How many players would you recognize right off the bat just by their first names? Ichiro, Kirby, Cal, Sammy…. You have to be special to be known by your first name alone. Sure, it helps to have a distinctive name, but many of these players also have a distinctive charisma about them, a team spirit that transcends their individuality and ironically makes them more endearing as individuals because they embrace the team.
The same applies to “Chipper.”
A Florida native, Chipper Jones was fortunate enough to be drafted out of high school and has played professional baseball ever since. Now in his ninth season, Jones is the quiet, steady force that has helped drive the Atlanta Braves to their seventh straight playoff appearance. And although he hit .327 as a switch hitter this year–with 100 RBIs, 179 hits, and 26 HRs–and was voted the NL MVP in 1999, personal accomplishments are secondary to him.
Strike that…. The “personal glory” bit probably isn’t even that high on his list. To listen to Chipper is to hear the recurrent themes of “family” and “team.” To read his personal website is to learn about his Chipper Jones Family Foundation, which helps fund organizations such as The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the Florida and Georgia Sheriffs’ Youth Ranches, Stetson University, the Take ‘Em Deep Program started with businessman Richard Hagstrom, and Boys and Girls Clubs and Little League Programs in the Atlanta area. And to watch him play is to see a throwback who plays the game because he loves it. He says he is lucky to have been given the talent to succeed playing a game he loves. But to characterize his success as good luck wouldn’t be entirely accurate. As Chipper explains himself, a typical day for a ball player–especially on the road–is not an easy one. The main reason? Being away from his family….
I’m sure in the final weeks of the regular season, after Atlanta had clinched the NL East and before the beginning of the playoffs, that Chipper could have found something better to do than answer a bunch of questions about rude fans, team chemistry, baseball’s labor agreement, the All-Star tie…and tofu and beer bottle genies. But the fact that he agreed and devoted more than an hour to us should not surprise anyone who has watched him on or off the field.
You have to be a special player–someone who cherishes his family, makes sacrifices for his team, and holds the game of baseball in the highest regard–to be called Chipper. You have to be someone who believes in “using [his] gifts and public image to help the community.”
Chipper…. Not Killer, not Hammer, not Spike. The name means “lively.” You have to be upbeat with a name like that.
A day in the life of a ballplayer
OBC: A lot of fans think players show up an hour before game time and just go out and play. What is a typical day like for Chipper Jones?
Jones: I usually get up around 10 or 11, spend time with the boys, eat some lunch, watch some film of the pitchers we might be facing that night, and head to the park around 1:30 or 2 pm. Once I get to the park, around 2:30 or 3:00, I usually get whatever treatment I need, play some cards or dominoes with the guys, watch any film I might want to, and then get ready for batting practice. After batting practice, we just get ready for the game.
After the game, we will do the interviews, shower up, and go home. I usually get home around midnight. I hang out with my wife, kiss my kids goodnight, and try to wind down. I will go to bed around 1:30 or 2 am. This all assumes I am at home–which isn’t very often, it seems. Being on the road is very difficult, because of the time away from my family.
OBC: Is that the hardest aspect of your job that doesn’t relate to baseball–the traveling?
Jones: The hardest part is being away from my kids and wife…and some of things I hear on the field. Just the personal things about my family that don’t have anything to do with the game. I think that people sometimes believe that buying a ticket entitles them to say anything they want, and that is unfortunate. I don’t mind the yelling, or the ripping on me personally. And I appreciate fans who do it in good taste and fun, but the ones who scream personal things and profanities about my wife and kids–things that shouldn’t be said ANY time–that is uncalled for. And it is unfortunate because the kids in the stands hear that stuff too. It ruins it for everyone.
OBC: I don’t know if fans feel they’ve paid for the right to be rude. Maybe there are just a lot of low-class fans.
Jones: Ninety-nine percent of the fans are out there cheering for their team and telling me that I couldn’t hit a watermelon with a banjo. Those fans are great. It is just a shame that a select few make it bad for the rest of the fans.
OBC: Have you noticed any regional differences in crowds? That is, are fans in the Northeast more likely to throw hard objects at you or question the genus and species of your relatives? Do fans in SoCal just moon players they don’t like?
Jones: Oh yes. The fans in the North are very, very passionate about their teams. I think some of it comes from the history of the teams like Boston, the Yankees, the Mets, Cleveland, etc. Who can talk about the Yankees and not speak of Mantle, Ruth, DiMaggio, and Maris? That is history that you can’t replace. Who can talk about the Mets and not talk about the last time they were in the Series? Who can talk about Boston and not talk about the curse of Babe Ruth? That is what makes these fans so passionate.
Not to say that the West Coast fans don’t like their teams; they just seem to be much more laid back. But, I’ll tell you this: Some of the loudest places I have been are in San Diego and San Francisco, so I guess when it’s all on the line, they show up. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. No matter how laid back someone might be in Portland, when it comes time to really support the Blazers, they step up huge.
