That's how Jones came to be the top pick. From the first day he was low maintenance. It took the Braves an hour to come to terms with him. Two Atlanta front-office guys showed up at the Joneses' house in Pierson, Fla. The Braves suggested a certain figure as a signing bonus. The Joneses named a higher number. The men from Atlanta said it was too high. The family asked to be excused. They went upstairs to Chipper's bedroom to discuss the offer. They had no agent.
"Chipper, you know we can get more money than this," Larry said.
"I don't care about the money. I want to be playing professional baseball in two weeks," Chipper said.
Father, mother and son walked downstairs. Larry said, "If you'll meet us halfway, you have a deal." The Braves officials smiled and extended hands.
It was a scene out of the old days. Jones signed for $350,000. (Van Poppel signed for $1.2 million, and through last weekend had struggled to a 20-30 record in five seasons, with Oakland and now the Detroit Tigers.) Two weeks later he was at shortstop, the position he had played growing up, for the Bradenton Braves in the Gulf Coast League. Last year Jones earned the major league minimum, $109,000. In the spring he signed a four-year deal worth $8.25 million, with an option for a fifth year. He and his wife, Karin, are planning a big house in the far reaches of suburban Atlanta. Something with a nursery. For now, though, it's just the two of them and their two golden retrievers and off days on roller coasters, at the movies, cruising the malls.
Some players, including some teammates, mocked Jones for his contract. They told him that if he had waited and then put up the numbers he has now, he could have received much more money, vast sums. "When I hear that, I just laugh in their faces," Jones says. "I don't play baseball for money; I play for love of the game. I have no desire to be the highest-paid player. I'm happy with my life."
Chipper and Karin have a memory. In 1994, with Blauser entrenched at shortstop, Jones was expected to be the Braves' starting leftfielder. (Cox believes that Jones—because of his size, his athleticism, his arm and his attitude—can play short, third, left or right.) But during spring training in '94, Jones tore the anterior cruciate ligament of his left knee avoiding a tag at first base and missed the season, the season that was aborted by the strike. There were house payments and car payments, credit cards to pay off and no paychecks in the mail. There was strain in the Jones household.
"Chipper's heart beats for baseball," Karin says, "and in 1994 he lost baseball two ways. He had an injury that made him realize that you never know when the game is going to be taken away from you. And then the strike. We were two months away from having to sell our house. I took a job as a substitute teacher. Then in that same year, my parents got divorced. We cried a lot, and we prayed a lot." After that, $8.25 million for four years, guaranteed, sounded pretty good.
Chipper was a 19-year-old minor leaguer when he told his father about the love of his life.
"I don't know about this," Larry said.