When Larry Jones Jr. officially is announced next week as a Baseball Hall of Famer, I'll think about many Chipper things, which only makes sense. I watched his 19-year career with the Braves up close and personal from the beginning to the end as a sports journalist based in Atlanta.I'll
When Larry Jones Jr. officially is announced next week as a Baseball Hall of Famer, I'll think about many Chipper things, which only makes sense. I watched his 19-year career with the Braves up close and personal from the beginning to the end as a sports journalist based in Atlanta.
I'll remember The Anointment. This was huge, and let's return to the 1996 season, when the Braves were near the start of their record streak of 14 consecutive division titles with a 24-year-old third baseman in his second full year in the Major Leagues. Yep, I'm talking about Jones, a rather confident youngster in the clubhouse back then, and he was surrounded by wise men such as future Cooperstown pitchers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz.
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Other veterans with those Braves included Fred McGriff, Marquis Grissom, Mark Lemke and Jeff Blauser. Even so, David Justice was their undisputed leader, and he assumed that role after the Braves sprinted from worst to first in 1991 for an unlikely National League pennant. They reached the World Series again that next year, and they won the old NL West in 1993 before they followed the '94 strike season with a World Series championship.
So there were the '96 Braves, racing toward another NL pennant, and Justice called me to his locker while he pointed across the way.
"This is Chipper's team now," Justice said, praising the physical and the mental makeup of Jones while the outspoken outfielder with the famously clutch bat explained that he was spending what would be his last year with the Braves grooming Jones to take his place.
What a brilliant choice for Justice, since Jones eventually used that '96 season to foreshadow why he'd finish his career as one of the most prolific switch-hitters ever. He batted .309 with 30 home runs and 110 RBIs, and nearly everything he did with his bat, as well as his glove, was timely.
Now let's jump to the present, and I want you to compare those '96 numbers I just mentioned for Jones with his career average per season in each of those categories (.303 average, 30 homers and 105 RBIs). See where I'm going? You can't get more consistent than that for somebody from rural Florida selected as the No. 1 pick in the 1990 Draft by the Braves. Only Eddie Murray surpasses Jones in career RBIs among switch-hitters, but Chipper retired after the 2012 season with more RBIs than Mike Schmidt, George Brett, Eddie Mathews or any other third baseman in Major League history (1,623). Jones also is the only switch-hitter with a lifetime batting average over .300 and more than 400 homers (468), and that includes Mickey Mantle, the boyhood idol of Larry Jones Sr., his father and former high school baseball coach.
We haven't even discussed Jones' slew of honors. Along with his eight trips to the All-Star Game, he was the NL's Most Valuable Player in 1999, when he even added stolen bases to his repertoire by swiping 25 out of 28 attempts. Nine years later, he forgot he was 36 to lead baseball in batting average (.364) and on-base percentage (.470). He also was a two-time winner of the Silver Slugger Award. He never won a Gold Glove Award, but on defense, he was solid at third, and he didn't embarrass himself during a brief stint in left field.
Through it all, I had this nagging thought about Jones: He wasn't getting enough love for his skills, and none of this was sinister. I kept recalling how the majority of folks marveled over Ernie Banks with the Cubs while Billy Williams continued to slug his way in the shadows toward Cooperstown.
As a result, I'll never forget the summer of 2006 at old Turner Field, where Jones' wonderful play during a game reminded me of my Banks-Williams analogy so much that I tracked down Larry Sr. and his wife, Lynne, watching their son from a suite at the ballpark. I told them that it occurred to me again that I was joining others in taking Chipper for granted, and then I asked them if they realized No. 10 for the Braves was a future Baseball Hall of Famer.
Father and mother wept. While Lynne closed her eyes tightly before crossing her fingers after I gave my Chipper prediction as a Baseball Hall of Fame voter, Larry Sr. tried to speak, but he kept battling a lump in his throat.
"It's hard to believe that my son from Pierson, Fla., with one caution light and a convenience store, would even be considered for the Hall of Fame," said Larry Sr., shaking his head. "Just to make it here [pointing toward the field, where Chipper stood in the field at third base] for that matter, but to be considered for the Hall of Fame, it's unbelievable. Unbelievable."
That was 12 years ago, and now it's believable.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com.