OBC: At the beginning of the season, people in the press said Atlanta would be rebuilding, yet the Braves have the best record in the National League. Is it an attitude change in the clubhouse? Have changes to the lineup created this great synergy?
Jones: It’s the same. Guys like Smoltzie, Glav, and Doggie [Maddux] are just a stabilizing force for our club. They have that attitude of “we know what we are doing, and we know that we are going to be there at the end” that spills over to the younger guys and creates an aura of confidence with the young and new guys. Guys like Sheff, Franco, Bragg, and the new pitchers just see that and fall right into line. I can’t say enough about each of these guys.
OBC: The Braves have been criticized for “choking” in the post-season a number of times in the last decade. What makes this year’s Braves different from playoff teams of the past?
Jones: Oh, I don’t think we have choked at all. I can only think of one year where I really thought that we should have won the World Series and didn’t. That was in ’96. In ’99, the Yankees were just a better team. Last year, the D-backs were a better team.
I feel great about this team. We are a year older, and that’s a good thing. Put Sheff, the role guys, and the staff in the mix, and I really like our team, and particularly our chemistry.
OBC: You have been on a tear this year. Have you done anything different this season, such as adjusting your swing or your stance in the box? Does it have anything to do with a tofu and soy bean diet?
Jones: I started out very slowly. Just really trying to find my swing. I have adjusted a ton over the course of the year (hands, alignment, stance, stride). My dad and Terry [Pendleton] have helped me find my swing again. I am feeling pretty good at the plate right now, and it has nothing to do with tofu or soy beans. Soy beans are for the deer on my ranch.
OBC: What gets a player off more: A great at bat or a great defensive play?
Jones: I think everyone knows that it is a great at bat. Honestly, though, I am over the personal achievements; that is not what moves me at this point. I just want to help this team. That is why I told Bobby [Cox] and John [Schuerholz] that I would move to the outfield if it would make us a better team. That is why I have no problem hitting in the four-hole when I have been a three-hole hitter my whole career. This game is about THIS team and us winning. If making that great defensive play helps us win the game, and I go 0 for 4, then I am going to be a happy guy.
OBC: When you AREN’T very happy about your personal performance, do you ever take your frustration out on inanimate objects? For example, if the team wins, but you strike out four times and make several bonehead plays, have you ever, in anger, hit a watermelon with a banjo? And what do you think of players who bludgeon water coolers to death? Do you do anything like that?
Jones: I almost never do. I kill myself on the inside, which probably works to my disadvantage at times. I think guys take out their anger in different ways. I don’t hold it against anyone who kicks the crap out of a water cooler or bangs his helmet on the ground. We all laugh about it later anyway. Whatever a player needs to do to put it behind him and focus on helping the team the next inning is all that is important.
OBC: You’ve always been known as a “gamer.” Given baseball’s day-in-day-out schedule, how often do you play in pain? Do players complain about stubbed toes or paper cuts in the clubhouse, or do they try to out-macho each other?
Jones: As I get older, it seems like it is more of a recurrent thing. I played in probably 30 or 40 games this year where I could have sat out. I played in probably 20 or so where I shouldn’t have been playing, but I hate being on the bench; it kills me. I am not a good bench guy. Maybe some day, but definitely not now. Most guys are the same way.
I think, as you get older, you realize that you might need to sacrifice one day for the benefit of yourself and your team. You can’t do the team any good if you are not at your best, and sometimes that day off can help tremendously. I am trying to learn that lesson, but my instinct is to suck it up and play.
The state of the game
OBC: Which is more important: Protecting the rights of a handful of players to get a premium salary from George Steinbrenner; or protecting the rights of the tens of millions of fans who want to feel that their teams have a chance, not only to make it to the postseason, but also to retain some of their star players and not lose them to free agency?
Jones: That’s a loaded question, huh?
OBC: Loaded questions are one of our specialties at OBC. As soon as you answer this one, we’ll move on to more of the tofu and soy bean variety.
Jones: I don’t think any player would disagree that we want an even playing field. I think that the problem that Mr. Steinbrenner and the other big market teams have with an unchecked revenue-sharing program is that nothing within that program ensures that the owners receiving the revenue will spend it on players. That is the whole problem with this concept. Who is to say that the Rays and the Brewers will spend all of this money on player salaries? The Rays’ ownership has already stated that a large amount of the revenues they will receive under this plan will go into retiring debt. All this does is increase equity within the organization, so that larger profits will be recognized come cash-out time. How does this help fans?
The union recognized disparity in some of the teams financially. That is why we agreed to do this deal. But I want to make it very clear that we do not want a system like football, which may be okay for the fans and the owners filling their pockets–with no incentive to get better–yet doesn’t take into account the increase in player movement and veteran players being released by teams that they have given their careers to. We want a free market system that promotes competitive balance, not competitive growth of equity in franchises. That doesn’t do the players or the fans any good.
