The five men inducted into the Braves’ Hall of Fame the past five summers — Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Bobby Cox, John Smoltz and now Chipper Jones – all will be members of an even more exalted body soon. But even as Chipper was being feted Friday, it was impossible not to note that the Atlanta line forming for Cooperstown is nearing its end.
John Schuerholz, the architect of those 14 consecutive first-place finishes, could be voted in by the Veterans Committee at any time. Andruw Jones, who won 12 Gold Gloves and hit a lot of home runs, might make it if a slew of sabermetric-minded folks become Hall of Fame voters. (Andruw was huge among the advanced-analytics set. In 2000, he had a WAR rating of 8.1, second-best among National League position players; he finished eighth in the MVP voting.)
The close of Chipper’s time as an active Brave traces a line of demarcation. The run of excellence that began in 1991 and continued into the 21st century hasn’t exactly ended — the Braves have made the playoffs two of the past three years and lead the National League East by 5 1/2 games as we speak — but different hands have taken the tiller.
Chipper was among the Second Wave that arrived in the middle ’90s and built on what the worst-to-first Braves of ’91 had started. He was the top-shelf everyday player to complement those top-shelf starting pitchers, and now he’s retired and spending his time hunting and fishing and, for better or worse, tweeting.
After Friday’s Hall of Fame luncheon at the Marriott Marquis — a pregame jersey retirement ceremony would follow at Turner Field — the man whose music of choice was Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” was asked who among current Braves might hop aboard the Cooperstown Express. “The next crop of Braves legends is there,” Chipper said. “It’s just a matter of time.”
Then, naming names: “Brian McCann — I don’t think there’s any doubt. He’s putting up numbers that can rival any offensive catcher for the last little bit. He’s made six All-Star teams, (won five) Silver Sluggers. I know a lot’s been made as to whether he’s going to stay here, but I certainly feel that if Brian McCann had a 15-year career in Atlanta, they’d be having one of these for him later.”
More names: “It’s real early for a bunch of the rest of the guys, but I think Freddie Freeman is certainly well on his way, and certainly Jason Heyward has the most talent of anybody in this building. It’s just a matter of those guys harnessing everything and figuring out what it takes to go out there day in and day out and be successful. They’ll get it eventually.”
Strikeouts notwithstanding, this is the most talented Braves team of the new millennium. Keith Law of ESPN ranked four players — Heyward, Freeman, Andrelton Simmons and Craig Kimbrel — among baseball’s 25 best under the age of 25. Last year Law rated Justin Upton, who has since turned 25, No. 1 on that list. Mike Minor and Julio Teheran could develop into top-of-the-rotation starters.
This should be a really good team for good long while. But baseball is a funny game, and not all heralded prospects become All-Stars, let alone Hall of Famers. In his remarks Friday afternoon, Chipper recalled playing shortstop on the Greenville Braves of 1992, a mighty Double-A assemblage that finished 100-43 and included Ryan Klesko, Javy Lopez and Mike Kelly. Back then, it wasn’t a given that Jones, who made 56 errors in Single-A Macon the year before, would become even the best of that bunch.
He became one of the half-dozen best third basemen ever. He told the luncheon crowd: “I’d be lying to you if I didn’t tell you that when I walked into (Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium) and saw those names — Hank (Aaron), Spahnie (Warren Spahn) — I didn’t dream of seeing No. 10 up there.”
And now it is. We can’t know who’ll be the next great Brave — McCann had a terrific start to his career; Freeman and Heyward and Justin Upton are gifted enough to do just about anything — but there’s no disputing the identity of the greatest everyday Brave after Aaron.
Speaking to the roaring Turner Field gathering Friday night, Chipper said: “I truly believed I could do something special.”
From the first, Chipper Jones dared to be great, and he had, as several of the luncheon video tributes noted, an edge to him. Still, someone wondered if the skinny kid who envisioned his No. 10 being retired ever met Spahn and, if so, did he actually call the legendary left-hander “Spahnie”?
“I did meet him,” Chipper said, smiling. “And he was ‘Mr. Spahn.’”