“LeBron James was born to play basketball, just like Chipper Jones was born to play baseball.” As the switch-hitting icon gets his Cooperstown call, we called upon his friends and former teammates to share stories about the Braves’ newest Hall of Famer.
The Atlanta Braves relied on brilliant pitching to win 14 straight division titles from 1991 to 2005, and they’ve been a dominant presence during Hall of Fame induction weekend in recent years. Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz rolled into Cooperstown in 2014 and ’15. They were accompanied by John Schuerholz and Bobby Cox — the suspendered architect and tobacco-juice-spitting manager, respectively, who oversaw the whole arrangement.
Now a hitter joins them. Third baseman Larry Wayne “Chipper” Jones Jr. will become the first position player from Atlanta’s glory years to be honored with a plaque in Cooperstown.
Jones, 45, has maintained his ties to the Braves’ organization as a special assistant to baseball operations. As he prepares for a trip to New York and a Hall of Fame news conference Thursday, Cox, former teammates Glavine, Mark Teixeira, Brian McCann and David Ross, and B.B. Abbott — Jones’ lifelong friend and agent — reflect on 10 things that make No. 10 so special.
1. He was a prodigy.
Abbott was 6 years old, growing up in the central Florida town of DeLand when he first met Jones, who was 4 at the time. They played Little League and Babe Ruth ball together before Jones’ parents sent him off to The Bolles School in Jacksonville in the 10th grade. Since March of 1999, Abbott has been Jones’ agent.
Abbott: “Like most people who are great at things, he was just singularly driven. This is what he was born and raised to do. He says all the time, ‘I would have done this or that.’ But I don’t believe there was any alternative in his mind. He dabbled in other things. He was a very good football player and a hell of a basketball player. He was one of those athletes who was good at whatever he did. But you could tell from the outset that [baseball] was what he was going to do, and nothing was getting in his way.”
Teixeira: “This kid was born to hit a baseball. It’s like I tell people, ‘LeBron James was born to play basketball, just like Chipper Jones was born to play baseball.’ He got in that batter’s box as kid and he got it right away. That baseball IQ was built into his DNA.”
2. His career nearly ended before it began.
In the spring of 1994, left fielder Ron Gant broke his leg in a dirt bike accident and was released by Atlanta. Jones was competing with Tony Tarasco and Ryan Klesko for the vacant spot when disaster struck. He was hustling to beat out a ground ball during a game against the New York Yankees in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, when he swerved to avoid a tag and tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. The injury forced him to miss the entire season.
Cox: “When he tore up his knee, my heart was torn out of my chest. I knew it was bad right away. Guys like Chipper or [Mike] Trout or [Albert] Pujols don’t come around every day, and I knew he was done for the year when it happened. With the way modern-day medicine is, I shouldn’t have worried so much, because the docs took great care of him. But of course, that worried me.”
Jones returned to hit 23 homers and finish second to Hideo Nomo in NL Rookie of the Year balloting in 1995.
3. He was in rarefied air as a hitter.
Jones ranks third among switch-hitters behind Mickey Mantle and Eddie Murray with 468 home runs. He’s the only switch-hitter (min. 1,000 at-bats) with a career .300 batting average, .400 on-base percentage and .500 slugging percentage. Of the 55 members of the 400-home run club, Jones is one of only 16 with more walks than strikeouts. And, at 36, he hit .364 to win a batting title; the only players who ever logged a higher average at that age or older were Tris Speaker, Ted Williams, Zack Wheat, Babe Ruth, Tony Gwynn and Barry Bonds.
Teixeira: “I got to play with some great players. I played with Alex Rodriguez and Vladimir Guerrero and Juan Gonzalez. From an eye-hand contact standpoint, Chipper could put the barrel on the ball better than anybody. His coordination was so good, it didn’t matter what type of pitcher was out there — whether it was a tough starter or a tough closer. He could put the barrel on the ball better than anybody.
“People ask me, ‘Who was the best pure hitter you ever played with?’ and I say Chipper Jones. If he had stayed healthy, he’s a 500-homer, 3,000-hit guy and we’re not talking about him being one of the best third basemen of all time. We’re talking about him being one of the best players of all time.”
Glavine: “He was a dynamic hitter from both sides of the plate. I think he was a little more natural hitter from the left side, and at times maybe he had a little more power from the right side. Either way, he was just a threat from either side of the plate. When you start getting compared to Eddie Murray and Mickey Mantle and those types of players as a switch-hitter, then you’re doing something really well.
“I always said Chipper was the kind of guy who could fall out of bed and go 3-for-4. He had that kind of talent. To his credit, he worked at it. He understood his swing and his approach, and on top of that he was really good at incorporating what guys were trying to do to get him out. His [mindset] was like, ‘I know what I do, and I’m going to do it better than you. And I’m going to have a more successful night getting my hits than you are getting me out.”‘
4. He had a computer for a brain.
Maddux was known as “The Professor” for his knowledge of hitters and ability to break down a lineup. Jones didn’t have that reputation, but he was just as perceptive about the art of hitting.
