A friend from childhood, B.B. Abbott was a lot more to Chipper Jones by the middle of the 2000 season, with a new contract and big money in the works. Jones’ agent at the time resisted the idea of a deal that Jones already had signed off on – six years, $90 million, making him momentarily the highest-paid position player in the game. The agent loved the idea of taking one of the game’s better players, one year removed from a MVP season, to the open market. There was so much green grass beyond yonder Turner Field fences.
Rather than subject himself to the auction floor, rather than risk any chance that he would play somewhere other than Atlanta, Jones fired the agent. And promoted Abbott to point man. By August, he was signed. Jones would never play to the end of a contract with the Braves - neither side would allow it.
Explaining Jones’ desire to stay put in Atlanta, at the expense of a flattering and lucrative bidding war, Abbott said, “A lot of that had to do with the guys that he loved growing up, the guys he later followed. The Cal Ripkens of the world. Tony Gwynn. Barry Larkin. Seeing those guys with one team. Those were people he wanted to emulate.”
“He was a southern kid (from Pierson, Fla). We talked long about him playing in pinstripes in New York and how that could have potentially changed his legacy,” Abbott said. “But looking back, I don’t think he’d have it any other way.”
“He is loyal to a fault,” said his dad, Larry Jones Sr. “When it came time to sign with the Braves, he wanted his folks to be able to come watch him play – and all the Braves farm teams were in the South. The Braves were on the low end of the totem pole, and there was the thought he’d get to the big leagues in a hurry. Well, they started to come on, and he didn’t make it as quick as he wanted to (drafted No. 1 in 1990, suffering a knee injury in spring of 1994, his rookie year was the World Series season of ’95).
“But once he got there he said, you know what, dad, this is home.”
This, after all, is a player who once cut short a meeting with Scott Boras, uncomfortable with the super agent’s confrontational negotiating style. Jones was still a teenager then, and the family was interviewing reps to deal with the top overall pick that year. The kid wanted no barriers erected between himself and a chance to play for the Braves.
“I want to be cemented in one place,” Jones says today, “recognizable in one place. I want to be that anchor. I never wanted to jump around.”
Yeah, sure, he could hit
There is, naturally, no shortage of numbers upon which to build a Hall of Fame platform for Jones.
He hit better than .300 from both sides of the plate. Never struck out more than 99 times in a season. Won the 1999 MVP while hitting for average (.319) and power (45 home runs, 1.074 OPS). Won a batting title (.364) at the age of 36. Second in Braves history in career on-base percentage (.401) and OPS (.930) and third in slugging percentage (.529).
After wading through all the percentages, it is that career line of batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage that Jones treats as his personal signature.
“The .300/.400/.500 slash line kind of says it all,” he said.
“The .300 (batting average) is what I strove for every year, first and foremost,” he said.
“The .400 (on-base percentage) lets everybody know you were the toughest out possible on a daily basis.” (He also leads the Braves in career walks, 1,512).
“And .500 lets everybody know that you could do it from foul pole to foul pole, from both sides of the plate. That slash line is what I’m most proud of.”
Said a proud father, Larry Jones, “I will say this about my son, he has always refused to be mediocre.”
But could he field?
Jones came to that long-ago draft day with the idea he was a shortstop. Others disagreed. In fact, it was when Boras informed the young Chipper that he would likely play third base in the majors that their meeting began going sideways.
The Braves deployed him at short through the minor leagues, but soon enough concluded that Jones needed to move a few steps to his right, for everyone’s sake.
“At shortstop, yeah, he threw the ball everywhere when he first came out,” Braves Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox said. “We always had him projected at third base – we let him play short to see what happened. He became a well-above-average third baseman.”
The adjective “slick fielding” seldom was applied to Jones. Five times he finished a season with the ignominious distinction of being among the top four in errors among major league third-basemen.
Got pretty good at the charging, bare-handed pick-up, though. The Greg Maddux sinker and the John Smoltz hard slider would offer him ample slow-rolling grounders to field. “It was a play I had 50 to 75 times a year, and I needed to be efficient at it. I worked at it really hard,” Jones said.
Being the proud player he is, Jones will make an argument that his fielding was underappreciated. It’s a well-honed argument, down to the thousandth of a percentage point.
“A guy like (Philadelphia’s) Mike Schmidt – who won 10 Gold Gloves – had a .955 career fielding percentage. I had zero Gold Gloves with a .954 career fielding percentage,” Jones said.
