Search

RIDING HIGH LIFE ISN'T A ROLLER COASTER FOR BRAVES STAR CHIPPER JONES, WHO'S ON TOP OF THE WORLD NO MATTER WHAT POSITION HE'S ASKED TO PLAY

Sept. 16, 1996
Sept. 16, 1996

Table of Contents
Sept. 16, 1996

RIDING HIGH LIFE ISN'T A ROLLER COASTER FOR BRAVES STAR CHIPPER JONES, WHO'S ON TOP OF THE WORLD NO MATTER WHAT POSITION HE'S ASKED TO PLAY

Nobody calls him Larry. Well, that's not entirely true. His
teammates call him Larry. Pedro Borbon and Ryan Klesko and Mark
Lemke, they can get away with it. But to everyone else--his
wife, his parents, his neighbors in suburban Atlanta waving at
him as he takes out the garbage--Larry Wayne Jones Jr. is
Chipper. And just about every afternoon, when Bobby Cox, the
Atlanta Braves' skipper, fills out his lineup card, he enters
the name of Chipper Jones right before the name of Fred McGriff,
Atlanta's cleanup hitter. At week's end Jones, a sophomore in
the big leagues, was switch-hitting .308, with 30 homers, 105
runs batted in and 105 runs scored. He's 24, and he's making a
national name for himself in the pastime. Last year he was an
affable, unselfish and promising player who helped the Braves
win the World Series. He remains affable and unselfish, but this
year he's a budding star--and Atlanta has the best record in
baseball.

This is an article from the Sept. 16, 1996 issue Original Layout

Chipper. Cox writes in that cheerful name day after day, but he
doesn't always know what position he'll put after it. Last year
Jones was the Braves' every-day third baseman, and he was the
National League starter at that position in this year's All-Star
Game. But on Aug. 15, a month after Jeff Blauser broke a bone in
his left hand, Jones returned to his ancestral home, shortstop,
where, through Sunday, he has had but three errors in 95
chances. His teammates may call him Larry, force him to wear
clown pants through the Montreal airport, mock his discards when
he plays hearts in the marathon games that help pass afternoons
on the road. Cox takes no such chances. He calls Jones by the
old-time nickname, Chipper.

Until Blauser, who was activated last week, is ready to play
every day, Jones will be the regular shortstop. What will happen
next month and next season and in the years beyond is unknown.
For a long time to come, Jones--a line drive hitter who has
surprised nobody with his average but many with his home run
power--will bat in the middle of the order, but he might be at
short or third, or in left or right. All he cares about is
playing. Career-counseling sessions with Jones are rare and
brief. "What can one say about the Chipper?" Cox asks, sitting
in a visiting clubhouse office recently, a stubby cigar in his
fingers. Jones is out of earshot, in the clubhouse, absorbed in
a game of hearts. "His attitude is, 'Whatever's best for the
team.' Where does it come from? Look at his family. Good people,
his mother and his father. His father's a baseball coach. Good
man." Lynne, a professional horsewoman, and Larry Wayne Jones, a
school teacher, have one child: the Chipper.

"Chip off the old block," Chipper says, explaining his nickname.
He has quit the card game and stretched to his full 6'3". His
body, now 200 pounds, became bigger and stronger during a long
rehabilitation from knee surgery two years ago, gaining muscle
that has added 15 feet to his fly balls. He has big, square
teeth, a score of juvenile hairs on his chin, an Eisenhower-era
haircut, a little nose with an upward tilt and green, widely
spaced eyes. Same eyes as his father, a college shortstop at
Stetson who later had a tryout with the Chicago Cubs.

"Chipper is a good name," Chipper says. "If I was called Larry
Jones, who'd remember that? Chipper is one of those first names
people remember. Think of Cal, Emmitt, Mickey. You hear those
names and you say, 'Those were some of the best to ever play the
game.' I'd like to be thought of like that someday." The Chipper
has dreams. He would like a membership in the Hall of Fame. He
would like nine more World Series rings, so he would have one
for every finger. But he's ambivalent about fame. "From 2 p.m.,
when I arrive at the park for a night game, until I sign my last
autograph after a game, I'm Chipper," he says, speaking in full
sentences and with a Southerner's laconic ease. "The rest of the
time I think of myself as Moe Jones, leading an ordinary,
upper-middle-class life."

