Publish date:

Jones established legacy as a legend, and did it for one team


Yes. Most definitely yes.

There. We took care of the kneejerk reaction when a star player announces his retirement: "Is he a first-ballot Hall of Famer?" Chipper Jones, who announced Thursday that this will be his final season, might find himself in the same 2018 induction ceremony as Mariano Rivera and Jim Thome, depending on whether those future Hall of Famers play beyond this year.

What you should most appreciate about Chipper Jones is the years of premium service he gave one organization, the Atlanta Braves, without ever coming within a whiff of free agency -- and you can begin with how he wound up with the Braves in the first place.

Texas high school righthander Todd Van Poppel was considered the best talent of the 1990 draft, but his asking price, while using college as leverage, sent most teams looking elsewhere. (Van Poppel would sign with Oakland for a $1.2 million package, including a $500,000 signing bonus, a 43 percent premium over the $350,000 Baltimore gave the consensus number one pick, Ben McDonald, the previous season.)

In Jones, the Braves found a switch-hitting son of a coach and a baseball rat who was eager to play, not negotiate. They signed him for $275,000. Five years later, as a rookie, Jones hit third for a world championship team. At the time Van Poppel was 17-24 with a 5.39 career ERA that would actually get worse before he was finished in 2004.

For almost two decades kids have grown up all across the South admiring Jones as a franchise icon, trying to copy that bat waggle, the toe tap and that seemingly effortless swing with a Barney Rubble club of a bat. Jones swung a 35-ounce bat, one of the heaviest in baseball, and the combination of all that mass and his strong hands and wrists would send baseballs flying farther than you first thought.

Jones was a great player, a pure switch hitter who has hit .304 righthanded and .304 lefthanded. He was so good that he received MVP votes in every one of his first nine full seasons, including enough to win the award in 1999.

At every turn, even after that monster year in 1999, Jones made sure he remained a Brave. The season after being named MVP, still more than a year away from free agency, he signed a six-year, $90 million contract that also handed Atlanta two more years of control at the club's option and also deferred $4 million at zero interest.

Five years later, following a 2005 season in which he played only 109 games, Jones reworked his contract to save the Braves as much as $15 million over the next three years so they could make other moves. Who does such a thing?

And four years after that, before the 2009 season, Jones signed a three-year, $42 million extension that included a 2013 option that is now moot.

Upon signing what turned out to be his last contract, Jones said, "Nowadays, so many players play the game for the 1st and 15th [pay days], but I never have. Certainly, I want to be compensated fairly for what I do, but I wasn't going to hold the organization over a barrel. And I never wanted to be a player who makes so much money that we can't stay competitive on the field. That was my main concern."

Jones never made more than about $16 million in a season and never was among the four highest paid players in his league. He still made $155 million over his career, so nobody has to pass a hat to make sure his retirement years are comfortable. But in an age when we hear so much about "it's not about the money" when it is and when the leverage and allure of free agency are so powerful, Jones became the epitome of loyalty. His legacy, in fact, is even greater precisely because he played only for one team.

SI Recommends

Just how rare was Chipper Jones? First consider that he is a lifetime .300 hitter (.304) who has hit more than 450 home runs (454). Only 10 players ever retired as a .300 hitter with 450 home runs. But now consider that he did all that damage for only one team, and guess how many players ever did that. The answer is just four: Lou Gehrig for the New York Yankees (1923-39), Mel Ott for the New York Giants (1926-47), Ted Williams for the Boston Red Sox (1939-60) and Stan Musial for the St. Louis Cardinals (1941-63). That's it -- and all a very long time ago.

In short, Jones is the only player to break into the major leagues in the past 70 years and hit .300 with 450 homers while remaining true to one team. He did so in an era of arbitration, free agency, the explosion of expansion and television revenues and the rising belief that players are measured against one another by the average annual value of their contract. From the very day he signed, Jones was bound to be a Brave and a Hall of Famer.

The Major League Baseball season gets underway next week with two games in Japan between Oakland and Seattle that begin at the hideous West Coast hours of 3:10 a.m. and 2:10 a.m. MLB decided a long time ago that in order to present the ardent fan base in Japan with an up-close opportunity to view its product, it would have to be the real thing -- not exhibition games with scrubs and minor leaguers.

To accomplish the task of exporting its best product, MLB allows the Athletics and Mariners to list 28 players as eligible for the two games, then pick an official 25-man roster for each game. (If somebody gets hurt, you can't exactly get a replacement from Sacramento very quickly.) The same idea should be used when rosters expand in September: you can call up as many minor leaguers as you want, but each day you must file an eligible 25-man roster for that game, thus avoiding the ridiculous situation of having pennant race games decided by rosters of unequal size.

"St. Louis won the World Series last year," said one NL GM, "and I don't even know if they make the playoffs unless they have Tony La Russa using expanded rosters in September. They were winning games with Adron Chambers as a pinchrunner. There are just so many moves you can make in September that you can't make all season long. It doesn't make sense. We talk about it every year at GM meetings and yet nothing ever gets done."

The Cardinals, who clinched the NL wild card on the final day of the season, won four games in September using 20 or more players and another two using 18 players. It's ridiculous to decide pennant races under rules that are not in place for the other five months of the season.

Incidentally, this is the fourth time MLB has opened with two games in Japan. In all three previous series, the teams split the two games: Mets and Cubs in 2000, Yankees and Devil Rays in 2004, and Red Sox and Athletics in 2008.

From past history, Oakland and Seattle can expect to need a couple of weeks to recover from the travel. The six previous teams to open in Japan played .483 baseball in their first 10 games back in North America (29-31), compared to .518 baseball after that (465-433). The jet lag effect was not evident after 10 games; they played .533 baseball in their next 10 games after those (32-28).

Seattle faces a particularly daunting travel schedule. While Oakland returns home from Japan, Seattle goes to Arizona to play five more spring training games, then leaves for three games in Oakland and then three more in Texas. That's a 19-game, 22-day, 14-time zone trip. The Mariners finally get to Seattle for their home opener April 13 -- two months and two days after their first spring training workout.

The Yankees bought themselves a great asset very cheaply with Andy Pettitte coming out of retirement for $1.5 million. But let's be realistic: At 39 years old (he turns 40 in June) and after having sat out a year the season after providing only 129 innings, Pettitte is not going to be a workhorse in the Yankees rotation. Make no mistake: Pettitte can still pitch, but the grind of pitching every fifth day is bound to catch up to him.

Actually, Pettitte made only nine starts in 2010 on the fifth day and pitched much worse in those games (4.02 ERA) than he did in the 12 starts when he was given extra rest (2.71). The Yankees will have to accommodate his age.

Just look around baseball: Nobody is reliable any more at this age. Literally, nobody. Not one pitcher age 39 or older has made 25 starts in the major leagues in either of the previous two seasons. The last one to do so was Jamie Moyer, the only one to do it in 2009. That's one pitcher in the past three years -- as compared to 21 pitchers in the three years previous.

Pettitte probably won't get to the big leagues until May -- assuming his comeback proceeds without any setbacks. Don't expect him to make every start the rest of the season. But when he does take the ball -- and likely with extra rest whenever he can get it -- Pettitte might be an upgrade on the surprisingly decent Bartolo Colon last year (8-10, 4.00 ERA, 26 starts, 164 1/3 innings at age 38). Whatever Pettitte gives the Yankees, he will be a bargain.