Chipper Jones’ induction year for the Hall of Fame has officially been set. In January 2018, the long-time Atlanta Braves’ third baseman will take his place among baseball’s elite in Cooperstown, five year after his retirement, which Jones recently announced will take place after this season.
During his career, which has spanned 20 years, Jones has consistently been one of the best players at not only his position, but in the entire game. So, over the next few days, and throughout the year, Jones’ Hall of Fame credentials will be analyzed and debated, but the fact of the matter is there really isn’t an argument at all. Chipper Jones easily ranks among the game’s immortals.
Instead of using his retirement announcement as a launching point for evaluating Jones’ Hall of Fame credentials, I can’t help but hark back to March 19, 1994…the day his career almost ended before it even started. During that Spring Training game against the Yankees in Ft. Lauderdale, which was broadcast in New York on WABC radio, Jones was playing left field, the position he was expected to occupy that season. Early in the game, I can remember jealously listening to John Sterling rave about Jones, who was the latest in a Braves’ youth movement (fellow rookies Ryan Klesko and Javy Lopez also made their marks in 1994) that would fuel one of the most impressive runs of success in baseball history. These were the days before Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera, so hearing Sterling talk about the Braves’ largess was a little angering (little did I know the Yankees were in the midst of their own youth movement). Then, when Jones went deep in the first inning, my envy turned even greener.
The grass really wasn’t greener on the other side, at least not after the top of the fifth. In that inning, Jones hit a groundball to short stop, but the return throw pulled Yankees’ first baseman Jim Leyritz off the bag. In an effort to avoid the tag, the rookie angled his body awkwardly and then crumpled to the ground. Although the official diagnosis of a torn ACL in his left knee wouldn’t be confirmed until the following day, everyone who saw the injury immediately understood the severity.
I worked very hard to get where I am now. It’s really kind of disheartening.” – Chipper Jones, quoted by Reading Eagle, March 20, 1994
Because of one errant throw, Jones went from the Rookie of the Year favorite to out for the year. Disheartening indeed. Earlier in the spring, Jones, who had played only short stop during his profession career, had entered camp as a contender for the left field vacancy created when the incumbent Ron Gant broke his leg in an off-season motor bike accident. Although considered a long shot at first, the young prospect was brimming with confidence, in large part because of the rigorous offseason conditioning programming he had undertaken. “I’m confident of my ability,” Jones told AP in February, ”and nobody has done the work this offseason that I have done to get ready.”
Right now I’d say I am an adequate left fielder. In six weeks, I’ll be a good one” – Chipper Jones, quoted by AP, February 27, 1994
It didn’t even take that long. Within weeks, Jones’ play in left opened enough eyes to make him the leading candidate. Of course, his .371 average with two homers and eight RBIs didn’t hurt. All of Jones’ hard work in the offseason had paid off, or so it seemed. However, after his fateful at bat against the Yankees, the real hard work was just beginning.
Thanks to a fierce labor battle that resulted in the cancelation of the World Series, the 1994 season turned out to be a lost cause for more than just the Braves’ rookie. However, Jones, like the game itself, would quickly rebound. In 1995, he finished second in the Rookie of the Year balloting, posting an OPS+ of 108 (.265/.353/.450 with 23 home runs and 86 RBIs) as a third baseman, the position he would occupy for most of his career. As for what came after, well, let’s just say it’s history worthy of being told in the Hall of Fame.