DURHAM — Chipper Jones will play in his eighth and final All-Star Game on Tuesday night in Kansas City.
He kidded with reporters last week that he felt like a kid again, despite being the National League’s elder statesman. Monday, as players began arriving for Media Day, many already were paying tribute to a career well done.
“Chipper’s the man – in bold, all caps, Chipper’s the man,” St. Louis Cardinals third baseman David Freese told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Added George Brett, “I’m excited to see him,” he told the paper. “Unbelievable (career). Hall of Famer. I’ll see him in Cooperstown in five years.”
Jones, 40 and in his 19th and final season with the Braves, recently reflected on his first All-Star Game, 16 years ago in Philadelphia. He was one of 20 first-time All-Stars. Nervous and wide-eyed. After collecting a hit and scoring a run, he told reporters, “All right, I can play with these guys.”
The Durham Bulls say they saw it coming, way back in 1992.
The Bulls, then a Class A affiliate of the Braves, were happy to welcome the 20-year-old Jones, already regarded as one of baseball’s best prospects.
“He was probably in the top five of all of the guys I’ve ever had, if not the top guy,” said former Bulls manager Leon Roberts, who also coached Jermaine Dye, Andruw Jones, Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Jason Heyward, and Freddie Freeman in his nearly 30 in the Braves, Reds, and Astros systems. “A switch hitter with all of the signs you look for: big, strong, and a fast baserunner. He had a long career written all over him.”
“We knew Chipper was going to be special,” said Bulls public announcer Tony Riggsbee, part of the organization since 1980.
Jones was the first overall pick in the 1990 draft. He arrived in Durham in 1992 after batting .326 the previous season with the Macon Braves of the South Atlantic League. During that time, he shot up from No. 49 on Baseball America’s prospect rankings list in 1991 to No. 4 in 1992. Braves minor league teams were known to play “the first half of the season for the city and the second for the organization,” Riggsbee said – which meant the farm teams usually played well in the first half, then struggled after their best players were promoted.
Jones lasted all of 70 games in Durham. He hit .277 with 4 home runs and 31 RBIs.
“In all honesty we were surprised he stayed here the entire first half,” Riggsbee said.
Perhaps Jones’ greatest asset, according to those who spent the most time with him in Durham, was his humility and focus through it all.
“He’s pretty grounded, his parents did a good job with him,” Roberts said. “He dad was basically his coach, and he still relies on his dad even toward the end of his big league career.”
“He never had a big head, and it didn’t change when he made it to the majors,” added Riggsbee, who also occasionally covered Jones on a major-league level.
Jones learned a thing or two during his two-plus months in Durham.
Roberts recalls a laughing moment with his No. 3 hitter.
“I gave him the green light on a 3-0 pitch and he didn’t know what to do,” the former Bulls manager said. “He didn’t move.”
The next day Roberts spoke with Jones about his hesitance at the plate, only to find out that Jones had been taught to never swing at a 3-0 pitch.
“He goes, ‘I’ve never swung at it my entire life,’ ” Roberts said, laughing at the memory. “That surprised the heck out of me, but other than that he was a real solid player.”
He turned out even better than that.