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Chipper Jones grew up in Pierson, population 2,988, where the only light in town forever blinked yellow in reliable, monochromatic homage to the simple Southern life. Most townsfolk, including his father, Larry, a high school algebra teacher and baseball coach, grew the decorative greenery you'd find in a flower bouquet. That was Pierson. It wasn't about the roses. It was about the ferns.
Five-year-old Chipper learned how to hit from both sides of the plate in his backyard, swinging a two-inch-wide piece of PVC pipe at a tennis ball thrown by his dad, who stood by the hay barn. As the boy grew, he and his father would play games against each other, blasting home runs onto the clear plastic sheeting that draped the fernery.
The boy grew tall as corn. In 1990, after hitting .448 and leading The Bolles High School to the 2A state championship, Chipper became the first pick in the amateur draft and agreed to a contract with Atlanta that carried a $275,000 signing bonus. Five years later he was batting third for a world championship team in his first full big league season. He was a made-for-Dixie hero with a lopsided aw-shucks grin that made girls swoon, men swear they were watching the second coming of Mickey Mantle and foes want to clean his clock. "Hated him," admits Weiss, who came to the Braves from the Colorado Rockies after the '97 season. "I didn't know him. It was just, I don't know, a kind of swagger he has. But, really, he's a blue-collar guy. Comes in, plays cards, goes out and plays. Every day."
Married to Karin Fulford, whom he met in 1991 and wed a year later, Jones was an All-Star who would come back to Pierson in the winter for the deliciously greasy hamburgers, corn bread, sweet tea and the familiar company of his boyhood friends at Carter's Country Kitchen. At home he would watch football on TV with his father until out of nowhere Larry would say, "Chipper, you know what? I can still take you." And just like that the two of them would bolt from the couch to the backyard and resume the game with the tennis ball, the PVC pipe, the hay barn and the canopy of fernery.
The two share an almost brotherly friendship, with frequent hunting and fishing trips and usually no more than one day passing without a phone call. But Larry Wayne Jones Jr., nicknamed for being such a chip off the old block, never did tell his father about the affairs that destroyed his marriage. Chipper and Karin separated last November, and their divorce is pending.
"I found out from somebody else," says Larry, now an assistant coach at Stetson. "But that's not surprising. Chipper doesn't offer a whole lot."
"I went public," Jones says of his admission, "partly because my wife pressured me to do it. But that was like a weight lifting off my shoulders. I had been living a hypocritical life. I wasn't as quick to look people in the eye, and I didn't want to do that anymore. That was the only good thing that came out of it. I cleared my conscience. I'm paying for my mistakes. I am greatly sorry for them. But I feel it's time to close the door."
Jones immersed himself in an expanded weight-training regimen. Larry was shocked to see him leg pressing more than 1,000 pounds one day when he visited him at Turner Field. "Dad," Chipper said, "I've got to be stronger in August and September. No more of my usual fade." A career .256 hitter in September/October, Jones had hit .301 this month through Sunday with 10 home runs—one less than his career total for the month entering the season.
"It looks as if he has more peace of mind, that he's more relaxed," observes St. Louis Cardinals hitting coach Mike Easier. "He's learned how to take one game at a time and not try to do too much. The man could always hit. Now he's getting some good direction from Don. When the student is ready, the teacher shall appear."
Baylor, the 1979 American League MVP with the California Angels, has made mechanical adjustments to Jones's stance, especially to the placement of his arms and hands. Jones had a defensive posture from the right side, his front elbow pointed up "like a chicken wing," Larry said, and he held his hands close to his chest. Jones did that to place a premium on making contact; he loathed striking out and measured himself by that .300 mark. Baylor persuaded Jones to drop the elbow and move his hands slightly back, generating more thrust into the ball. "Balls he used to pull foul," Baylor said, "are going to left center."