McCann: “The thing that stands out for me is how he would sit on pitches. His baseball IQ really is unmatched. He was three steps ahead of the pitcher he was facing. He would set guys up when there was nobody on base, so that if he faced them again with guys on, he would get certain pitches. If he was out on a pitch his first at-bat, he would come up to me and be like, ‘Hey, I’m going to sit on this pitch and take him deep.’ And then he would do it.
“In 2005, I was a rookie and we were getting ready to play the Astros in the Division Series. Chipper went down the whole lineup — our lineup — and he was telling us individually what the pitcher was gonna do to us. He described what Andy Pettitte was gonna do in the hitters’ meeting. Then he went out there and executed to a ‘T’ and hit a home run [in his first at-bat].”
Ross: “You would hear him talk sometimes about his plan. He might look foolish on two at-bats. But say the pitcher had a changeup, he would say, ‘This guy is going to hang me a changeup, and I’m going to knock the crap out of it.’ Sure enough the guy would hang one in the third at-bat, and Chipper would put it in the seats. It was crazy.”
5. He made his teammates better as a surrogate hitting coach.
Teixeira: “I learned so much from him as a switch-hitter. A lot of it was taking what the pitcher gives you. I was 27, 28 years old when I played with him, and it was relatively easy for me to do damage. I went up there looking for doubles and home runs every time up. When I’d strike out or pop up, Chipper would pull me aside and say, ‘Listen, in this situation that pitcher is not going to let you beat him. He’s going to throw you backdoor curves and two-seamers in and cutters in the dirt and hope you expand.’
“He would say, ‘Cut down on your swing, take a single and understand what this pitcher is trying to accomplish.’ I learned a lot from him. It’s no coincidence that my highest batting average years were 2007 and 2008 when I played with Chipper.”
“This kid was born to hit a baseball. It’s like I tell people, ‘LeBron James was born to play basketball, just like Chipper Jones was born to play baseball.’ He got in that batter’s box as kid and he got it right away. That baseball IQ was built into his DNA.”
McCann: “When I first got called up, there was a game where we had runners on first and second and a chance to tie it. I was facing the closer, and his out pitch was his split-finger. I swung at three pitches and struck out to end the game, and all of them were split-fingers.
“I’m walking up to the clubhouse and Chipper is waiting for me, and he pulls me into a room. He says, ‘Listen, what’s that guy’s best pitch?’ And I’m like, ‘It’s his split-finger.’ And Chipper says, ‘Well, guess what? That’s all you’re going to get. He’s going to throw you his best pitch with the game on the line. So next time you’re in that situation, don’t go up there thinking anything other than he’s going to throw his best pitch.’ I was 21 years old when he told me that, and I never forgot it.
“It was his willingness to wait for me and pull me into a room, not in front of anybody. It was a teaching moment. I learned a lot from that. There are a million things he taught me over the years that I still think about to this day.”
Ross: “I was in the cage one day, in his group, and I was a little frustrated with my swing. He just said, ‘Hey man, when you load, you’re kind of twisting a little bit. Why don’t you load straight back to the catcher?’ He broke it down for me in two seconds in the cage, and I started hitting rockets. I wasn’t a great hitter, but I was locked in for a month. And that became one of my staple mental thoughts whenever I struggled — to go back to a linear load.
“Chipper was never going to force stuff on you, but he would give you his opinion. He was really, really in tune with swings and he would help you out if you were open to listening.”
6. He was an underrated baserunner.
After stealing 20 or more bases twice early in his career, Jones tailed off and finished with 150 steals in 196 attempts. But he compensated for the step or two he lost because of knee problems with uncanny instincts and anticipation.
Cox: “I used to tell him that he ran like Mickey Mantle. He wasn’t as fast as Mickey, but he reminded me of Mickey because of his shoulders and his gait. Chipper isn’t well-known for his baserunning, but he’s one of the best all-around baserunners in the history of the game. If he hadn’t have screwed up his knee and played in a lot of pain, he would have been a basestealer.
“He was smart like Jeff Bagwell, only faster than Bags. It was always fun to watch him run first to third. I don’t remember Chipper ever running into an out. He always took the extra base. He would have been a great prodigy for Mike Scioscia out there [in Anaheim], the way their teams run. Mike would have loved Chipper.”
7. He was a respected defender though he never won a Gold Glove.
Ross: “Every time Chipper fielded a ball, he would hit the first baseman in the chest. I never saw him overthrow first in the four years I was there. It was pretty impressive. I said to Bobby Cox once, ‘Chipper hits the first baseman right in the chest every time.’ And Bobby looked at me and said, ‘It wasn’t always that way, Rossy.'”
Cox: “He was a shortstop when he came up, and he threw the ball away a lot. We wanted him to play a little bit of short, just to find out. Why not? But he’s 6-feet-4, and he had the prototype body for third base written all over him.
“His arm from third was as accurate as a guy like Graig Nettles. And Chipper could come in on a ball like Brooks Robinson. That topped ball in front of the plate, he made that play look easy. He never missed.”
