No. 56: Chipper Jones
I very seriously considered putting Joe DiMaggio in this slot for obvious reasons but couldn’t justify it … and figured some might miss the point and send lots of angry emails.
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Here’s something you might not know: Chipper Jones played 300 more games at third base (1,992 games) than George Brett (1,692). Still, for some reason, many people do not seem to think of Chipper as a pure third baseman.
It’s a weird thing. I think it’s because Jones — and he might be the only significant player to have this happen — moved off third base to left field in his prime (he spent his age 30 and 31 seasons in left field) and then moved BACK to third base for the remainder of his career. The defensive spectrum is not supposed to go counterclockwise like that. The defensive numbers suggest Chipper was as good or better a third baseman late in his career as he was early.
Best I can tell, three times in the history of the amateur draft, a team has selected a (relatively) local high school player with the No. 1 overall pick over a more hyped (and pricier) pitching prospect.
In 1990, the Braves took Jacksonville’s Chipper Jones over Todd Van Poppel.
In 2001, the Twins took St. Paul catcher Joe Mauer over Mark Prior.
In 2004, the Padres took San Diego’s Matt Bush over Justin Verlander.*
The last of these, of course, is one of the most disastrous decisions in baseball history. But that seems predictable.
*Doug Mientkiewicz, after facing Verlander for the first time, was told that Verlander had been the second pick in the draft. He said with incredulity in his voice: “Wait, who was the first pick? And you better say it was Pujols.” Hearing it was Matt Bush did not make Mientkiewicz happy.
What’s more fascinating, I think, is that it worked so well the first two times. Taking a local product does not seem like the most promising thought process. And the fact that all three choices were driven by financial considerations doesn’t make it any better. But, damn it, the Braves got a Hall of Fame player instead of a pitching bust, and the Twins got a possible Hall of Famer over a dazzling pitcher who had only one healthy season in the big leagues.
Larry Wayne Jones Jr. — he was called “Chipper” because he was a chip off the old block, the block being his father Larry Wayne Jones Sr. — was one of those natural ballplayers who could do more or less everything growing up. He pitched. He played shortstop. He switch-hit. He was the fastest kid, the strongest kid, the hardest-throwing kid. He was sort of like a character out of an Alfred Slote book.
One thing that has always fascinated me: Chipper’s baseball hero was Mickey Mantle. That’s fascinating because Chipper Jones is five years younger than I am and by the time I started following baseball the Mick was long retired. My guess is that the Mick was Larry Sr.’s favorite player, and he transferred some of that love to his son. Larry Sr. was everything to the chip of his block. Larry Sr. was a math teacher and a coach — he had been a college baseball player — and he taught his son how to play baseball. Mostly he taught his son how switch-hit. Larry Sr. was Chipper’s first and only personal hitting coach. In the big leagues, Chipper said he talked to his father every night.
It’s easy an easy thing to miss if you only saw Chipper as an older player — and he sort of limped around — but when he was young, Chipper was fast and loose and athletic. He stole 40 bases his first full minor league season and stole as many as 25 in his early big league years. He began his career as a shortstop. The Braves determined that at 6-foot-4 he was too tall to be a shortstop in the big leagues, especially after he blew out his ACL before his rookie season. Even so, he was a legitimately great player by his second full season — he hit .309/.393/.590 with 40 homers, 114 runs, 110 RBIs and 14 out of 15 stolen bases.
That was the year, 1996, that the Atlanta Braves could have become a dynasty. They had won four pennants in five seasons (not counting the lost strike season) and were defending World Series champions. They promptly destroyed the Yankees in the first two games of the World Series, both games at Yankee Stadium. In Game 1, Andruw Jones hit two home runs and John Smoltz more or less kept the Yankees frustrated. In Game 2, Greg Maddux was magical and the Yankees never stood a chance.
So, returning home to Atlanta with a commanding 2-0 lead and on the brink of consecutive World Series championships — that was about as good as it ever got for Atlanta baseball. I always remember Gerry Faust telling me that after Notre Dame beat LSU in his first game, his team was ranked No. 1 in the country. They then played Michigan and Faust says, “What I should have done was take a picture of the scoreboard before the game started and retired.” Michigan crushed Notre Dame and it never got any better for Faust at Notre Dame.
The Braves famously lost four straight games in that 1996 Series. The crusher was Game 4, which Atlanta led 6-0 early and 6-3 going into the eighth. That’s when reliever Mark Wohlers gave up a single to Charlie Hayes, a single to Darryl Strawberry and a home run to Jim Leyritz. The fact that those Hayes, Strawberry and pinch-hitter Leyritz was so prominent in the lineup should tell you that we’re talking about a very different era of Yankees baseball. The 1996 Yankees did not have a single every day player with a WAR higher than 4.0.
In Game 5, Andy Pettitte smothered the Braves and outdueled Smoltz. In Game 6, the Yankees got to Maddux with three runs in the third inning and held on for dear life and won their first World Series in almost two decades. In the celebration, I remember seeing Wade Boggs riding a horse. The 1996 Braves were way better than that Yankees team, I think. But after losing that, they never came close to winning the World Series again. They only reached the World Series once more, that as 1999, and THAT Yankees team was way better than the Braves and everyone else.
Chipper Jones was consistently brilliant — or brilliantly consistent — for six years between 1998 and 2003. The lowest he hit in that time was .305, his worst on-base percentage was .402, his lowest slugging percentage was .517. He hit between 26 and 45 home runs every year, drove in 100 runs every year, scored 100 runs every year but one. He won one MVP in that span — in 1999 he hit .319 with 45 homers and 110 RBIs — but it’s not entirely clear that was his best overall season. He, like Hank Aaron and Albert Pujols, doesn’t seem to have a best season because his good ones looked so much alike.
The second half of his career was spottier, largely because of injuries. He led the league in OPS as a 35-year old and in batting average as a 36-year-old. After that his power was sapped and his batting averages plummeted. He seemed a potential 500-home run guy when he was in his mid-30s, but the injuries weighed on him and the ball stopped jumping out of the park as his body broke down. He finished with 468 homers, which probably helps his Hall of Fame chances more than it hurts. Voters aren’t too crazy about the Steroid Era guys who put up a big home run numbers.
Jones has said he was tempted to take steroids but he did not, at least in part because he couldn’t imagine explaining the betrayal to his father. Obviously, we can’t know anything for sure, but that’s a nice sentiment. I’ve never liked at all the way baseball players who used (or may have used) steroids have taken almost all the blame for a game that was obviously fractured in many different places. I’ve never liked the way people so easily discount baseball greatness because of steroid use as if that’s the only factor for baseball greatness. I’ve never liked the way a nation that is obviously hooked on performance enhancing drugs — from Viagra to extra-strength everything to energy drinks to these pharmaceuticals with more side effects than the gamma radiation that turns Bruce Banner into the Hulk — can get so preachy about some baseball player who were doing what baseball players always have always done: Push the edge.
That said, there’s something touching about Jones’ comments about his father. I’d rather believe it. I’d rather hope there were players who refused to use steroids — even though there was almost no chance of getting caught — because they would never be able to look their father in the eye after that. I hope that as a father myself.