His name, though, already resonates in Atlanta, which he calls,
with an earnestness that belies his years, "my home." He's on
the AM dial almost daily, talking baseball with Neal Boortz, the
Rush Limbaugh of local radio. Before the Braves' radio
broadcasts, he does a spot called "Ask Chipper," during which
kids pose questions such as, "Why do you wear your socks the way
you do?" (He wears them with a lot of stirrup showing: He's a
traditionalist.) He's featured in a full-page ad for a BMW
dealership that runs regularly in The Atlanta
Journal-Constitution. He's often seen at charity events or
having lunch in a local school, sometimes in a downtrodden
neighborhood, as part of a program to encourage children to eat
nutritiously.

When the Braves vacated town for nearly three weeks to make
Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium available for the Olympics, Jones
wrote--or, more accurately, dictated to a ghost writer--a short
daily column for the Journal-Constitution. He used the space to
praise the ease with which his remote control changed television
channels in his Los Angeles hotel room. He also recounted his
terror at being trapped in a Houston elevator for 15 minutes and
his dismay at a cab fare that rose to $40 because of a
map-challenged driver. He wrote, briefly but movingly, about the
fatal explosion in Centennial Olympic Park. And when, during
that monster road trip, Atlanta hit a bad patch and lost three
straight, Jones said in his column, "I don't like the way some
people are going about their business."

Those were words of warning, words you might hear from a veteran
with established leadership credentials. They aren't words one
would expect from a 24-year-old, second-year player. But they
were Jones's words, and he regretted them. "I knew the next
morning I shouldn't have said that," Jones says. "Nobody said
anything to me; nobody needed to. I just regretted it. I was
frustrated when I said it. But what happens in this clubhouse
should stay in this clubhouse. I made a mistake."

It's hard to say which words demonstrate more maturity, his
stern assessment of his teammates during a slump or the honesty
of his regret. Either way, Jones's voice carries well in the
Atlanta clubhouse. Even as a rookie he took steps to initiate a
team meeting. There's not a Brave who won't listen to him,
particularly when he's discussing an opposing pitcher. He has an
almost photographic memory of at bats, his own and others'. He
has been heard to say to a teammate, "Don't you remember what
that guy threw you? You homered off him, dude!"

Although Jones has been in the majors only two years, he's
already a veteran of the organization. He was drafted by Atlanta
in 1990 after a phenomenal schoolboy career at The Bolles
School, in Jacksonville. Jones was in the same draft as Todd Van
Poppel, the high school pitching sensation from Arlington,
Texas, who had said before the draft that he would sign only
with the Oakland A's. Those were different days for the Braves.
They had the first pick in the '90 draft and desperately needed
pitching. Atlanta officials camped out in Arlington to see if
Van Poppel was signable. They decided that they couldn't take
the chance that he might not be. Choosing Jones was plan B.

That's how Jones came to be the top pick. From the first day he
was low maintenance. It took the Braves an hour to come to terms
with him. Two Atlanta front-office guys showed up at the
Joneses' house in Pierson, Fla. The Braves suggested a certain
figure as a signing bonus. The Joneses named a higher number.
The men from Atlanta said it was too high. The family asked to
be excused. They went upstairs to Chipper's bedroom to discuss
the offer. They had no agent.

"Chipper, you know we can get more money than this," Larry said.
"I don't care about the money. I want to be playing professional
baseball in two weeks," Chipper said.

Father, mother and son walked downstairs. Larry said, "If you'll
meet us halfway, you have a deal." The Braves officials smiled
and extended hands.

