely very good. Well, that plus immense talent.
But anyway, there are times when even the best clutch performers feel anxious and nervous about some pending event.
Baseball’s Hall of Fame election announcement Wednesday was such an occasion. It made the entire day leading up to it one of anxiety for Jones, who mentioned how he felt when he first met Mickey Mantle – almost speechless, nearly threw up -- as one of the few other times he had been truly nervous.
Nevermind that ballot-trackers in the weeks leading up the announcement had Jones on about 98 percent of the voting writers’ ballots, eliminating any real suspense as to whether he’d get the 75 percent required for election. (He got 97.2, tied with Greg Maddux for 10th-highest percentage in Hall of Fame history.) He was genuinely nervous, perhaps in anticipation of the enormity of the moment that awaited when he would get the call from the Hall of Fame notifying him he made it.
“I was a nervous wreck, I tossed and turned all night,” Jones said, who said that when the call came before 6 p.m. Wednesday, everyone in the room – wife, kids, parents, agent, close friends -- at his house in Milton went quiet. “I saw that 212 (New York area code) and my eyes got this big.”
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Baseball Writers’ Association of America secretary-treasurer Jack O’Connell and National Baseball Hall of Fame chairman Jane Forbes Clark were on the other end of the line, and as soon as Jones smiled with the phone to his ear, the room lit up and the celebration was on and the tears of joy commenced, with Chipper among the misty-eyed. He said, “Only thing I could say to my dad when I hugged him was, ‘We did it.’”
Later Wednesday night, the gravity of the situation had begun to sink in for Jones, 45, a player who spent his entire 19-year career with the Braves, became an iconic figure throughout the Southeast and beyond, and carved a resume that indicates he’s one of the greatest three switch-hitters in history along with Mantle and Eddie Murray, in terms of overall hitting for average and power.
He’d had that recognition for the past decade, really, but to now be joining Mantle and Murray as first-ballot Hall of Famers, to be inducted and have his bust and plaque hanging in a room with theirs and legendary figures of the sport from Babe Ruth to the greatest Brave, Hank Aaron, left Jones in a reflective, amazed and proud but humble mood.
“You have a handful of instances during the course of your life where something happens that’s going to change your life,” he said. “Obviously marriages and kids. But professionally, being drafted No. 1 overall in 1990, that changed my life forever. Today was another one of those instances where my life will never be the same. I’ll never be introduced the way I used to be, it’s going to come with a ‘Hall of Fame’ behind it. When you’ve got ‘HOF’ behind your signature, that changes things. Abruptly.”
Adding HOF behind one’s signature – that’s what Hall of Famers do, with many of them also including the year of induction – adds plenty of cachet to any autograph, not to mention making them more valuable to collectors. There are thousands of Chipper Jones autographs out there already because he was always been one to sign and sign for lines of fans and collectors at spring training and before some regular-season games.
But there was never a Chipper Jones autograph with “HOF” accompanying the signature until Wednesday night, after his phone call from the Hall. That’s when he signed that way for the first time, giving his first such signatures to a couple of his biggest fans, Lynne and Larry Jones. His parents.
Lynne Jones was an equestrian champion, and she’s the one Chipper credits for instilling in him the unwavering confidence he had. She’s the one behind his swagger, the one who told him never to let others see any doubt in your eyes or to let anyone else get the better of him psychologically.
Larry Sr. is a former baseball coach and the man who taught Chipper to switch-hit, the one who drilled in him the importance of hitting from both sides of the plate like Mantle, who was the father’s boyhood hero.
“My dad told me about a week ago, ‘I want to have the first baseball that you sign with HOF on it,’” Jones said. “So (Wednesday night) I signed two baseballs, one to my mom – I didn’t address it ‘mom’; her nickname’s Blondie, that’s what I call her – and my dad’s nickname is ‘Hawk.’ I just put their names on it and wrote, ‘We did it.’ And then signed, ‘HOF18.’ It’s a pretty special feeling.”
Everything about the momentous day and event was special for Jones, including the fact that he’s in a large and esteemed class that includes his contemporaries – sluggers Jim Thome and Vladimir Guerrero and closer Trevor Hoffman.
