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RIDING HIGH
Michael Bamberger
September 16, 1996
Life isn't a roller coaster for Braves star Chipper Jones, who's on top of the world no matter what position he's asked to play
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September 16, 1996

Riding High

Life isn't a roller coaster for Braves star Chipper Jones, who's on top of the world no matter what position he's asked to play

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Nobody calls him Larry. Well, that's not entirely true. His teammates call him Larry. Pedro Borbon and Ryan Klesko and Mark Lemke, they can get away with it. But to everyone else—his wife, his parents, his neighbors in suburban Atlanta waving at him as he takes out the garbage—Larry Wayne Jones Jr. is Chipper. And just about every afternoon, when Bobby Cox, the Atlanta Braves' skipper, fills out his lineup card, he enters the name of Chipper Jones right before the name of Fred McGriff, Atlanta's cleanup hitter. At week's end Jones, a sophomore in the big leagues, was switch-hitting .308, with 30 homers, 105 runs batted in and 105 runs scored. He's 24, and he's making a national name for himself in the pastime. Last year he was an affable, unselfish and promising player who helped the Braves win the World Series. He remains affable and unselfish, but this year he's a budding star—and Atlanta has the best record in baseball.

Chipper. Cox writes in that cheerful name day after day, but he doesn't always know what position he'll put after it. Last year Jones was the Braves' every-day third baseman, and he was the National League starter at that position in this year's All-Star Game. But on Aug. 15, a month after Jeff Blauser broke a bone in his left hand, Jones returned to his ancestral home, shortstop, where, through Sunday, he has had but three errors in 95 chances. His teammates may call him Larry, force him to wear clown pants through the Montreal airport, mock his discards when he plays hearts in the marathon games that help pass afternoons on the road. Cox takes no such chances. He calls Jones by the old-time nickname, Chipper.

Until Blauser, who was activated last week, is ready to play every day, Jones will be the regular shortstop. What will happen next month and next season and in the years beyond is unknown. For a long time to come, Jones—a line drive hitter who has surprised nobody with his average but many with his home run power—will bat in the middle of the order, but he might be at short or third, or in left or right. All he cares about is playing. Career-counseling sessions with Jones are rare and brief. "What can one say about the Chipper?" Cox asks, sitting in a visiting clubhouse office recently, a stubby cigar in his fingers. Jones is out of earshot, in the clubhouse, absorbed in a game of hearts. "His attitude is, 'Whatever's best for the team.' Where does it come from? Look at his family. Good people, his mother and his father. His father's a baseball coach. Good man." Lynne, a professional horsewoman, and Larry Wayne Jones, a school teacher, have one child: the Chipper.

"Chip off the old block," Chipper says, explaining his nickname. He has quit the card game and stretched to his full 6'3". His body, now 200 pounds, became bigger and stronger during a long rehabilitation from knee surgery two years ago, gaining muscle that has added 15 feet to his fly balls. He has big, square teeth, a score of juvenile hairs on his chin, an Eisenhower-era haircut, a little nose with an upward tilt and green, widely spaced eyes. Same eyes as his father, a college shortstop at Stetson who later had a tryout with the Chicago Cubs.

"Chipper is a good name," Chipper says. "If I was called Larry Jones, who'd remember that? Chipper is one of those first names people remember. Think of Cal, Emmitt, Mickey. You hear those names and you say, 'Those were some of the best to ever play the game.' I'd like to be thought of like that someday." The Chipper has dreams. He would like a membership in the Hall of Fame. He would like nine more World Series rings, so he would have one for every finger. But he's ambivalent about fame. "From 2 p.m., when I arrive at the park for a night game, until I sign my last autograph after a game, I'm Chipper," he says, speaking in full sentences and with a Southerner's laconic ease. "The rest of the time I think of myself as Moe Jones, leading an ordinary, upper-middle-class life."

His name, though, already resonates in Atlanta, which he calls, with an earnestness that belies his years, "my home." He's on the AM dial almost daily, talking baseball with Neal Boortz, the Rush Limbaugh of local radio. Before the Braves' radio broad-casts, he does a spot called "Ask Chipper," during which kids pose questions such as, "Why do you wear your socks the way you do?" (He wears them with a lot of stirrup showing: He's a traditionalist.) He's featured in a full-page ad for a BMW dealership that runs regularly in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He's often seen at charity events or having lunch in a local school, sometimes in a downtrodden neighborhood, as part of a program to encourage children to eat nutritiously.

When the Braves vacated town for nearly three weeks to make Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium available for the Olympics, Jones wrote—or, more accurately, dictated to a ghost writer—a short daily column for the Journal-Constitution. He used the space to praise the ease with which his remote control changed television channels in his Los Angeles hotel room. He also recounted his terror at being trapped in a Houston elevator for 15 minutes and his dismay at a cab fare that rose to $40 because of a map-challenged driver. He wrote, briefly but movingly, about the fatal explosion in Centennial Olympic Park. And when, during that monster road trip, Atlanta hit a bad patch and lost three straight, Jones said in his column, "I don't like the way some people are going about their business."

Those were words of warning, words you might hear from a veteran with established leadership credentials. They aren't words one would expect from a 24-year-old, second-year player. But they were Jones's words, and he regretted them. "I knew the next morning I shouldn't have said that," Jones says. "Nobody said anything to me; nobody needed to. I just regretted it. I was frustrated when I said it. But what happens in this clubhouse should stay in this clubhouse. I made a mistake."

It's hard to say which words demonstrate more maturity, his stern assessment of his teammates during a slump or the honesty of his regret. Either way, Jones's voice carries well in the Atlanta clubhouse. Even as a rookie he took steps to initiate a team meeting. There's not a Brave who won't listen to him, particularly when he's discussing an opposing pitcher. He has an almost photographic memory of at bats, his own and others'. He has been heard to say to a teammate, "Don't you remember what that guy threw you? You homered off him, dude!"

Although Jones has been in the majors only two years, he's already a veteran of the organization. He was drafted by Atlanta in 1990 after a phenomenal schoolboy career at The Bolles School, in Jacksonville. Jones was in the same draft as Todd Van Poppel, the high school pitching sensation from Arlington, Texas, who had said before the draft that he would sign only with the Oakland A's. Those were different days for the Braves. They had the first pick in the '90 draft and desperately needed pitching. Atlanta officials camped out in Arlington to see if Van Poppel was signable. They decided that they couldn't take the chance that he might not be. Choosing Jones was plan B.

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