Saturday May 9, 1998. Braves vs. Padres. It was the very first Major League baseball game I attended. And it marked the first time I would hear Bill Bowers announce something over the PA system that I would hear before nearly every game I attended for the next decade.
“Batting third, playing 3rd base, number 10: Chipper Jones!”
Down 4-1 in the bottom of the 7th, Chipper came to the plate with two outs and the bases loaded. Dan Miceli delivered and....*CRACK*...grand slam over the left field wall. From then on, I was all about Chipper Jones, hanging posters in my room and wearing a white, number 10 “C. Jones” t-shirt to nearly every game I attended.
This year marked my 15th season going to Turner Field, and I’ve seen many changes over that time, both to the roster and ballpark. I’ve seen the Braves lose such iconic players like Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Andruw Jones, Javy Lopez, Rafael Furcal, and other fan favorites.
I've seen Turner Field put in, at the time, the largest HD Screen in the world behind center field. I’ve seen the stadium remove the giant coke bottle that was made out of baseball equipment and replace it with a high tech one, and put in a Chick-Fil-A cow statue that would do the tomahawk chop.
Yet every year, one constant remained: “Batting third, playing 3rd base, number 10: Chipper Jones!”
Career .304 hitter, 450+ home runs, 500 doubles, 8-time All-Star, 2-time Silver Slugger, the 1999 NL MVP, and the 2008 batting champion. He is the only switch hitter in history with a .300 avg and 400 home runs, shares a Major League record with former Brave Eddie Mathews with 14 consecutive 20+ home run seasons to start a career, and has driven in more runs than any 3rd baseman in Major League history.
Sitting with the number one pick in the 1990 MLB Draft, the Braves were expected by many analysts to select Todd Van Poppel, a 6'5" hard throwing right-hander from Arlington, Texas. Despite pleas from then-GM Bobby Cox to sign, Van Poppel firmly stated his intentions to play for the Longhorns. He was eventually selected 14th overall by the A’s, but never managed to win more than seven games in a season.
The Braves, on the other hand, settled with drafting a lesser-known Pierson, Florida infielder named Larry Wayne “Chipper” Jones, Jr. After coming up for a cup of coffee in 1993 and sitting out all of 1994 with a knee injury, Chipper Jones was in the opening day lineup in 1995 for the Braves, and has stayed with the club for nearly two decades, remaining fiercely loyal with the team that took a chance on him. Throughout his illustrious career, Chipper now hold nearly every Atlanta hitting record in the book.
Quite a rare feat in baseball: a player spending an entire Hall of Fame-caliber career with the same organization. Even more impressive considering the Braves have exercised slight fiscal constraint in regards to their payroll (this season the Braves were ranked around 16th with a payroll of about $82 million).
Chipper had his chances to leave. After his MVP season in 1999, he could’ve easily left to pursue a mega deal in free agency with a team like the Yankees. During the Braves struggles after the division championship streak came to an end, he could’ve been traded at the deadline.
As injuries began to pile on, he could've left to sign with an American League team to be a DH, which would've definitely help him play a lot more games get to that mystical 500 home run or 3000 hit mark, or maybe even become the 5th player to achieve both. But Chipper has always been a Brave, through and through, and has consistently put the team before his own needs.
After the 2005 season, Chipper reworked his contract with the Braves to make less money, freeing up about $15 million over the next three years to help the team pursue free agents. After the team brought in another 3rd baseman in Vinny Castilla, Chipper, instead of being a diva about it, willingly stated he would move to left field and allow the newcomer to take his old spot at the hot corner. And even today, as young stars like Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward are taking their steps into the spotlight, Chipper remains a team leader and mentor for the new guys, and has expressed interest in serving as hitting coach for the Braves once his own playing days are done.
As a former No.1 pick, Chipper is often compared to two other greats of his era that were also taken first: Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez. While Jr. and A-Rod undoubtedly had better careers statistically than Chipper, both players left the teams that drafted them.
Chipper has been a Brave for almost 20 years, and not many players have had as lasting impact on the team that drafted him like Chipper. As much as the Braves and the sport of baseball have changed over the years, Chipper Jones wearing number 10 and playing for Atlanta has always remained.
When he becomes eligible, he will be a first ballot Hall-of-Famer for the class of 2018, and I plan on traveling to Cooperstown when that happens.
Franchise players are rare. Sometimes they don't turn out like you hope, and sometimes they leave. The Braves had a damn good one.
Atlanta baseball will never be the same without Chipper Jones.