It was a scene out of the old days. Jones signed for $350,000.
(Van Poppel signed for $1.2 million, and through last weekend
had struggled to a 20-30 record in five seasons, with Oakland
and now the Detroit Tigers.) Two weeks later he was at
shortstop, the position he had played growing up, for the
Bradenton Braves in the Gulf Coast League. Last year Jones
earned the major league minimum, $109,000. In the spring he
signed a four-year deal worth $8.25 million, with an option for
a fifth year. He and his wife, Karin, are planning a big house
in the far reaches of suburban Atlanta. Something with a
nursery. For now, though, it's just the two of them and their
two golden retrievers and off days on roller coasters, at the
movies, cruising the malls.

Some players, including some teammates, mocked Jones for his
contract. They told him that if he had waited and then put up
the numbers he has now, he could have received much more money,
vast sums. "When I hear that, I just laugh in their faces,"
Jones says. "I don't play baseball for money; I play for love of
the game. I have no desire to be the highest-paid player. I'm
happy with my life."

Chipper and Karin have a memory. In 1994, with Blauser
entrenched at shortstop, Jones was expected to be the Braves'
starting leftfielder. (Cox believes that Jones--because of his
size, his athleticism, his arm and his attitude--can play short,
third, left or right.) But during spring training in '94, Jones
tore the anterior cruciate ligament of his left knee avoiding a
tag at first base and missed the season, the season that was
aborted by the strike. There were house payments and car
payments, credit cards to pay off and no paychecks in the mail.
There was strain in the Jones household.

"Chipper's heart beats for baseball," Karin says, "and in 1994
he lost baseball two ways. He had an injury that made him
realize that you never know when the game is going to be taken
away from you. And then the strike. We were two months away from
having to sell our house. I took a job as a substitute teacher.
Then in that same year, my parents got divorced. We cried a lot,
and we prayed a lot." After that, $8.25 million for four years,
guaranteed, sounded pretty good.

Chipper was a 19-year-old minor leaguer when he told his father
about the love of his life.

"I don't know about this," Larry said.

"Dad, Karin's just like Mom," Chipper replied.

Larry was speechless at Chipper's argument. The wedding was a
year later.

"Chipper and his father are absolute clones," says Lynne. "They
stand the same way, they walk the same, they field the same.
Watching Chipper play shortstop in high school was like watching
Larry play shortstop in college. They are both competitive--to a
fault. When Chipper comes home and wants his father to throw him
a little batting practice, the next thing you know, Larry's
trying to strike him out and Chipper's trying to hit home runs.
But that's what makes them so good at what they do."

Larry grew up in Vero Beach, Fla., where the Los Angeles Dodgers
have conducted their spring training since 1948 and where his
father was an Assembly of God minister. As a boy Larry used to
dream at night about playing for the Dodgers and spend his days
trying to avoid his father's wrath. His father was strict. Larry
raised Chipper the same way. "I'd say once or twice a year, from
the time Chipper was five or six until he was 13 or 14, I'd get
out the belt," Larry says. "I gave the usual speech: 'This is
going to hurt me a lot more than it's going to hurt you.' And
Chipper would say, 'I won't do it again,' and I'd remember my
father saying, 'If you let a child off once, it will be only
harder the next time.' I think every now and then, pain is a
powerful motivator. I firmly believe children will do what you
demand of them, not what you ask of them. We've been very
fortunate with Chipper. When people say, 'Chipper reminds me of
you,' I couldn't be prouder."

The Joneses are old school. Larry is not saying his methods are
right for everybody. What he's saying is that they worked for
him and for his son, Larry Wayne (Chipper) Jones Jr., a budding
star and a decent man.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND When he's not at the ballpark, Chipper, with Karin, finds uproarious excitement at the amusement park. [Karin Jones and Chipper Jones riding roller coaster]TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND Jones is truly a chip off the old block--in this case, Larry (right), his tutor in baseball and in life. [Chipper Jones batting; Larry Jones batting]COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH So far this season Jones has excelled defensively at third base (above), shortstop and rightfield. [Chipper Jones fielding baseball]