It‚Äôs not the clutch hitting from the number 3 spot in the lineup that is most impressive about Brave rookie third baseman Larry Wayne (Chipper) Jones. Nor is it the sharp plays he makes from a position he didn‚Äôt take up until this year. Nor is it the way he runs from first to third on a single to leftfield because he feels instinctively that he can make it. No, what is most impressive about Jones is his cool.
He had that by the time he was 14 years old. He got it in Pierson, Fla., a town with one stoplight, two gas stations and two convenience stores. Everyone in Pierson knew that Chipper was a can‚Äôt-miss athlete. When he started on the high school varsity baseball team as an eighth-grader, it was clear that his talents might someday carry him to the major leagues. So imagine the bitter disappointment in Pierson when Larry Jones, Chipper‚Äôs father, decided to send his son to a private boarding school 90 miles away for the 10th grade, thereby putting a serious dent in the hopes of Taylor Junior-Senior High School for a shot at the state title not only in baseball but also in football. Imagine the pressure when, three years in a row, Chipper faced his old school in the state baseball playoffs--and won.
The way Chipper handled that pressure helps explain why he went
on to become the best rookie in the major leagues in 1995. It
helps explain why he was the unofficial most valuable player of
the divisional series between the Braves and the Colorado
Rockies, and why in a tension-filled National League
Championship Series against the Cincinnati Reds he hit .438,
made all of his plays at third and carried himself as if it were
his 10th trip to the playoffs. "Life taught me a lot before I
got to pro ball," says Jones. "Some guys live for crunch time.
Jones is one of them. In Game 1 in Colorado, he hit two home
runs, including a two-out blast in the ninth that gave the
Braves a 5-4 win. He also made the game-saving defensive play in
the eighth with a brilliant diving stop of a grounder by Andres
Galarraga with a man in scoring position. In Game 2, Atlanta was
trailing 4-3 in the ninth when Jones led off with a double,
igniting a four-run rally that sent the Braves to a 7-4 victory.
In Game 4 he had another huge hit. Atlanta trailed 3-0 with two
on and two out in the third when Jones doubled home two runs.
Fred McGriff followed with a two-run homer, and the Braves never
trailed again, going on to win 10-4. Despite playing with a sore
left knee and an aching back, Jones ended the series with a .389
average, two homers, four RBIs and terrific defense.
Such heroics were in keeping with Jones‚Äôs performance during the regular season. He belted 23 homers and drove in 86 runs. In 162 games, not the 144 played this year, he would have had 26 homers and 97 RBIs. Those numbers would have put Jones in the company of former NL rookies of the year Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell and David Justice. "Chipper is a very special player," says Brave reliever Mark Wohlers. "I‚Äôm going to get his and [Greg] Maddux‚Äôs autographs."
The most remarkable aspect of Jones‚Äôs season was the way he
moved to different fielding positions with ease and without
letting it affect his hitting. A natural shortstop, Jones was
switched in spring training to third base--a very difficult
transition for most shortstops. Then, when Ryan Klesko was put
on the 15-day disabled list in May, Jones moved to leftfield and
performed without a hitch there, too. "He could play anywhere,"
says Atlanta manager Bobby Cox. "And you wouldn‚Äôt even have to
ask him. If we have a hole somewhere, he‚Äôll volunteer to play
None of this surprises the people of Pierson. As a high school
football player, Chipper, a wide receiver, was named first-team
all-state his senior year and received scholarship offers from
USC, UCLA and Stanford. He was also a good pickup basketball
player. Despite his success in other sports, however, Chipper
knew that the only game he wanted to play professionally was
Larry Jones was the baseball coach at Taylor Junior-Senior High
when Chipper reached the eighth grade in 1985, but Larry quit
the position because he knew both that his son was good enough
to beat out a senior infielder and that the resulting
controversy wouldn‚Äôt be good for Larry, Chipper or the
community. "Dad stepped down," says Chipper, "but I beat the guy
Larry, who was (and still is) an algebra teacher at Taylor, says
he "started seeing little bitty favors being given to Chipper"
at school, meaning that teachers were cutting the boy some
slack. "That wasn‚Äôt fair to him or the other kids." So Larry
enrolled Chipper at The Bolles School in Jacksonville for his
sophomore year. For the first five days Chipper called home
crying, claiming the work load was too much. "I told him,
‚ÄòComing home is not an option,‚Äô" Larry says. "Kids give what we
demand of them, not what we ask of them. Chipper made a 3.2 GPA
the first year, then maintained it."
Chipper says, "In public school I made honor roll without cracking a book. Private school matured me."
Chipper led Bolles to three straight Class AA state championship baseball games, each time eliminating Taylor in the playoffs. "That was tough," he says. "I couldn‚Äôt go away to another school, come back and lose. That was the most pressure I‚Äôd ever felt until now. People have always expected big things of Chipper Jones. And I‚Äôve always answered the bell."
The Braves made him the No. 1 pick in the nation in 1990, but
not without first looking in another direction. Atlanta scouting
director Paul Snyder felt that Jones was the best player in the
country, but most Brave officials wanted Todd Van Poppel, a
dominant high school pitcher. Van Poppel dropped out of the
running by rejecting an offer reported at $900,000.
Jones never used the threat of going to college in order to get
more money from the Braves. He signed for $350,000--less than
his market value--because he wanted to get his career started immediately. In the middle of a negotiating session with the Braves, Jones and his father stepped aside to talk. "I told him, ‚ÄòChipper, you can get more than this,‚Äô" Larry says. "Chipper said, ‚ÄòI know, but I want to be playing in a week.‚Äô" The signing took less than an hour.
Last year Jones was going to be the Braves‚Äô Opening Day
leftfielder and number 3 hitter, but he tore up his left knee
during a spring training game and was lost for the season; it
was, he says, the most difficult period of his life. This
season, though, Jones was the Braves‚Äô best and most consistent
player. He would like to follow the career path of one of his
idols, Baltimore Oriole shortstop Cal Ripken Jr., who won the
American League Rookie of the Year award in 1982 and AL MVP
honors and a World Series ring in 1983. When Ripken threw out
the first ball at Game 1 of the ‚Äô95 World Series, Jones asked to
meet him. He had Ripken sign a ball for him. The inscription
read, "Chipper, your career is off to a great start. Now comes
the hard part."
Chances are pretty good that Chipper can handle it.
COLOR PHOTO: CONTENTS PHOTOGRAPH BY TOM DIPACE Sign of the times: Braves like Chipper Jones are in demand. [Chipper Jones signing autographs for fans--T of C]
COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA [Chipper Jones]
COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT CUNNINGHAM Jones swings for the fences as often as the next man up, McGriff. [Chipper Jones]
COLOR PHOTO: JONATHAN DANIEL [See caption above--Chipper Jones and Fred McGriff]