It was June 2005. The Braves were 33-32, 4-1/2 games out of first place. Steve Phillips, then of ESPN, surveyed the team that his Mets – he was their general manager from 1997 through 2003 – had chased forever. He conceded he wasn’t sure the team that had won 13 consecutive division titles could manage a 14th.
See, Chipper Jones was hurt.
Said Phillips: “(John) Schuerholz and (Bobby) Cox are both Hall of Famers, but (Chipper) has always been the other cog – he’ll be a Hall of Famer, too.”
Those projections have all come true. Schuerholz and Cox have plaques in Cooperstown; Chipper’s election was made official Wednesday night. But something Phillips said after making his sweeping HOF assessments resonates still. He said of Chipper: “In my view, he’s the Derek Jeter of the National League.”
Back then, this correspondent took that as the highest of compliments. (As did Chipper. When Phillips’ sentiment was relayed, the man himself seemed as moved as he ever gets.) Over the fullness of time, it’s possible to wonder if we should have been likening D. Jeter to C. Jones, instead of the other way around. Because – and this is no knock on the elegant Yankee captain – Chipper was the better player.
No, his teams didn’t win as many World Series. (Ring count: Jeter 5, Chipper 1.) Then again, Chipper didn’t throw the slider to Jim Leyritz on the night that changed the course of two franchises. Many years later, Larry Wayne Jones Jr. would recount a conversation he’d had with LWJ Sr.: “My dad said, ‘Jim Leyritz stole “Team of the ’90s” from you.’ ”
As great as the Braves’ 15-year run was, we around here tend to underrate it. We somehow see it as an ultimate failure: “Only one World Series,” emphasis on the “only.” If we cease with moaning and groaning long enough to give kudos to anybody, it’s to the Schuerholz/Cox stewardship and the matchless pitching of Glavine/Maddux/Smoltz. And all the above were indeed tremendous. (All Hall of Famers, too.) But the greatest single contribution made by any Brave of that golden era was by No. 10, and even saying that diminishes him.
Chipper wasn’t just part of some great teams; he was the biggest non-pitching reason those teams were great. If we go by Baseball-Reference WAR – wins above replacement mightn’t be a perfect metric, but it’s invaluable when comparing players of different eras – he’s the 32nd-best position player ever.
Depending on whether you consider A-Rod mostly a shortstop, Chipper is the sixth- or seventh-best third baseman. (The others: Schmidt, Mathews, Beltre, Boggs and Brett.) He’s one of six hitters – this noticed by Tom Verducci of SI.com – to have, in more than 10,000 career at-bats, a .300 batting average, a .400 on-base percentage and a .500 slugging percentage. (The others: Cobb, Ruth, Speaker, Ott and Musial.)
That C. Jones heads to Cooperstown at the top of the Class of 2018 -- he was named on 97.16 percent of the ballots, the 11th-highest share ever; Greg Maddux was 10th-highest --tells us how those who cover the sport for a living viewed his career. Sometimes we around here got distracted – by his marriages, two of which didn’t last; by his injuries, of which there were several; by what some among us viewed as an absence of “intensity,” whatever that is. But he was pretty darn “intense” when he stepped to the plate, which he did 11,031 times, counting postseason.
He was 34 before he played on a big-league team that didn’t finish first over a completed season. He won a batting title at 36, hitting .364 at an age when there are no more legged-out singles to short. He made 56 errors at shortstop for Single-A Macon a year after the Braves made him the No. 1 overall pick, but he became a perfectly OK third baseman. Know who also made 56 errors in the Sally League in his second professional season? Derek Jeter.
MVP awards: Chipper 1, Jeter 0. All-Star MVP awards: Jeter 1, Chipper 0, though Chipper hit a home run that night at Turner Field. Their careers did run on parallel tracks, and here’s how Baseball-Reference’s formula valued those careers. Lifetime WAR: Chipper 85.0, Jeter 71.8.
Again, this isn’t either/or. Jeter will, on merit, likewise be a first-ballot inductee. This is to note that, when it comes to everyday players of his generation, Chipper Jones was of the absolute first rank. We all – you, me, Steve Phillips – could see the day of his HOF enshrinement coming a decade ago. Here it is.
“You always wonder how (your stats) add up,” Chipper said Wednesday night at SunTrust Park. “Now I know. I found out today.”
Then: “I knew this could be one of those days that change your life forever ... I’ll never be introduced the same way I was before. Having ‘Hall of Fame’ behind your name changes things.”
And how, you’re asking, did that 2005 season turn out for Chipper and his team? Pretty well. He returned after the All-Star break from the foot injury that sidelined him for six weeks. He hit .307 with 14 homers and 46 RBIs and an OPS of 1.002 over 61 games. The Braves won the National League East. Same as it ever was.
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