Old Timer

At 23, Chipper Jones is the kind of vintage baseball player that disenchanted fans have craved — a scrapper, full of hustly, plays like he actually loves the game

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His eyes are the eyes of a hunter. Even though he cloaks them under the shadow of his low-slung baseball cap, there’s no escaping the complete focus, the fierce confidence. Necessarily arrogant is the way he likes to describe it.

The face is virtually beardless, even innocent. The chaw of tobacco bulging out of his left cheek seems almost a self-conscious attempt to look a little older. But the eyes seem to say, Don’t be fooled. I’m going to succeed, and you can’t stop me.

In this cynical age of baseball as business, Chipper Jones may be just the kind of throwback player that fans, disenchanted by the Dow Jones version of the national pastime, have craved. A scrapper. Full of hustle. Wears his stockings up high like the old-timers. Plays like he actually loves the game. Already, after one full season in the major leagues, he is a marquee player for the Atlanta Braves, best team in baseball. Most experts believe he is destined to become one of the elite of the game. 

“Earl Weaver [the former Baltimore Orioles manager] used to say that certain people, you just know when they walk on the field, They’re great. And he’s one of those,” pronounces ESPN’s esteemed Peter Gammons. “He’s just a very special person. He’s the type player around whom teams build. The Braves have changed so much in a four- or five-year period, which a lot of people don’t realize, and he’s clearly the foundation of the next generation.”

“Even as a rookie third baseman, a position he hadn’t played since he was 14 and in a Babe Ruth league, people marveled at his maturity as a player and the way he carried himself like a 10-year veteran.” He’s not in awe of anything out there,” says Braves third base coach Jimy Williams. “I don’t like to use the word cocky; it’s an inner confidence.” 

Confidence.

That’s the word that turns up again and again whenever people discuss the 23-year-old Jones. “It’s not bogus, and it’s not false hustle,” says Braves General Manager John Schuerholz. “It shows on the field, how he handles himself and how he handles situations and, as importantly, how his teammates view him. They look to him as a guy they can count on in tight situations, which was remarkable for a rookie to be in that position. He’s been a real stabilizing force on the club, and for a rookie that’s about as high of praise as you can give.”

Flashback to 1990. The scouts have seen the future of baseball, and his name is Todd Van Poppel. A high school pitcher from Texas with the fastball of a Roger Clemens or a Nolan Ryan. Primed to dominate the majors. An arm for the ages. And there were the Atlanta Braves, who at 63-97 had finished with the worst record in the National League in 1989, having their mediocrity rewarded with the first pick of the amateur draft.

But Van Poppel was smart. He knew how to play the angles. The Atlanta Braves? Come on. Definitely the worst team in baseball. Always had been, always would be. Clearly beneath his talent. So he told the Braves not to waste their draft pick; he was going to play college ball. Atlanta took the bluff and passed on the Texas hurler. Thirteen selections later the World Champion Oakland A’s drafted him, and he quickly signed a reported million-dollar contract. The pundits shook their heads in disgust. Just like always, the Atlanta Braves had been rooked. “Buzzard’s luck,” one local columnist called it.

The Braves wound up drafting a shortstop out of Jacksonville named Chipper Jones, who was so happy about it that he signed a contract the same day — he wanted to start playing as soon as possible. “If Todd Van Poppel doesn’t want to play for the Atlanta Braves,” the 18-year-old Jones told reporters, “I’ll be more than happy to take his place.”

Six years later? Todd Van Poppel is barely hanging on with the woeful A’s. And Chipper Jones? Well, sometimes, despite your worst intentions, Lady Luck shoos away the buzzards and takes you by the hand.

Larry Wayne Jones Jr. was born in 1972, in DeLand, Fla., near Daytona Beach. The only child of a high school baseball and football coach, he looked so much like his dad that his parents nicknamed him “Chipper” — a chip off the ol’ block — and it stuck. He was groomed as a baseball player from an early age, schooled in the fundamentals and taught to bat both right-handed and left-handed just like Mickey Mantle.

By the eighth grade Jones was good enough to start on his father’s high school team. Rather than spark controversy by sitting down a senior so Chipper could play, his father temporarily gave up coaching. Later, when he saw his son being coddled in high school because of his athletic talents, he transferred him to The Bolles School, in Jacksonville, an exclusive private boarding school where collared shirts and ties were part of the dress code. 

There were nights Chipper Jones spent crying in his room, homesick and distraught over whether he could cut it academically at Bolles. He stuck it out and matured fast, even making the honor roll. While other kids his age were mall rats or video game wizards, Jones was learning how to take care of himself away from Mom and Dad. How to handle money on his own. How to discipline himself to succeed. How to be a baseball player.