“I think that’s what is so great about going in with this particular class – I have the utmost admiration for all three of the guys that are going in with me,” he said. “I have equally as big admiration for some of the guys that just fell short. But this particular group, and in particular probably Jim Thome, because we played against each other in Triple-A and that’s where we first met. We’ve got a lot of in common, we’re kind of in the hunting industry on the side. So we’ve kind of been talking a little bit over the last couple of weeks, couple of months, just saying how cool it would be if we both went in together.
“But shoot, Trevor Hoffman, what he meant to San Diego, out there for the Padres for so long. I often said that he had the second-coolest walk-up song of anybody in baseball.”
Hoffman entered home games with AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells” playing, while Jones, of course, is famous for coming to bat as the distinct opening riffs to Ozzie Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” blared from the stadium speakers.
Here Jones nodded toward the front row at Wednesday’s press conference at SunTrust Park, to his longtime manager Bobby Cox, who was seated next to former Brave GM John Schuerholz, team CEO Terry McGuirk and Jones’ wife, Taylor.
“I tell you what – and Bobby can attest – whenever Trevor came out of the bullpen and there were 80,000 people in Qualcomm Stadium and Hell’s Bells came on? It was pretty darn intimidating to you as an opposing player,” Jones said. “And then Vlad Guerrero – he wasn’t nicknamed Vlad the Impaler for nothing. He was one of those scary hitters when he walked to the plate. Me as a third baseman, I couldn’t play deep enough when Vlad was hitting. He was a threat, from foul pole to foul pole. Very dynamic player.
“So you’re talking about a bunch of guys that were not only great players but Hall-of-Fame caliber people as well in their communities. And that’s why I’m extremely proud to go in with this class.”
Jones wished, however, that a couple of his former teammates, 10-time Gold Glove center fielder Andruw Jones and slugging first baseman Fred McGriff, had received more support from voters. Andruw was named on just 7.3 percent of ballots in his first year of Hall of Fame eligibility, narrowly surviving the five-percent minimum required to remain on the ballot for future consideration.
“That was what we were all hoping and praying for,” Chipper Jones said of Andruw surviving the cut by getting more than five percent. “I mean, I didn’t see Andruw getting enough momentum to make it on this first ballot, but certainly he is a guy who deserves to be discussed in years to come. I think most people will tell you he’s the best defensive center fielder they’ve ever seen. He had some holes at the plate, but for him to be able to hit 430-some homers and drive in (1,289) runs during the course of his career, he was awesome. Awfully productive.”
McGriff, who hit 130 of his 493 career homers as a Brave and helped them win the 1995 World Series championship, again received a surprisingly low 23.2 percent of votes in his ninth and next-to-last year on the ballot. If not for the 1994 strike, McGriff might have surpassed 500 homers, considering he had 34 homers in 113 games that season. Yet a career .286 average, .886 OPS and 10 seasons with 30 or more homers haven’t been enough for voters to see fit to name him on even 25 percent of the ballots -- one-third of the required percentage he needs to get in the Hall of Fame.
“It’s very unfortunate,” Chipper said. “I had a conversation with somebody close to me today about Fred McGriff and I feel he is one of the guys that in the five years between when he was done playing and when he first got on the Hall of Fame ballot, that a lot of people passed him by. Some of those people had clouds of suspicion (of steroid use) and it really kind of made the number 500 (homers) obsolete. Really, having had this guy as a quote-unquote bodyguard hitting behind me, there was nobody I enjoyed hitting in front of more than Fred McGriff. People feared this guy wherever he went. Whenever he was traded, the event was seismic. I mean, this guy was a difference-maker.
“He was a hell of a guy, a hell of a ballplayer. He was even better in postseason. And it’s really unfortunate because I think if he had maybe been a little more outspoken or a little more flashy or whatnot, you might notice the numbers a little more. But he was just a professional. He came to the ballpark every day and was one-ninth of the equation to help us win ballgames. I’m a little biased, but when you’re looking at a guy that hit in the .280s with upwards of 500 homers and 1,550 RBIs, those are Hall of Fame numbers in my book, especially when he did it as consistently as he did it.”