AJC Best of Chipper: Unique among city’s sports icons

Braves legend Chipper Jones is set for induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday in Cooperstown, N.Y. This article is the first of a 10-part series that traces the career of the iconic Braves third baseman. This article appeared in a retirement tribute to Chipper in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Sunday, Sept. 30, 2012. 

By Carroll Rogers

Staff writer

Dale Murphy loves to tell the story about the time a few years ago, when he was walking into the Braves’ spring training complex in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., and got stopped by a man and his 8-year-old son asking for an autograph.

The son said, "Dad, who's that?"

The father replied, "That's Dale Murphy, son. He used to play for the Braves. He used to be like Chipper Jones."

The son paused, then asked, "You think he can go in the clubhouse and get Chipper's autograph for me?"

Both good-natured and humble, Murphy chuckles with the re-telling. He doesn't mind the analogy, either.

"I'll take that comparison," the two-time National League MVP said.

Jones heads into retirement an Atlanta icon among Atlanta icons. Some of the greatest athletes in this city's history hold him in the highest regard and will welcome him into the first-name fraternity, with the likes of Dale, Hank, Dominique, Herschel and Evander.

More on Chipper Jones

» When Braves signed Chipper Jones to record bonus 
» Jones' September 1993 call-up 
» The raising of a Hall of Famer 
» Memories over two decades in Atlanta
» Hank Aaron reflects on Chippers' career 
» Chipper and Atlanta share memorable bond

“You’re talking about the great baseball players that played in this city, you think of Chipper Jones," said Dominique Wilkins, the former Hawk and Hall of Famer, who's gotten to know Jones at charity and sporting events over the years. "His name is ingrained in this city. I think his personality, as well as his career, has proven itself. He's an icon in this city and in the state of Georgia for that matter."

Jones was drafted No. 1 overall by the Braves in 1990, something even Wilkins can't say. Wilkins was drafted third overall by the Utah Jazz, then traded to the Hawks. Jones played 19 seasons in Atlanta, something even Phil Niekro can't say and he played until he was 48.

Jones will have started and finished his career in a Braves uniform, which not even Hank Aaron can say. Aaron played his final two seasons at ages 41 and 42 with the Milwaukee Brewers.

"In this day and age, the way things are with free agents and all the other things, it is amazing that anybody --- not only Chipper Jones --- but any superstar that started his career with one team finishes with the same team," Aaron said. "That's just not heard of."

At the end of the 1974 season, the year Aaron broke Babe Ruth's home-run record and hit 20 home runs, the Braves traded him to the Brewers. In 1990, the Braves traded Murphy to the Phillies. In 1994, the Hawks traded Wilkins to the Los Angeles Clippers.

But Jones is going out as a Brave, on his own terms, which earns him the respect of other historic athletes.

"He's leaving the game because he wants to leave," said Walker, Georgia's Heisman Trophy-winning running back who played for four teams in the NFL. "He's not leaving the game because his talent has diminished."

The Falcons released Steve Bartkowski, their all-time leading passer, five games into the 1985 season at 33. The former quarterback has an appreciation for how strongly Jones is finishing his career, just as he did about the way Jones started it.

"There is some iconic stuff you can't get out of your mind about Chipper," Bartkowski said. "... Hank is the only one that can probably stand toe to toe in longevity and productivity with Chipper."

Bartkowski watches the Braves religiously on TV from his Johns Creek home and has followed them since he came to Atlanta in the mid-1970s. He used to stick around Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium after Falcons practice and watch a few innings of Braves games.

"I'd be there at the ballpark with 3,000 other people," Bartkowski said. "I'd sit there and watch ballgames and wonder, 'What is wrong? What's wrong with the people in this town? What's wrong with the team?' Obviously they got it turned around when Ted Turner stepped in and hired John Schuerholz and Bobby Cox. Gosh, it's been a cool ride."