As fans, you should now hold your teams’ owners accountable for performance. This is what they wanted, but let’s see if it makes a difference in who is there come playoff time. I bet it doesn’t, because you will still have teams that are run badly, and you’ll still have George Steinbrenner and other owners who will do whatever it takes to put a winning team on the field. Look at the A’s, who have one of the lowest payrolls around. They have done it with their farm system and a well-run organization. The Yankees do it with Jeter, Posada, Williams, and others that have come up through their system. Sure, money helps matters, but Mr. Steinbrenner will do whatever it takes to win. That is what people don’t see about him.
In 1990, if we talked about teams that were struggling and should be contracted, you know who we would have been talking about? The Indians, the Mariners, and the Braves. How about that? Varying degrees of management are responsible for most of the successes and failures we see.
OBC: What’s your opinion of interleague play? Does it take some of the magic away from the World Series, the only time in the past when NL and AL teams would face each other? Is it just one more marketing trick that will ultimately make baseball more like hockey, basketball, and football?
Jones: Interleague play was exciting for the fans and definitely added some life to the sport at a time when I think it needed it, but overall, I think the players prefer the more historical scheduling. Interleague play involves some additional traveling, and we are facing teams and pitchers that should really have no bearing on whether we win our division. I don’t see interleague becoming much more extensive than it already is. With the unbalanced schedule that is in place today, along with playing the other teams in our league, I just don’t see how they could–or that they would–do that.
OBC: Do you like the All-Star game in its current format? Or would you rather play the game for real? When did it stop being something that the players wanted to win and start being just a beauty pageant?
Jones: I think your question mischaracterizes how the players feel about the game. Believe me, when the guys step on the field, they are playing the game for real. No player who participates in that game doesn’t want to win it, I assure you.
OBC: Do you think the guys in the dugout were disgusted with the tie in Milwaukee? I know the fans were.
Jones: I certainly don’t know one guy that liked the outcome of the All-Star game this year. Anyone who doesn’t think so, watch the tape of the All-Star game in Boston and then question every player that wasn’t there with Ted Williams about whether they hated not being there. It is, and will continue to be, an honor to be in that midsummer game.
OBC: How do we get more kids interested in baseball again? Is it as simple as playing more day games? Or do we need to do things at the community level to rekindle the interest not only of kids but of their families as well?
Jones: I think it starts with grassroots programs. Programs that MLB has started, like RBI, will help in promoting the game. Accessibility is something that will help as well. But I’m not sure we will ever see the level of attention that we had 30 years ago. There is just too much else to do in this world today. The league and the players work hard to bring kids out to the park. I sponsor programs that do that, and I know other players do too. We are all trying to do our part, but honestly, I believe the country has just changed.
OBC: Who was your baseball hero growing up…the guy that you pretended to be when daydreaming?
Jones: When I was younger, it had to be my dad. After that, it was all the guys on the Dodgers in the late 70s and early 80s…like Cey, Garvey, Yeager, Valenzuela, Baker. As I got a little older, Cal and Ozzie were the guys I looked up to and wanted to emulate.
OBC: Let’s pretend you never made it as a big-leaguer. If it weren’t for baseball, what do you think you’d be doing for a living right now?
Jones: It is all I’ve known since I was 18. It is the only “job” I’ve ever had as an adult. I was going to major in Communications and try to do something with sports. I had a scholarship to the University of Miami, signed a letter of intent, then got drafted, so who knows? I am just thankful that I am playing a game that I love, and that I have been given the talent to succeed. There is not a day that goes by that doesn’t bring a smile to my face. I know how very lucky I am, and I will never forget that.
OBC: You’re at the ballpark after hours and you notice a beer bottle near third base that the groundskeepers missed. Of course, you pick it up and walk toward the trash can to dispose of it, but midstride you accidentally wipe the bottle against your pant leg…and the baseball genie pops out of the bottle. He says he will grant you three wishes for the game of baseball. What do you wish for?
Jones: Wow, that’s a tough one. I guess the bottom line is that the game of baseball is such a great, great game that I consider myself very lucky to be paid to play a game I love and for which I have a passion. I miss my family sometimes, and again, I don’t enjoy the profanity-filled, family heckling that you get out there that doesn’t relate to the game.
OBC: So your wishes are…?
Jones: I’m going to stay away from some of the controversial issues with baseball and keep things light. How about one, a machine that lets us go home instantaneously after any game, home or away; two, a mute button on our uniforms that can zip up those unruly fans; and three, a few more World Championships for the Braves.
OBC: Um, the baseball genie says he’ll let you have the first two.
Jones: A few more World Series wins would be nice, too.
OBC: Okay, MAYBE if you end up playing the Yankees again….
(Special thanks goes to B.B. Abbott of Jet Sports Management for helping make this interview possible.)