- By David O'Brien The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Chipper Jones was the greatest Braves position player since Hank Aaron and one of the finest switch-hitters and best all-around third basemen in baseball history. Now he’s poised to become a first-ballot Hall of Fame selection and have one of the highest voting percentages in history when the baseball Hall of Fame announces its Class of 2018 on Jan. 24.
He spent his entire 19-year major league career with the Braves and was the organization’s most recognizable figure of the past quarter-century, an athlete whose face and first name remain iconic in Atlanta and throughout the South. Jones had a .303 career batting average, .401 on-base percentage and .529 slugging percentage, with 468 home runs and more walks (1,512) than strikeouts (1,409).
It wasn’t just what the former National League MVP did, but how he did it. Jones oozed confidence from the day he arrived in the big leagues, but Braves fans watched him drop some of the cocky as he matured over the years and became a team leader in the second half of his career.
Now 45 and retired since 2012, Jones was polling at more than 98 percent through Wednesday with nearly half of the writers’ Hall of Fame ballots made public. He’ll far surpass the 75 percent required for election, with Vladimir Guerrero and Jim Thome also polling at over 90 percent.
In the second of a three-part interview with AJC Braves writer David O’Brien, Jones talked about his excitement over the Hall of Fame, his disappointment over longtime teammate Andruw Jones’ lack of votes, and how good it feels living back in Atlanta, where Chipper can take his kids to school and where a trip to the grocery store can turn into an encounter with a fan who thanks Jones for helping make baseball so exciting for so many summers in Atlanta.
The first part of the interview ran Tuesday on myAJC.com and can be found through this link. The third and final part will run Thursday.
Q. It figures to be a particularly large Hall of Fame class, with at least five inductees, including two elected by the erstwhile veterans committee. That means you might not get to -- or have to, depending how you see it -- speak for too long, since they usually ask inductees to shorten speeches if there’s a large class.
A. Yeah, well that’s a good thing because I don’t want to stand up there for 30 minutes and bore everybody. (Jones laughs.) Yeah, if there’s six or seven guys, we’ll be keeping it to a minimum. All those guys are deserving. What’s really been disappointing is the amount of support that Andruw has. Arguably the best defensive center fielder of all time. A decade of excellence -- that’s longevity. Ten straight Gold Gloves, 400-plus home runs. Yeah, you can say what you want about the decline and dropoff at the end of his career, but I think (his candidacy) at least deserves further discussion. It’s going to be a shame if he falls off (the ballot) after one year.
Q. You said late in your career that you didn’t play to get into the Hall of Fame. But once you’ve stopped playing and there are no more games to win, this part has to feel rewarding, getting this kind of voting support for the sport’s top honor.
A. I mean, I don’t know how to look at it. No matter what happens, I can walk away from my time spent here in the Southeast and with the Braves and know I left my mark. There’s nothing more gratifying than someone coming up and saying you influenced an entire region of the United States. Everybody in the Southeast is a Braves fan and watched you growing up -- the high socks, the mock turtlenecks, you know what I mean? Somebody who worked 16 years at Mizuno said that when I was playing Mizuno was on the map, and since I retired they’ve struggled. (Jones used Mizuno equipment including gloves and cleats.) That’s extremely gratifying to know that you’re moving the needle for people in an entire region of the United States. That’s the best compliment possible. Because that means that you were playing the game right and you were doing it well and you were leading by example, and all the things that I set out to do professionally in my career meant something. I’m extremely proud of that and I want to wear that with pride.
Q. Is it nice to be back living full-time in the Atlanta area, rather than out at your old Texas ranch where you lived for a while? Nice being able to run into a fan at a coffee shop or grocery store?
A. Yeah. It’s not just here though. I just got back from a trade show for my TV show in Indianapolis. I was out walking the floor just like everybody else, and what’s awesome, from what my life is now, is that yeah, some people came up and said, hey, watched you my whole life, great baseball player, blah blah blah. But now they’re also saying, “Bro, absolutely love your TV show. You guys do it right.” You know, it’s more as a hunter now, and that’s pretty cool, too, to know that once you’re done playing you can throw yourself into something else and you’re pretty darn good at that, too. But yes, it’s nice to be back in civilization, to have the kids’ school five miles down the road and to be able to go out to dinner and have people come up and say, “Appreciate what you did for the Braves and Atlanta, our whole day revolved around when the Braves were playing.” That’s … that’s awesome.
Q. Do you perhaps appreciate it more now that you’ve been retired five years, maybe it doesn’t feel so much like a burden as when you played?
A. Yeah, no doubt. No doubt. I think you look for it more. When you were playing and you’re on TV every night, you don’t look people in the eye, you try to avoid contact with people just so you can have some privacy. Now that you’ve been away from it, you walk in and -- people always ask me, don’t you get tired of all the attention? And I’m honest with them, I look them in the eye and say, you know what, I’d be more worried if they weren’t asking for a photo op or an autograph. I love meeting new people. Obviously there’s a time and a place for all that stuff, but if I’m going to put myself out in public, that’s what I have to be prepared for.
Q. So it’s still going to be a while before people start to forget you and have to look you in the eye and go, “Aren’t you….?”
A. Well, you’d be surprised. I was in Walmart right before Christmas and this guy walks up.You don’t know how many people walk up and go, ‘Man, you look familiar -- anybody ever tell you you look like Chipper Jones?’ And I just kind of look at them without smiling and I say, man, I get that all the time. And a lot of time they’ll just kind of walk off. (Jones laughs.) Most of the time they’ll say, “Are you…?” And I’ll say, yes, I am, and it kind of breaks the ice. But I was in Walmart and this guy comes up to me and goes, “Man, anybody ever tell you you look like Brett Favre?” And I was like, man, I get that all the time. And I just kind of kept walking and was thinking to myself, he’s got no clue who I am. (Jones laughs.)
Q. Looking back at your career, maybe it bothers you that you only won one World Series, but as you get further removed from it are you satisfied with your career?
A. Yeah, it (winning just one World Series) bothers everybody. But it doesn’t take away from how proud I am of what we accomplished as an organization while we were here. I think everybody will tell you in most of my 19 years that eventually you had to come to Atlanta if you wanted to represent the National League in the World Series. And I take even more pride in knowing that most of those teams knew they had to get me out in order to be successful. So, it’s a tremendous sense of pride in what we accomplished here.
Yes, I am disappointed; I think most years we got beat by a better team in October, with the exception of ’96. That’s going to always be the one that’s kind of a burr in my saddle, having a 2-0 lead coming back home against the Yankees. But hey, that’s baseball. Momentum can turn on one bad pitch, one bad hop, one bad play. And it did. It’s unfortunate, but it doesn’t take away from me poking out my chest and holding my head high riding off into the sunset. Because this game is hard. If it wasn’t hard, everybody would do it. Obviously it’s disappointing, but in the same sense, we did a lot of winning while we were here.