Like Jones, Bartkowski sported a No. 10 jersey and was drafted No. 1 overall. But in his 11 seasons with the Falcons (1975-85), he played on only three winning teams --- in 1978, 1980 and 1982 --- and never in the Super Bowl.

Jones played on three World Series teams and batted third in the lineup for the one that brought Atlanta its first and only championship in the four major professional sports. He's played for winning teams in 17 of his 19 seasons and is the last man standing from the record string of 14 consecutive division titles.

"What they were able to do under John Schuerholz and Bobby Cox and (John) Smoltz and (Tom) Glavine and all those guys ...," Bartkowski said. "The centerpiece of all that in my opinion was Chipper Jones. I'm a huge Chipper fan. It's incredible the career he's had and I hate to see him go, man. It's like a piece of me will be retiring with him."

Jones has made fans out of both Bartkowski and Evander Holyfield, who followed the Braves during the slim years and watched their rise with the rest of the national audience on TBS.

Holyfield grew up five minutes from Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and used to sell popcorn and Cokes at games as a teenager. He got to know players by offering to carry their luggage out to their cars.

"You thought that good athleticism was going to rub off on you if you got to know people like that," Holyfield said. "It probably does because you know what? Here I am."

Holyfield marks his first heavyweight title by the Braves' worst-to-first run in 1991. Now he rubs elbows with Jones.

"Dale Murphy was really the king, but he's the only one who probably outdid Dale Murphy," Holyfield said. "Chipper won a World Series."

Holyfield marvels at Jones' ability to switch-hit. And this is from a boxer known for his left hook. Holyfield is impressed by Jones' longevity and he's still holding out hope for another title fight as he approaches 50.

"To finish strong and in this day and time to stay on one team that long ...," Holyfield said. "Shoot, it's amazing."

Aaron, the granddaddy of Atlanta sports icons, made 25 All-Star teams. And he compliments Jones for his consistency.

"In some ways I look at Chipper and think about somebody like a Stan Musial," Aaron said of the Hall of Famer who hit .331 in 22 seasons for St. Louis. "I think Chipper's got probably a lot more ability than Stan had, running the bases and hitting with power. But his swing has a similarity as Chipper's --- very consistent."

Jones will finish his career as a .300 hitter and, like Musial, start and finish with the same team. Jones has provided the Braves’ consistent production, and the Braves have provided him a competitive team. It's been a good fit.

"Most of us who go late into our career have a time where you have self-doubt and fans start to doubt you and organizations start to doubt you," Murphy said. "It seems like fans, the organization and Chipper all hung in there together and created a real great thing."

Glavine had his share of ups and downs with Atlanta fans, dating to the 1994 players strike when he was a union leader, through his departure for the New York Mets, and then pitching with shoulder problems in his brief return to Atlanta.

He never saw a steep drop-off in production from Jones, despite the time he missed with two major knee operations.

"For a lot of guys, you have that success and you endear yourself to the fans," Glavine said. "Then at some point in time, you hit the decline in your career and then people don't like you anymore. Chipper really hasn't had any of that. Even those 'off' years for Chipper are still pretty darn good years for most people."

Murphy, who was traded by the Braves at 34 and retired at 37, is impressed by how Jones maintained his skills after 35.

"He's been able to handle that last five years or so of the time where his knees are hurt and his body isn't reacting as well," Murphy said. "That's a real hard mental challenge because then you start thinking, 'Well, I've got to be quicker. I've got to get out front. I can't catch up to the fastball.'

". . . I thought I'd play into my 40s. That's what I thought when I was in my early 30s. It's just not that easy."

That's part of the reason Murphy takes it as a compliment to be compared with Jones and why he stopped kidding Jones in spring training about all the days he needed to take out of the lineup.

"I was like, 'What are you doing, man, taking a day off? Let's go. Get out there,'" he recalled. "And he goes, 'Hey, Murph, you've gotta relax. When you were my age, you were already retired.'"

Murphy laughs at that one too, knowing it's true.