“Everybody kept saying last year that he played older than what he looks; well, he’s always been like that,” says Don Suriano, Jones’ high school coach. “As a sophomore I viewed him as a senior in high school. As a senior he was playing like a college junior. You knew he had a gift. He had the speed, the arm, the glove, the switch-hitting ability, the power. I think there are some kids born to play baseball, and I think God reached out and touched him.”

In Jones’ three seasons at Bolles the team went 65-19 and won a state double-A championship. Jones batted .483 in his senior season and also pitched well enough for a 7-3 record and .987 earned run average, striking out 100 batters and walking only 25. In fact, his most inspired performance in high school may have come on the mound in his final game at Bolles — he pitched for a championship with a fracture in his throwing hand from a fight with a teammate the day before the game.

According to Suriano, Jones was taking batting practice, and the rest of the players were picking on one of their teammates playing in the outfield. Jones told them to layoff and concentrate on the upcoming championship game. Then he walked to the outfield to shag flies. Jones exchanged words with the teammate, and punches began to fly. “The guy had a bad case of diarrhea of the mouth,” says Jones.

“Chipper just walked into the wrong hornet’s nest at the wrong time,” says Suriano. “We go back to the hotel, and his hand is swollen up, and I’m asking if he can pitch. He says, ‘I’ll go.’ We’re one out from winning the state championship, and he can’t really throw his breaking ball because his hand’s broke. We got beat, but heck, he took us to two state finals. He always knew he could play. He was always very confident. He knew he could carry a team on his back and come up with a big play.”

A couple of weeks after he was drafted by the Braves, Chipper Jones showed up for his first taste of professional ball with his hand still on the mend and spent a woeful summer in the Gulf Coast League in Florida, batting just .229. Glenn Hubbard, who had manned second base for nearly a decade in Atlanta, was in his first season as a minor-league coach. Initially, Hubbard was skeptical of the kid. “To be honest, when he first signed, I didn’t know whether this was a smart draft pick,” says Hubbard. “He was kind of over matched at the plate in rookie ball, and I didn’t realize he had broke his hand.” 

But Hubbard saw one thing that really impressed him: Jones didn’t carry himself like a No.1 draft choice, walking around like he was entitled. Instead, he was focused on doing whatever it took to make it to the big leagues. “He has great work habits,” Hubbard says. “To give you an example: One year he was battling for the league batting championship. There was a week left in the season. We had optional batting practice on an off day. And who’s the only guy that shows up? Chipper Jones.”

His first full season in the minors was playing Class A ball for the baby Braves in Macon. Jones tore up the league at the plate but wore out his first baseman in the field, making about 35 errors in the first half of the season alone. For Chipper Jones it was downright embarrassing. He was determined to improve and showed up early every day for extra infield practice. Hubbard never had to tell him something twice. In the second part of the season Jones managed to cut his errors almost in half. 

“He had a phenomenal year at the plate in Macon,” says Hubbard. “He hit the best fastball in the league. He hit the best curveball in the league. I had him again in triple A in Richmond. And he hit the best fastball in the league, the best curve and the best change-up. And that’s when I told myself, ‘He’s got it.’ And he knew he had it. Nothing seemed to fluster him. It wasn’t a cockiness — it was a quiet confidence. He knew that he belonged in the big leagues, and that’s the way he carried himself.”

The scar is very long and painful looking, starting at the top of his kneecap and stretching down to his shin. What happened was silly, actually. Jones was running down the first base line in a spring training game in 1994 and planted his left foot to jump to avoid a tag. It was something he’d done hundreds of times. This time, however, he heard a pop and fell to the ground in agony. The diagnosis: a complete tear of the anterior cruciate ligament, the knee’s primary stabilizer; Jones could be out for at least a year, and if he came back, he might never be the player he was. 

At the time Jones was hitting .361 and earning himself a starting spot in the major leagues as a left fielder. It was a position he’d never played before, but it was open, and Jones went for it. “Chipper was labeled a ‘can’t miss’ prospect, and we all know there’s been a lot of those guys who never make it,” says 1995 World series MVP Tom Glavine. “We were a little guarded as to what he was all about. But when he came into his first full camp in ’94 and had the spring he had, we all knew he was legit.”

Now Jones would have to prove himself all over again. He had never sat out a baseball season in his life, and he spent the first few weeks sulking and feeling sorry for himself. “It was very disappointing, depressing sometimes, watching the team playing on TV and knowing I should be out there,” he says. With the encouragement of his wife, Karin, he regained his determination and began the long, slow process of coming back. He spent three hours a day in the gym pumping iron and set a goal of being back in uniform in time for the post-season.

When the strike erased any hope for a comeback in 1994, Jones had set his sights on the 1995 season. The big question: Where would he play?

