MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Chipper's impact on baseball is undeniable

Justice: Chipper's impact on game undeniable

Chipper Jones was the most recognizable face on one of the most successful franchises of his era. As legacies go, that's a pretty good one.

And that's where we start.

Here's hoping Chipper pauses a time or two during this final season to appreciate what has happened to the Braves during his 19 seasons.

Bobby Cox, Stan Kasten and John Schuerholz had long since transformed them from losers into winners by the time Chipper played his first game in 1995. They'd taken over a franchise struggling to draw 1 million fans and watched more than 3 million come to see the Braves six times.

Chipper stepped into a great situation and played his way into the hearts and minds of fans. He joined a team with back-to-back playoff appearances and helped extend the streak to 14.

Thanks in part to Chipper, baseball became a cool sport for kids in the South, and it's not difficult to trace a line from his prominence to the abundance of Georgia talent now available in the First-Year Player Draft.

Not many players can leave the game knowing they had a hand in impacting the sport the way Chipper and his Braves have.

Now about the Hall of Fame.

In a word, yes.

Absolutely.

Chipper won a National League Most Valuable Player Award in 1999, but was in the Top 10 in the voting five other times.

During his first eight seasons, he finished second in the 1995 NL Rookie of the Year Award voting and then finished fourth, ninth, ninth, first, 11th, eighth and 11th in NL MVP Award voting.

During those eight seasons, Chipper averaged 156 games a year, batted .309 and had a .948 OPS.

At that point, he'd established himself as one of the very best players of his generation, and isn't that the definition of a Hall of Famer?

And the Braves went to the playoffs every single year. Chipper batted .308 when they won the World Series in his rookie season, and his career postseason batting average is .288.

As impressive as those early seasons were, Chipper, 39, has continued to play at a high level for virtually all of his 18 seasons. His career batting average is .304, despite three consecutive seasons below .300.

He played these last few seasons with aching knees, but continued to grind because he absolutely loved it. In that way, he was the ultimate team leader, not because of what he said, but because of what he did.

Chipper will enter this final season 33rd on the all-time home run list (454), 21st in walks (1,455) and 40th in RBIs (1,561). He's 31st all-time in OPS and 53rd in OBP.

His career OBP is higher than Joe DiMaggio's. His career OPS is better than Hank Aaron's. He drew more walks than Al Kaline, hit more home runs than Carl Yastrzemski and Cal Ripken.

Numbers can be twisted to tell virtually any story. In the end, Chipper walks away from the game having long since established himself as one of the best there ever was.

One of the things that made him special is that he always seemed to love his job. Maybe that's why he always seemed to be smiling in so many of those photos taken over the past 18 seasons.

There Chipper would be standing with a dirty uniform on and a bat in his hand. He might be talking to an opposing player or an umpire. But he always seemed to be smiling and having the time of his life.

Chipper engaged fans, signed autographs, did interviews and understood better than almost any player ever that being a Major League player was about more than performing on the field.

It was about representing his sport the right way, about appreciating what he had and giving back. If Chipper Jones ever had a bad day at the ballpark, he never let many people know it.

Cox made the call to use the first pick of the 1990 Draft on Chipper instead of the more popular choice, pitcher Todd Van Poppel. He got him for a $275,000 signing bonus, plus another $68,000 to cover potential college expenses.

Cox later said that he walked away from the meetings remembering that Chipper looked him square in the eye, that Van Poppel seemed to avoid eye contact.

Cox thought that small gesture spoke volumes about Chipper's self-confidence. Cox turned in a lineup card with Jones' name on it 1,656 times during their 17 years together.

Chipper choked up Thursday morning when he reflected on how quickly 18 years had passed. He thanked his younger teammates for keeping him energized. Here's hoping he takes some comfort in knowing he won't miss baseball any more than we'll miss him. What a great run he has had.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.