DURHAM — A lot has changed since Chipper Jones donned a Durham Bulls jersey.
The Bulls have moved from Class A to Class AAA and relocated to the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. The city itself has added to the atmosphere and even Jones, who was 20 years old the last time he played in Durham, admitted he’s matured a lot since that time.
But one thing Jones said will never change is the nostalgia associated withthe organization.
“This is probably the one place you didn’t want to get promoted from,” Jones said. “Your intention is always to move up the ladder as quickly as possible. … But certainly once I got to Durham I thought this was one of the greatest places to play minor league baseball.
“Now I come back 21 years later and it’s even better.”
On Tuesday night, Jones’ No. 10 jersey was the fourth to be retired by the Bulls in front of a standing-room only crowd, which included many fans wearing replicas of his Braves or Bulls jerseys, prior to Durham hosting the Charlotte Knights.
The former Bulls shortstop stood before the crowd and said , “What’s up, Braves country,” despite the fact that the team is currently affiliated with the Tampa Bay Rays.
Jones would go on to say that he remembered playing at the old Durham Athletic Park where there was a certain amount of “electricity” in the atmosphere. He also said that he has “played in worse major league ballparks than the (DBAP).”
While most people remember Jones as a third baseman with a .954 lifetime fielding percentage and a switch-hitter with a career .303 average and 468 home runs, Jones’ time spent in the minors was anything but routine.
Jones, who committed 56 errors with the Macon Braves before he got to Durham and 14 with the Bulls, said he was surprised when he found out his number would be retired with the Bulls.
“I was kind of a defensive project at the time,” Jones said of his 70 games with Durham. “We had something called the ‘Chip-O-Meter’ and it was a running tally of the errors I made in Low-A ball. … The whole time I was here, I had instructors in and out of town making sure I was on top of my defense.”
Outside of baseball, Jones remembered the Duke basketball team that was just coming off a national championship win when he arrived.
The legend of Chipper Jones had yet to resonate in Durham, but names like Grant Hill, Bobby Hurley and Christian Laettner had reached immortal status.
“After games, we used to go to (the bar) and sure enough in would walk all of the Duke basketball players,” Jones said. “We became great friends and got each other tickets. ... I don’t know if that’s against NCAA violations. Twenty years later I don’t think that’ll matter.
“I thought that was the coolest thing on the planet because those guys were celebrities. I considered it an honor to be able to hang out with them.”
Among the on-field memories that Jones spoke about Tuesday night prior to the ceremony was coming to the plate hoping to hit the bull, which then stood in right field.
During the ceremony, Jones was given a piece of the sign that said “BULL.” Jones hit the bull at least once, off former major league pitcher Alan Embree, who would later become his teammate during the 1997 season.
“I just remember standing up there left-handed thinking to myself, ‘man, if I can just hook this ball,’” Jones said. “I want to at least run by there today when all is said and done because there are so many memories walking into that park.
“Every time I’m flipping through the channels and see ‘Bull Durham,’ I stop just to get a glimpse of that park. It was where I wanted to play and I took advantage of that for the couple of months I was here.”
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