Teixeira: “As a first baseman, I don’t judge players by the highlight plays they make. When we need you to catch that ball and turn that double play or make that tough play on a slow roller in the ninth inning, are you going to make that play? Chipper was that guy. He wasn’t a dive-around-the-infield, get-dirty-and-fly-through-the-air kind of guy. But when that ball was hit to him, his pitcher and his teammates had confidence he was going to make every play.”
8. The more hostile the atmosphere, the better he performed.
It’s only fitting Jones’ first big-league homer was a ninth-inning game-winner off New York Mets reliever Josias Manzanillo on May 9, 1995 at Shea Stadium. Jones logged a .313/.407/.557 career slash line at Shea Stadium, and his 19 homers at Shea were a personal high for a visiting venue.
The more vigorously Mets fans booed Jones, the more he produced. In 2004, Jones and his second wife, Sharon, named their son Shea.
“For him, Shea Stadium was one of those ballparks where he could do no wrong. He grew into the hatred from the New York fan up there.”
Teixeira: “I’m not sure how planned all that was, but once it started happening, I think he actually enjoyed it. He enjoyed being the guy who said dumb things in New York to make New York people not like him. You kind of become who the public thinks you are. In New York, he was that [Mets] killer and the country boy who didn’t belong in the city. He was like, ‘Yeah, that’s cool. I like that. When we go to New York, I’m going to piss people off.'”
Cox: “The fans called him ‘Larry’ and all that. They tried to get on him. And he would just come up with another double.”
Glavine: “It just seemed like when we played in New York, in particularly Shea Stadium, he was going to do something special. And when we played against the Mets in Atlanta, there was something about that Mets uniform where he was going to do something. I don’t know why. For him, Shea Stadium was one of those ballparks where he could do no wrong. He grew into the hatred from the New York fan up there.
“He used to get booed a lot on the road. I think that was a tell-tale sign of the type of player he was. You get booed on the road because you’re a good player.”
9. He was a man of the people.
Ross: “It was funny. He had his cocky side, but you could get on him about it. He didn’t laugh much. He was a pretty serious guy on the field. But when you got him to laugh on the bus or in the locker room, it was a heavy cackle. That’s another aspect to him. He was a veteran guy and a Hall of Fame guy that you could get on. He made you feel as if you were on his level. That made it easy to be his teammate and fun to be around.
“He never put himself up on a pedestal, which I always respected. He didn’t talk down to anybody. He would go to team dinners. A lot of time you don’t see the superstar doing that stuff. He was always in the mix.
“We got on him all the time. Eric Hinske would talk about his old, wrinkly, saggy skin. And we would get on him about his little half-mock turtleneck he would wear. We called it his nerdle-neck. On his retirement weekend, we all wore the mock turtlenecks with no sleeves and took a team picture. It didn’t matter if it was a billion degrees. He had on the mock turtleneck underneath his shirt with the cutoff sleeves. We would give him crap about it. It was his signature thing. That’s what he wore.”
10. He’s synonymous with the Braves.
Ross: “When I was in Atlanta, Chipper was the guy that people came to see. When he ran out of the dugout, he was the one who got the cheers. He was the one everybody waited to see when he was on deck. The only similar person I played with was David Ortiz in Boston. There was a nostalgic kind of aura that surrounded it, and he didn’t create it. He was just a good old boy from [Florida] who liked to hunt and fish and be one of the boys and play baseball. And he was really good at it.”
Glavine: “Obviously, a big part of the success we had in Atlanta was built around pitching and defense, but it wasn’t like we were throwing shutouts every night. Offense was a big part of it, and Chipper was a huge part of that. And for as many runs as he drove in, he saved an awful lot of runs with his glove. I don’t know how many more pieces of that puzzle in the ’90s are going to find their way to Cooperstown. We’ll keep our fingers crossed for Andruw Jones. Chipper certainly was a mainstay in the middle in that lineup and a tremendous defender. He’s very deserving of what’s happening to him.”
Cox: “Chipper still comes around a lot. He’s with us in spring training, and the players love him. It’s a spark, no doubt about that. I should get some film of him and Andruw Jones and show it to all the minor leaguers so they can see how those guys played the game. There was never any showboating or pimping. I can honestly say, as good as Chipper and Andruw were, they could have done a lot of other stuff. But they did it right.”
Abbott: “He always wanted to be that Cal Ripken-, Barry Larkin-type guy who was with the same team his whole career. He knew if he went on that free-agent T-bone steak tour, he would have been tempted to go someplace else. I talked him down from the ledge a couple of times. If something wasn’t going right he would say, ‘I’m just going to go to free agency and see what happens.’ And I would say, ‘Do you really want to do that?’
“He had to take several different routes to stay with the Braves. Chipper’s been pretty upfront about having issues in the marriage department. He’s been married three times. He [jokes] that the Braves are the most committed relationship he’s ever had.”
McCann: “I grew up idolizing Chipper. I’m from Atlanta and I was in high school when he was at the peak of his career. To grow up watching him as fan, and then get a chance to be his teammate and friend, I couldn’t be more proud of him and happy for him. There aren’t many players who’ve ever played this game who were better. There’s only one Chipper Jones.”