COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — His mother, Lynne Jones, once noted that her boy, Chipper, was destined for big things at the ballpark.
"Somebody said early on, 'He looks good in a uniform; he was put on earth to play baseball.' And I think he was," she said.
And the kid – well, he's 46 now – is not so bad as an orator, either.
With the biggest speech a ballplayer can ever give, Chipper Jones, the wall-to-wall Atlanta Brave, hit all the right notes during his Sunday induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. His acceptance speech – 20-minutes, 4-seconds long for those keeping score – displayed an infielder's range, alternating between humor, humility, gratitude and love.
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“For me, it all started in the little town of Pierson, Florida. I was just a country kid from a town with two caution lights, the self-proclaimed fern capital of the world. How do I of all people end up here on a stage with these iconic players, my childhood heroes, the best players in baseball history?” he told the 53,000 gathered in a grassy field about a mile from where his bronze likeness will hang in the Hall.
It’s a likeness that he approves of, by the way. “It’s pretty good,” he said after the speech was done and he had a chance to study his plaque. “They could have done worse. I’ve had some bobbleheads that looked like I was in a train wreck. But that one was pretty good. I liked it.”
The answer to that question Jones posed to begin his speech, the one about how ever did he get here: Become one of only nine players in major league history with at least 400 home runs, a .300 batting average, a .400 on-base percentage and a .500 slugging percentage. Serve as the signature, everyday player for a franchise for more than 18 seasons while establishing a trademark habit for winning.
Behind him on the stage sat 51 returning Hall of Famers, their numbers including the five others most responsible for the Braves epic run of 14 straight division titles – and one World Series win in Jones’ rookie year of 1995. Also on hand was the one player among all the greats whose introduction and appearance on stage, cane in hand, inspired a standing ovation from the fans in attendance: Hank Aaron.
In the front row was his family, for whom Jones saved his warmest words. Of course, he did. Jones was literally wearing his emotions Sunday – the lining of the blue sport coat he wore to induction was decorated with reproductions of family photos.
For his parents, Larry Sr. and Lynne: “Not a day goes by that I’m not thankful for all that both of you have done. I love you both beyond words.”
For his six children: “I want you to step away from my shadow and blaze your own trail in whatever you’re passionate about. Believe in what you do, love whatever you do. And know that I love you unconditionally, and will support you in whatever path you choose.”
For his wife, who is expecting the couple’s son Monday yet sat there in the warm summer sun: “I didn’t meet my wife Taylor until I was 40 years old, playing my last year with the Braves in 2012. She changed my life forever. It took me 40 years and some major imperfections in me (clearing his throat) along the way to find my true perfection. Now we’ve taken our two families and blended them together and it has given me what I’ve been searching for my entire life – true happiness.”
Jones said he and his wife were not planning on returning to Atlanta until Monday evening, following a round-table and long autograph signing by all the new Hall of Famers that day. The couple is prepared to have their child – who will be named Cooper – in the town for which he is named. Or, to handle any other eventuality between here and home.
“Taylor’s mom is a nurse and we have another nurse traveling with us. If it does happen in the air we’re in good shape,” he said.
Asked whether his wife could go home ahead of him Sunday night, Jones said, “Technically she could. But if I’m here, she wants to be here.”
Jones was the opening act to a huge class of inductees – the others joining the Braves third baseman being pitchers Jack Morris and Trevor Hoffman, infielders Alan Trammel and Jim Thome and outfielder Vladimir Guerrero.
Arriving at the scene Sunday afternoon, where cornfields suddenly give way to a great mass of fans staging their own baseball carnival, Jones found himself overwhelmed, thinking, “Man, I don’t know if I’m ready for this.”
As he was introduced with video highlights of his career, he told himself to look away, and just listen, lest his emotions take over. “I break down before I even get up there; I’m going to be a hot mess for the next 15 minutes,” he said later, recounting his thoughts.
And as he spoke, he attempted to fix his gaze beyond his family in the front row, so he wouldn’t be tempted to lose it.
It worked. He came off as smooth as a 5-4-3 double play. Jones made it through without a hitch.
There was the expected jab at one of his Hall of Fame teammates, because that’s what guys who share a clubhouse do. “Smoltzy (Braves pitcher John Smoltz, who is follically challenged) always pitched like his hair was on fire, which makes sense looking at him now.” And then he worked the body, bringing up the 85 Smoltz shot in the opening round of this year’s U.S. Senior Open.
He thanked those who helped him through the organization after the Braves made him the No. 1 overall pick in 1990, spinning once again the tale of how late Hall of Famer Willie Stargell told Jones to start swinging a heavier bat, changing everything.
He recalled Stargell inspecting Jones’ choice of lumber after a shaky rookie league season: “He picked up my bat and said, ‘Son, I pick my teeth with bigger pieces of wood than this.’ He suggested I swing with the biggest bat I could get around on 90 mph.
“I swung that heavy bat until the day I retired.”
He saved the highest praise for his manager, who also owns a little piece of the Hall of Fame:
“One man never stopped believing in me: That man, Bobby Cox.
“Bobby, you believed in me before I truly I believed I belonged in the big leagues. And on opening day 1995 Bobby put me in the three-hole in front of Fred McGriff and David Justice. You knew hitting me in front of those two dudes would give me a lot of fastballs – and it worked.
“Bobby, next to my parents you had the biggest influence on my career of anybody.”
Jones spoke Sunday from the unique position of a player who forged the entirety of his stardom in one city. Atlanta has had no other athlete play more games with its name written across his chest than Jones.
That had to be a big part of his speech. And, so, he wrapped his speech up speaking to the Braves fans, in almost perfect summary:
“You are the fans I imagined in my head, playing in the back yard all those years ago. You’re why I loved coming to the plate with the game on the line, “Crazy Train” (his walk-up song) blaring in the background, and why I wanted so badly to come through for you. You have believed in me since I was an 18-year-old kid and you were still there for me for my swan song in 2012.
“You cheered me on through the career highs and stuck by me through life’s lows. I will never forget that. You’re the reason I never wanted to play anywhere else. I couldn’t be prouder to go in the Hall of Fame today with an Atlanta 'A' on my cap. I love you guys. Thank you.”
Then he flashed the sign language message for “I love you,” as he had so often after some of his biggest moments, after rounding the bases.