On July 29, Chipper Jones will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. What began in the small north-central Florida town of Pierson and built through 18 seasons in Atlanta will come to rest in an upstate New York shrine.
There is one more celebration of the great Braves teams of the 1990s/early 2000s to be had, as Jones follows Bobby Cox, John Schuerholz, Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz to Cooperstown.
In this first of two long looks into the Hall of Fame journey of Larry Wayne Jones Jr., we retrace the making of one of baseball’s best-ever switch hitters, and the perfect confluence of influences on this singular baseball life.
Next week, on the verge of his enshrinement, we consider Jones’ unique legacy as a Brave.
How would you, from scratch, make a Hall of Fame switch-hitter? How would you construct not only one swing that would hold up against the oncoming freight train of a major league fastball, but also its mirror image on the other side of the plate?
Albert Einstein, somewhat of an expert on the subject, once determined that, “The definition of genius is taking the complex and making it simple.” Then how does one build a player whose form of genius made hitting better than .300 both right-handed and left look uncomplicated, when just eating soup with either hand would be hard work for most of us?
In the case of Chipper Jones, you would start the process a generation in advance.
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Chipper’s father, Larry Jones, remembers he was maybe 8 the day at Baltimore’s old Memorial Stadium when the New York Yankees were in town and Mickey Mantle went deep. As if it were a sign, Jones’ uncle caught the home run. From that moment, said Chipper’s dad, “Even though the Orioles were my team, I worshipped the ground (Mantle) walked on.” And The Mick was a switch-hitter. Which is a little like saying Julia Child was a cook.
Nicknamed Chipper because he was such a carbon copy of his father – as in a chip off the ol’ block – Larry’s kid was born into the perfect situation for bringing up a ballplayer who might one day do something notable. Certainly, being a switch-hitter would be a key part of the formula.
In tiny Pierson, they know a little about growing things. Big Fern is king. There is no confusion as to where the priorities of this place lie when you drive in. “Welcome to Pierson – Fern Capital of the World,” reads the sign at the town limits. Beneath that, clearly second billing, they’ve added, “Hometown of Chipper Jones.”
Like just about everyone else in town, the Joneses had a fernery out back of the house. But it wasn’t only florist greenery being raised on that piece of ground.
Chipper was the only child of Larry and Lynne, and as such was the sole beneficiary of their genetics and their focus. Both his parents were creatures of competition – Larry a shortstop at Stetson (later a coach there and in high school); Lynne a well-traveled equestrian.
“It was the perfect support system,” Chipper said. “The perfect storm. My mom was an athlete – a very strong-willed and strong-minded woman. My dad is to this day one of the two or three top baseball men that I know.
“All that combined with the fact that I wanted it.”
How many swings would go into the making of a Hall of Fame third baseman? The number had to stretch into seven figures, Chipper figures, without stooping to exaggeration in his mind.
Start the count way back when he was barely old enough to stand, and father began pitching tennis balls to his son out back of the house. As Chipper grew and Wiffleball bats cracked and the grips of regular bats wore out, they improvised. They taped up PVC piping – plenty of that around a bunch of thirsty ferns – and turned that into passable hitting tool.
His father invented a game to keep the batting practice fun. Chipper would pretend to be every hitter in a major league team’s lineup – most often the Dodgers – and the naturally right-handed kid would turn around and hit left-handed when it applied. Wily guy, that Larry Jones. Mickey Mantle would have been proud.
Playing baseball in a place like Pierson could be consuming, because in that season, what else was there to do? If there wasn’t already a place like Pierson where the American Pastime could flourish, Norman Rockwell would have invented it. And this Jones kid was pretty good at the game.
His godfather, former long-time Stetson baseball coach Pete Dunn, had a rule that no one under 8 could attend his baseball camp. Chipper got in at 6 because as Dunn said, “he was so head and shoulders ahead in his development.”
A buddy back home, Erik Hagstrom, tells the story of how teams seceded from the county Little League rather than continue getting beaten by the Pierson team led by Jones.
