Appreciating Chipper Jones
Longtime Atlanta Brave has been killing opponents softly for a long, long time
Baseball locker rooms are full of debates. Players often debate the best slider in the game, the best infield grass, maybe even the best postgame spread. It is all in good fun since there is so much that needs to be done to stay loose and kill time before the bell rings.
There were a lot of Sheffield backers. He seemed to be the logical choice. Sheffield hit the ball harder than anyone on earth, he talked the talk and walked the walk, and when he got in the batter's box, you were awestruck -- even as an opponent.
Funny enough, I had just looked up Chipper Jones' numbers a few days earlier out of curiosity, and I let everyone know that Jones was the better player.
Sometimes you think you have the right answer because it comes to you so quickly, so easily. But that often is the wrong answer. Chipper Jones is the answer that you have to look up, that you have to read between the lines, that you assume is a part of a trick question. But Chipper Jones is the right answer whenever you are talking about the best in the business over time.
It is not to say Jones' name isn't known. The Mets know him. Bobby Valentine certainly knows him. Every team in the NL East knows him. But there is something not household about the sheer damage he has done to opponents for so long. He killed them softly and gently and over time, kindly breaking their hearts with a warm "Atlanta welcome." I witnessed the Braves run away with the NL for at least six years while I was with Philadelphia. There was nothing warm about it.
That is because his numbers are absolutely chilling. He has hit .300 10 times, and had 100 runs, 100 RBIs and 30 homers in a season five times. For good measure, he added a batting title at age 36. Sheffield did not stay healthy enough to be in that discussion despite his great talent.
As a member of the Phillies, I watched it firsthand. Jones would let you hang around for most of the game, then he would get the crucial hit in the eighth just for the drama. It was like he was writing a script with himself as the hero in the end. Everyone around him were extras.
He seemed to have ice water in his veins. Pressure never seemed to matter to him. Just when you thought it did, you looked up and there he was sliding around the bases with one flap down, moving sideways after a hitting a clutch home run as if he were on an airport people mover.
He didn't always produce this way as a professional. I saw him struggle in the Carolina League for a hot minute in the early part of the 1992 season. He was having some defensive woes in the infield and it seemed to be affecting his hitting. That lasted about a month. Then he came to play us in Winston-Salem, on the road, and his numbers were unreal. He must have hit 25 extra-base hits in two months. Then he was off to Double-A, and I didn't see him again until he was hitting yet another home run off my team. (Former Phillies teammate Randy Wolf was a four-time home run victim, and Jones got Randy Johnson six times in only 43 at-bats).
It seems like Chipper Jones' retirement may be just a spontaneous decision -- a moment when he knows he should walk off the field while he is still productive. Some health challenges in the last couple of years have not changed the fact that he still has a lot to offer. Even with lower productivity, Jones has become a cornerstone and mentor to many young Braves -- Brian McCann, Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel, to name a few. Those who listen can benefit.
Jones seems like he is enjoying his later years, with the edgy nature that comes with time served. Jabbing at an umpire or two, letting people know that PEDs weren't part of his equation, laughing at the idea that his weight is an issue as the paparazzi catch him with a bad shirt and a 39-year-old body type.
Yet the numbers are in for Chipper Jones. The seven-time All-Star, renowned Mets killer and world champion will go down as one of the greatest switch-hitters in baseball history -- and it looks like he may rub off on some of his young teammates and give them that calm sniper-like demeanor that they need to follow in his footsteps to greatness.
Seems like they are paying attention, too. And if they continue to do so, the Braves will keep winning and giving warm Atlanta welcomes -- with a dagger in your back.
Doug Glanville, who earned a degree in systems engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, played nine major league seasons with the Cubs, Phillies and Rangers. He serves on the board of Athletes Against Drugs and on the board of the MLB Players Alumni Association. His book, "The Game from Where I Stand," was released in May 2010. Click here to buy it in paperback on Amazon.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dougglanville.
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