The Braves had two free agents on the left side of their infield — shortstop Jeff Blauser and third basemen Terry Pendleton — and Jones was pegged for one of those positions. When asked if he could play third, Jones responded, “I feel I can play at this level at any one of the seven positions behind the pitcher; that’s how much confidence I have.” He was even more confident the Braves could manage quite well with Chipper Jones at shortstop rather than Blauser. “We wouldn’t lose anything, just experience,” he pronounced.

It was pretty brazen talk for a kid who had proven absolutely nothing on the major-league level. A lot of the veterans shook their heads at the cocky talk. They had gone to two out of the last three World Series; what had Chipper Jones ever done?

“There’s probably some times all of us looked at each other and said, ‘We need to have a talk with Chipper,’” Glavine says with a warm, almost paternal smile. “He said some things early last year that I’m sure were totally innocent and weren’t said to make anybody mad. As a young player you’re going to make mistakes off the field as well as on the field. That’s okay. That’s all part of learning and maturing as a player.” 

But it was the rookie who spoke up with the right words at the right time early last season. The team was playing without heart, and a series sweep by the Houston Astros had dropped them back into third place. Jones told reporters the team needed a wake-up call. He challenged the veteran players to step forward and take up the leadership role left vacant by the departure of Terry Pendleton. “This is an awkward position for me. I feel like I have leadership qualities, but I’m young and unproven,” Jones said. “But there are a lot of people frustrated. We don’t have a lot of vocal leaders in here … We need a kick in the butt … We’re not doing the little things to win. This has got to stop.”

It was a bold move for a rookie, but Jones couldn’t stifle his frustration. It turned out to be just the spark the Braves needed; the team won 11 of its next 14 games and never looked back on its drive to winning the World Series. “I may have pissed some people off, but a lot of guys came up to me and said that it needed to be said,” Jones says now. “I took a little bit of flak. I don’t care. I mean, I’m out here to win, I’m not out here to make friends. We were getting off to a bad start, and I couldn’t hold back. We had a team meeting. Some people yelled at me, I yelled back at them, and it was over.”

It was a demonstration of Jones’ grit, of his potential as a leader who accepts nothing less from his teammates than all they have. “I think Chipper’s a little young in terms of leadership right now,” says Glavine. “But there’s no question in my mind that somewhere down the road he’s going to be a leader around this clubhouse.”

You can hear it every time Chipper Jones steps up to the plate — high-pitched squeals rising from the stands as though he were some teenybopper idol taking the stage. On top of all his sizable baseball talents, Jones also possesses charisma. In bundles. Late last season a television camera happened to be focused on his wife in the stands just as she dropped a soft drink in her lap. The next night someone brought a sign to the stadium: IF I WERE MARRIED TO CHIPPER JONES, I’D SPILL MY DRINK, TOO.

People simply like him. They respond to his obvious enthusiasm. There are an abundance of players like Barry Bonds and Albert Belle who often look absolutely miserable when they’re playing baseball. Not Jones. “Chipper loves the game,” says Bolles coach Don Suriano. “It’s fun to him. He’s always got a smile on his face.”

His toughest task may be adjusting to his new celebrity. He was angered to open his door last Halloween and find a mob scene in his front yard. Kids everywhere. And never mind tricks or treats; they all wanted autographs. Jones mingled with the kids but signed no autographs. He also decided he’d better find himself a house with a little land somewhere away from everything. He already has two phone lines into his house: one that he answers and another with an answering machine to screen the rest of his calls.

People are expecting great things of Chipper Jones. And he expects even greater things of himself. He was keenly disappointed to be the runner-up to Japanese pitching sensation Hideo Nomo in the Rookie of the Year voting. But in the next breath he’ll tell you he wasn’t close to being satisfied with his rookie season. Never mind his 23 home runs and 86 RBIs; he batted only .265 and committed 25 errors in the field. “I don’t think I’m a .260 hitter in this league. I’m a little disappointed in that. I’m disappointed in my strikeout total; I don’t think I’m a guy that’s going to strike out a hundred times in a season. There’s a lot of room for improvement.”

He expects to be a .300 hitter. He vows to improve his hitting from the right side of the plate, his natural stance. He went back to the gym in the off-season because he wants to be strong enough to hit at least 30 home runs this season. He wants to improve his defense. Jones is guided by a mantra that Glenn Hubbard kept drilling in his head all through the minor leagues: “It’s great to get to the big leagues, but the struggle begins once you get there to stay there. 

If he needed a reminder, it came before the first game of the World Series last year. Jones shyly walked up to Cal Ripken Jr. before the game and asked him to sign a baseball. CHIPPER, Ripken wrote, YOUR CAREER IS OFF TO A GREAT START. NOW COMES THE HARD PART.

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