Baseball was a joy. But working in the fernery was often a sentence. Like the time Chipper got a D in seventh-grade English. “For six weeks, he ran home from school in the afternoon and he pulled weeds in that fernery until dark, took his meals in his room and he studied. You know what? He never got another D,” his father said. It was good to learn the value of stoop labor if for no other reason than to reinforce that thought that baseball was the much preferred option.
By the time Chipper was advancing out of Little League, he was on the path to becoming a switch-hitter. That path came with multiple exit ramps, each a seductively easier route.
“He had coaches chirping at him, who were more interested in winning that night than in developing the player,” Lynne recalled. “There was a lot of that early on.”
Example: At a Babe Ruth League state final, his coach beseeched the family to let Chipper go strictly right-handed. The answer was uncompromising. “Nope,” Larry said. “He didn’t do as well as he probably could have, but I told people all the time that if you’re going to make the commitment to switch-hit, you can’t take every at-bat personally. Every at-bat is one more at-bat of experience. And pretty soon, the experience catches up.”
He would leave Pierson and finish high school at The Bolles School, a private boarding school in Jacksonville, Fla., to accelerate his baseball development. But even after the Braves took him with the No. 1 pick in the 1990 draft out of Bolles, there would be yet another fork in the road to the making of a Hall of Fame switch-hitter.
Under the pressure of being the top overall pick, Jones got off to a terrible start in rookie ball (hitting .229 over 44 games). He broke his right hand two weeks before the draft fighting with a high school teammate, which had weakened his left-handed swing. Trying to rehabilitate his numbers, Jones convinced his first pro manager to allow him to hit solely right-handed for a week. Higher up the Braves’ chain, they were not amused. Jones was informed that they had drafted a switch-hitter, and a switch-hitter he would be. As if to emphasize the point, they fired the Rookie League manager.
You could say such conviction to ambidexterity paid off. Over the sample size of a long career, Jones hit .303 left-handed and .304 right-handed. With more than twice the number of at-bats from the left side, that’s where his power lived – 361 of his 468 homers were left-handed. Slugging percentage left-handed: .405. Slugging percentage right-handed: .391.
His old manager, a Hall of Famer himself, knew quality when he saw it. “Chipper had length in his swing and believe it or not, he never got jammed. You just don’t see that,” Cox said.
“He did that little toe tap, and it was perfect. He never struck out 100 times (99 once, his rookie year). Great swing from both sides. Everybody used to turn him around and make him hit right-handed in tough situations, and he hit .300 both ways. It never bothered him. His swing was just beautiful.”
One can’t help but wander into hypothetical territory: What if at any point Jones had succumbed to the temptation to do the comfortable thing, and stay with his right-handed swing? Does a Hall of Fame career happen?
“No,” Jones answered.
“Because it’s me, I still think I would have been a good player. That’s the confidence I have inside of me. But the decision to be a switch-hitter is the single most important, biggest reason I’m sitting where I’m sitting today.”
Said his friend and agent B.B. Abbott, considering the what-if-Chipper-stayed-right-all-the-time question: “Would he have been a very, very, very good player? Yeah. Would he have been a special Hall of Fame-type player? I don’t know.
“You look at his numbers from the right side, they were special. But if you then try to wonder how would have done against sliders from right-handed guys, you just don’t know. He would absolutely have been a big-leaguer and absolutely been an All-Star caliber big-leaguer. But in the Hall of Fame? I don’t know.”
Being a Hall of Famer is all about the compromises not made. It is about forging an identity as a special player, settling on nothing less than that, and, one day, setting it in bronze.
“You know,” Chipper said, “they say those (Hall of Fame) plaques speak to each other when they turn the lights off.”
“Wouldn’t you love to hear Babe (Ruth) and Hank (Aaron) go at it as to who the greatest player of all time was?”
But knowing how this newest Hall of Famer was made, knowing the distinct place he carved out for himself in Braves baseball history, there is another eternal conversation that interests him more. “For me,” Chipper said, “it would be listening to Mickey and Eddie Murray go at it. That would be cool, see who the best switch-hitter is.”
In a week’s time, Chipper Jones is joining the discussion.
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