“I wouldn’t say I was a perennial Gold Glover, but I should have won one or two by the numbers.”
We’ll not even talk about his two seasons when he took one for the team and moved to left field (2002 and ’03). No need to dredge such memories now.
A personal life played out on the air
The most uncomfortable chapter of the Jones Atlanta legacy was the three-hour live appearance on WSB radio dedicated to discussing not his hitting or the Braves’ fortunes, but rather his infidelity.
It came to light in 1998 that Jones had fathered a child while engaging in one of a number of affairs while still married to his first wife. In an extraordinary act of public confession, Jones took his failings to the radio audience, even taking calls from disappointed fans.
Never has a professional athlete put himself so out there and left himself quite so vulnerable as this. It was as if after talking it out with his family Jones needed to discuss it with all of Atlanta. Jones lost a number of his endorsement deals then, and his image was tattered. But he and his hometown somehow got through the ordeal.
“Of all the fans that have come through here, the fans have glommed onto Chipper,” Larry Jones said. “Let’s face it, he has done some things that we weren’t proud of – that we don’t condone. But I will say this: He has never made an excuse. He has manned up.”
“Our society is a forgiving one,” Chipper said. “If you show contrition and maturity – I think being so forthcoming and admitting your mistakes curries some respect.”
In a Players Tribune piece by Jones that was designed to be a letter to his younger self, he wrote to himself: “By the time you feel like you’re finally ready to get married, and to be the type of husband that a spouse deserves, you’ll have already ruined one marriage, helped to ruin a second, have four kids, and be two divorces in.”
His third wife, Taylor, is scheduled to be in Cooperstown for his induction, even as the trip coincides with her due date. The couple’s second son – Jones’ sixth – is to be named Cooper. The reason’s obvious.
What about his legacy in the clubhouse?
For all the outward confidence Jones displayed, he never quite focused that quality on being a loud clubhouse presence. For the sportswriter, he was one of the more articulate and insightful of interviews. Yet, for teammates, he hardly was the most forceful voice in the room.
Jones came along at a time when the Braves were not exactly interviewing for clubhouse leaders. He was a mere rookie when they took their one and only World Series. Beyond that, he was on a team whose personality was shaped by the three eventual Hall of Fame starting pitchers.
Add in the tension he brought with him to the ballpark from his oft-turbulent domestic life, and it’s true that Jones’ profile in the Braves clubhouse didn’t always match his production.
“I feel I got kind of a bad rap because people say I wasn’t vocal, didn’t talk,” Jones said. “I was kind of in my own little world. If I’m watching a game and I’m trying to pick up every little advantage – see if the guy is actually tipping pitches – and I don’t want to be bothered, then so be it. That’s what made me the player that I was.”
“I really wouldn’t change anything other than the fact of how I was perceived,” Jones said. “Maybe I wasn’t the outward leader that everybody wanted me to be, but most of my teammates would tell you if they came up and asked me a question or came up and said, hey, can we go to the cage, that I’d be their guy.”
His last game as a Brave in 2012 was a nightmare – a wild-card loss to St. Jones in which he went 1-for-5 and committed a huge error that paved the way to a big Cardinals inning. And yet Jones can point to a sort of happy ending.
“I let my hair down a lot more the last couple years. I was happier at home, so I came in a better mood,” he said. “For a lot of years, I was miserable at home and sometimes I brought that to the ballpark. That’s something I regret.”
Great players often make terrible coaches and managers. They just operate on a different plane than the rank and file player.
And, yet, Jones’ name is often mentioned as a logical Braves hitting coach, and perhaps, one day, a manager. At 46, he will pop in now during the spring to serve as a tutor and offer occasional personnel advice during the season. Good luck trying to talk him into more.
“I’m right where I want to be now,” Jones said. “I got my toe dipped in (baseball) just enough to make me feel good about it.
“The first 14-15 years of my career I was in a bad place, and a lot of it was self-inflicted. I’m so thankful now all that is in the rearview mirror and I have such a good thing going. I don’t want to mess that up. I know the amount of time it takes to put this uniform on every day, the amount of time it takes away from (family), can only hurt me. And I don’t want to muddy up the water.”
It required decades of narrow focus and commitment to a child’s game to compile a Hall of Fame career. It will take Jones just one more afternoon to confirm it.