Chipper Jones Was Always Going to be in Baseball's Hall of Fame
From the moment I first saw Larry Wayne (Chipper) Jones launch a baseball a gazillion feet into the Jacksonville night back in the winter of 1990, I knew he was destined for great things.
It's always--at least for me--been easy to recognize standout talent, talent that just looks and feels different than everyone else--the type that makes you remember what you've seen. Chipper had it.
At the time, a tall, skinny and somewhat awkward kid from Pierson, Florida (just north of Deland--west of Daytona Beach), Chipper was the stuff of legend apparently before he arrived in Jacksonville, playing as a freshman for his dad at Taylor County High School and tearing up small school pitching like nobody's business.
He quickly outgrew Taylor and transferred to the Bolles School, a private school known for attracting some of the best athletes in North Florida. Chipper certainly fit that bill.
When I met up with him way back when--I was a budding News and Sports Photographer at the local NBC Station in Jacksonville (WTLV). Then Sports Producer/Reporter Dan Hicken and I made our way south to the Bolles Campus to talk to Chipper about the upcoming 1990 draft where he was expected to be one of the very first players picked.
I don't remember much about the interview other than he smiled with an "Aw Shucks" kind of manner common for kids in North Florida around that time as we asked him about possibly being "The" top draft pick.
Just a couple months later he was the very first player taken in the Major League Baseball draft by my childhood favorite team--the Atlanta Braves.
It didn't take Chipper long to make his mark---hitting .300-plus at every stop. The question was where would he play.
As a budding shortstop...mind you in that era, the best player on the team most often played shortstop, Chip struggled in the field committing a mind boggling 56 errors in Single A Macon.
But man, the kid could hit....
The fielding got better--but the Braves, sensing the defense may affect the offense, moved the 6-4 Jones to third base which may have been the best thing they ever did for a young prospect. Chipper thrived at 3rd and while not Brooks Robinson--there were few better at charging a ball and making a throw on the run at the hot corner.
Dan had gone to visit Chipper on several occasions doing sit down interviews and using him as a reason for us to go to Atlanta during the Braves run of success. While injured--the two talked, while I sat in the control room producing a live show in Jacksonville, still you knew the guy was going to be something.
You know most of the rest of the story about Chipper's accomplishments on the field and a lot of you know he had more than a few issues in his personal life. None of them legal--but a few scandalous affairs and a couple of marriages.
By 1999, my career sort of came full circle when I came to work in Atlanta. One of my 1st assignments--go to Turner Field with Sports Producer Rob Tribble and get Braves post game.
I walked into the locker room, camera on my shoulder, mouth wide-ass open trying to digest the fact that here I was spending time with my favorite baseball team.
Rob turned, saw my face and immediately punched me in the arm; "Stop gawking, we've got work to do".....
Over the years, I would evolve into the Sports Producer and Photographer--often wandering into the Braves locker room on my own after a game or on some occasions before---looking for somebody to talk to.
Early on, it was the talkative ones, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and a handful of other guys. Chipper would be there too. While Smoltz, Glavine and the others would often talk in cliches and be somewhat vanilla. Chip said whatever was on his mind.
But....there were times after losses, he was hard to find.
I don't have proof of this, but there was a story told by the beat writers after the Braves lost in the playoffs sometime in the early 2000's about a change in the locker room.
I don't recall the series--the Braves lost in the playoffs a lot in the 2000's--but after a game where the other team clinched in Atlanta, we all went to the lockeroom to get post game sound. Smoltz was there and most of the Braves regulars were there. Chipper was not. He apparently stayed in the training room not wanting to talk. It may have been because he was pissed about losing---nobody knows for sure.
But after it happened--as the legend goes, Smoltz went and talked to Chipper. Smoltzie at the time was the Alpha personality on the team, the go-to interview win or lose and he always was available. Supposedly Smoltz told Chipper that night---that the baton was about to be passed and if Chipper wanted to be "The Guy" he was going to have to be available---win or lose. Didn't tell him he had to like it---or say much, but he had to be there.
And he became the "Go To" guy in that clubhouse. After games--he'd get himself ready, gather for a second and tell you honestly what he thought about whatever happened on the field. Without fail.
On the field--Chipper Jones was ALWAYS...the guy. I"ve not seen a baseball player more up to "The Moment" than he was. Be it a base hit or clutch home run, he almost always came through in the clutch.
An 8-time All-Star, Chipper won 2 Silver Slugger Awards, a batting championship and was the National League Most Valuable Player in 1999.
None---none of this was a surprise.
Some people just have that air about them. You know after seeing and talking to them they're destined for great things...
Chipper Jones was always that guy....
Congratulations on a well-deserved honor and one you probably knew was coming the first time he was eligible---this year--2018.
Chipper Jones was always going to end up in Cooperstown--he just didn't know for sure until now.