It's like he never left.
Just the other day, a group of reporters sat around Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez in the home dugout discussing a recent baseball strategy by a player, and guess whose name surfaced? Yep. If the setting involves somebody associated with the Braves, and if the conversation lasts more than a little while, and if it's related to -- well, just about anything -- a reference to Chipper probably is moments away.
This chat with Gonzalez was about an opposing hitter who just faced the Braves and who particularly did well after the count reached two strikes. The guy has a reputation for prospering in those situations, which triggered a couple of questions: Does he purposely allow Braves pitchers and others to put him into a hole at the plate, simply because he prefers to swing when the pressure is on?
Didn't Chipper do such a thing? Gonzalez raised his eyebrow before saying, "It wouldn't surprise me if Chipper would swing and miss at a certain pitch, so that he would get that same pitch again in another at-bat."
The point is, Jones was a thinking-man's player. He has the Hall of Fame numbers and the accolades to prove it. During his 19 Major League seasons (all with the Braves), he never struck out more than 100 times in a given year, and that was despite slamming 468 home runs. He finished with 2,726 hits, which is a bundle, especially when you consider he only played in an average of 120 games per season during the last nine years of his career due to leg- and feet-related injuries.
No third baseman has more than Jones' 1,623 RBIs. He also is the only switch hitter with more than 400 homers and a lifetime batting average over .300. In addition, he made eight trips to the All-Star Game, and he won two Silver Slugger Awards, an NL MVP Award, an NL batting crown, and he earned a World Series ring while helping the Braves during their record string of capturing 14 consecutive division titles.
At the start of that run for the Braves, Jones wasn't around. He arrived in 1995, when the team was led by its trio of Cy Young Award-winning pitchers (Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz) and veterans such as Fred McGriff, Jeff Blauser and Marquis Grissom. The leader of those leaders back then was David Justice, the Braves' outspoken outfielder, who delivered a blunt statement to Chipper during Spring Training in 1997: "This is your team now."
Justice was traded before the start of that season, and with reluctance, Jones accepted his designated role. He performed it quietly at the start, and then he became louder over the years, but never to the point of shouting. He was more of a baseball Pied Piper who attracted others to wherever he stood or sat. By the end of his career, there were so many teammates asking Jones for his advice that he became their unofficial batting coach, and their official batting coaches didn't mind.
Whatever worked. For instance: Soon after Jason Heyward went from a promising rookie year in 2010 to a slumping mess in '11, he became one of Jones' prized pupils. Jones had a bunch of them, and one of his early ones was current Toronto Blue Jays utility man Mark DeRosa, who spent the first seven of his 16 seasons in the Major Leagues with the Braves.
I mention De Rosa because a conversation comes to mind from last year, when he played for the Washington Nationals. We talked in the visitors' clubhouse at Turner Field about Jones' final weeks as a player, and De Rosa sighed, before saying, "He'll never know how much he meant to my career. I can't tell you how much he helped me. He was good with the little things and with the big things. He always was there for advice."
Nothing has changed for Jones. Well, except for that slight matter of not wearing a uniform anymore. He now spends most of his time as Mr. Mom with his four sons, and he continues his old passion of hunting while developing his new passion of Tweeting.
That said, Jones has been known to pop into the Braves' clubhouse on the spur of the moment. He also doesn't have a problem with settling behind the batting cage or finding an empty spot in the dugout. Not just to chitchat or to reminisce, but to help. In fact, Braves batting coach Greg Walker has called Jones to discuss the perplexing hitting issues of B.J. Upton, who only recently has flashed signs of moving up to a .200 average.
Upton's improvement at the plate began about the time Walker called for Jones' advice.
Jones is an equal-opportunity helper. Earlier this season, when the Nationals came to town, Adam LaRoche was in a horrific slump. LaRoche is a former Braves first baseman, and he also is one of Jones' hunting buddies. More important, LaRoche was somebody who needed Chipper, and Jones was there to oblige. With no fanfare, the teacher quietly took the student into a hallway of the visiting clubhouse for a little film study, and LaRoche has gone from failing to passing in the aftermath.
Sounds like that teacher is highly respected and worthy of having his number retired by his old team, or something -- you know, a few years before he gets a bronzed plaque in Cooperstown.