Everyone in tiny Pierson, Fla., knew that Chipper Jones was a can't-miss kid, even when he was only 11 years old. As an eighth-grader he started on the high school varsity baseball team. By 15 he was being touted as a future major leaguer. As a 10th-grader he transferred to a private school 90 miles from home, causing bitter disappointment in Pierson. At 18 he was regarded as the nation's best amateur player.
This explains why Jones, the Atlanta Braves' rookie third baseman, could have been the unofficial MVP last week of his first big league postseason series. This explains how a kid from a town that had no stoplights could enter this week's National League Championship Series against the Cincinnati Reds without a hint of anxiety. "I've been through a lot of pressure games in my life," Jones says. "Some guys live for crunch time. I'm one of them."
Just ask the Colorado Rockies, who were knocked out of the playoffs by Atlanta. In Game 1 Jones hit two home runs, including a two-out blast in the ninth inning that gave the Braves a 5-4 win. He also made a game-saving defensive play with a brilliant diving stop that turned a potential run-scoring hit into a force-out. In Game 2 Jones led off the ninth with a double, igniting a four-run rally that sent the Rockies to a 7-4 loss. He delivered another huge hit in the third inning of Game 4, when, with the Braves trailing 3-0, he doubled home two runs and then scored on Fred McGriff's two-run homer; Atlanta never trailed again and won 10-4. Jones ended the series batting .389 with four RBIs and three standout defensive plays, despite playing with a sore left knee and an aching back.
It was a performance that was in keeping with his regular season, for which he should be awarded National League Rookie of the Year honors next month. Hitting third most of the season, Jones belted 23 homers and drove in 86 runs. "Every time I see him he impresses me more," says Rocky shortstop Walt Weiss.
Everyone in Pierson knew Chipper and his father, Larry, who was an algebra teacher and the baseball coach at Taylor Junior-Senior High. But when Chipper reached the eighth grade, Larry quit coaching temporarily because he knew that his son was good enough to beat out a senior, and that controversy wouldn't be good for him, his boy or the community. "He stepped down, and I beat out the guy anyway," says Chipper.
Later Larry, who still teaches at Taylor, "started seeing little bitty favors being done for Chipper—cutting him some slack in class. That wasn't fair to him or to the other kids." So Larry enrolled Chipper, then a sophomore, at The Bolles School in Jacksonville. "People I used to consider friends still won't talk lo me for doing that," Larry says. Chipper called home crying his first five days at Bolles, claiming that the workload was too much. "I told him, 'Coming home is not an option,' " Larry says. "Kids give what we demand of them, not what we ask of them. A lot of kids would have quit. But he got a burr in his saddle. He made a 3.2 GPA the first year, then maintained it."
Chipper also led Bolles to three straight state Class AA baseball championship games, with his new school eliminating Taylor from the playoffs each year. "There was a lot of pressure to do well in those games," he said. "I couldn't go away to another school, come back and lose. That was the most pressure I've ever felt until the Colorado series."
After Jones's senior season the Braves made him the first pick in the 1990 amateur draft. Formal contract negotiations took less than an hour, whereupon Jones signed for only $350,000—less than market value—because he wanted to get his career started immediately. "I wanted to earn the money, not have an agent get it for me," says Jones, who played in 44 Gulf Coast League games that summer.
Jones was penciled in as Atlanta's Opening Day leftfielder and number 3 hitter in 1994, but he tore up his left knee in spring training and was lost for the season. This year, playing bird base, he has been the Braves' most consistent performer. "People have always expected big things of Chipper Jones," he said. "And I've always answered the bell."