It’s been five years and 3 ½ months since Larry Wayne Jones, aka Chipper, strode to home plate for the last time in a major league game, slowed by age and injuries but still with a distinct gait that exuded confidence and swagger and so much of what made No. 10 the player Braves Country loved and opposing fans, particularly in New York, loved to hate.
The next time most fans see that walk will be on a stage at Cooperstown, N.Y., at the National Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony July 29. In his first year of eligibility, Jones polled at a robust 98 percent through Monday on the 187 baseball writers’ Hall of Fame ballots that were made public, less than half of the total ballots submitted according to tracking expert Ryan Thibodaux.
The next-highest percentages among Class of 2018 candidates belonged to Vladimir Guerrero (95 percent through Monday) and Jim Thome (93 percent), making it three players certain to receive more than the 75 percent required for election when results are announced Jan. 24. Edgar Martinez and Trevor Hoffman were also above 75 percent and Mike Mussina was at 73 percent.
Few athletes in pro sports had as big an impact throughout the South as Jones, now 45, who spent his entire 19-year major league career with the Braves, racking up nearly 2,600 games and 1,500 wins in the regular season and postseason. He won the National League MVP award in 1999, finished among the top dozen in MVP votes eight other times, and won an NL batting title at 36 when he hit .364 in 2008.
Regarded as one of the two or three greatest switch-hitters, Jones finished with a .303 average, .401 OBP and .529 slugging percentage, making him the only switch-hitter and only third baseman with at least .300/.400/.500 in his slash line. He had 468 homers and 1,055 extra-base hits, more walks (1,512) than strikeouts (1,409), never struck out 100 times in a season and had 1,623 RBIs and nine 100-RBI seasons.
In a wide-ranging Q&A Jones discussed his career, life since retirement and the Hall of Fame. This is the first of a three-part interview, with the second part to run in myAJC.com on Tuesday and the third part coming Wednesday.
Q. Most fans probably know you got remarried a couple years ago and sold the Double Dime ranch in Texas, but for anybody who might be wondering what else you’ve been up to lately, where you live now and how you’re spending your time, can you fill us in?
A. I live at the Manor up in Milton. I play a lot of golf here at the Manor, and I also belong to Hawks Ridge (Golf Club in Ball Ground, Ga.) so I see (John Smoltz) quite a bit; we play out there. I’ve got my hunting show on Sportsman Channel, just finished up last week filming for Season 8. It’s called “Major League Bowhunter,” and we had our best season, I think we had 15 harvests on camera. I had my first big elk this year with a bow. That’s something I’ll always remember. That was in Raton, New Mexico. It was 800 pounds, it was as big as my living room couch. So that’s basically it. Six boys will keep you busy enough. My youngest just turned 1. So, life is good.
Q. Six sons between ages one and what?
A. Between one and 19. They were pretty intense (playing) football this fall, and my 7-year-old (stepson) is big into baseball and flag football. Like any other parent, Saturday mornings and afternoons are filled with driving around Alpharetta and Roswell and watching your boys do their thing.
Q. Any of them look like they’re going to be big-time athletes like you?
A. Well, I can’t speak for the younger ones. I don’t think so. They’re great kids, they’re very respectful, which I’m proud of. I haven’t pushed them towards any one thing, I’m just kind of letting them go where the heart desires. I’m not, like, a huge proponent of travel ball. I think that playing a number of different sports allows them to be more well-rounded athletes. It doesn’t seem like any of them -- other than my 19-year-old, Matthew, who went to Stetson and was playing baseball last year -- you know, they haven’t found their niche yet. And sad to say, Matthew left Stetson and he’s back up home where his family is, where his mother is, and he’s coaching high-school football. He doesn’t really know what he wants to do, either. It’s just going to take some time for them to figure it out.
Q. Now that a few more years have passed, have you changed your thinking, maybe thought about getting more involved in the game, or do you like what you’re doing now and has this been fulfilling? It sounds like it has been.
A. I thought the farther and farther I went (from playing his last game), the closer I would get back to (the game). But I don’t know; I’m going to have to see how the culture is around the team and whatnot. Obviously I love the Braves and I would do anything for them, but as you said, the lure to come back is not there for me. Life is too good away from the game, I enjoy being at home. I missed so many things early on in my career with my kids. Having been home all the time for this one, he’s got me. I mean, he’s got his claws into me. I’m really happy with the way my life is now, and I’m not sure I want that to change.
Q. Yeah, after getting remarried and with a 1-year-old at home and several other young kids, you have a lot more going on than many (retired players) in your position do.
A. But all of it’s good, and all of it’s positive. If I wasn’t that happy at home or was getting restless or whatever. ... But I’ve had, or had in the past, my foot in the door (as a special assistant) with the Braves just enough that I’m happy with it. I come and go as I please. If they need something from me they can call me, and we’ll get on it. If I need to go see somebody or talk to somebody or whatever, leading up to the draft or look at somebody who might be struggling, I’m here. They know that, and we’ll continue to cultivate that as we go.
Q. Have you had a chance to talk to (new Braves general manager) Alex Anthopoulos about a role for you? I know he’s been busy.
A. We’ve texted a couple of times. He reached out just before the holidays, and then I got busy; I took all the kids out snowboarding at Steamboat (Springs, Colorado) for Christmas, and then with hunting season just wrapping up and arbitration season for him, he’s been real busy so I didn’t want to bother him. I’m probably going to wait until this Hall of Fame stuff kind of dies down and then call him and discuss spring training and go from there.
Q. Speaking of the Hall of Fame, have you been surprised how high your support level has been in early ballots that have been made public? It must feel good to see how much respect you’re getting from the voters. I mean, those are pretty overwhelming early numbers. You probably can’t avoid hearing about it on social media or whatever.
A. Yeah, it’s more coming from my friends, my buddies and agent and everybody saying, “You’re polling at 90-whatever percent.” I’m all, OK, that’s cool. It’s like it was at the end of my career – I didn’t play the game to make it to the Hall of Fame, but now that it’s here and it’s upon us, it’s a really cool thing, and it’s hard not to get caught up in how you’re doing, where you’re at, all that kind of stuff. We find out in another week or so and then we can put it to bed. But yeah, when you think about all the guys who are on the ballot, some of the best players of our era -- whether there’s a cloud of suspicion or not -- to be considered by some, in the few articles that I’ve read, as a lock (for induction) is quite a compliment. It certainly is going to be a life-changing experience when or if this happens. You put those three little letters (HOF) behind your name at the end of every signature, it’s pretty special.