ROCK HILL — Through 19 seasons, Chipper Jones donned his Atlanta Braves uniform and attacked the game of baseball with respect. I gave it everything I had every night, Jones said Sunday.
His hustle and hitting earned him the respect of his peers, opponents and even hostile fans who would boo him lustily when he stepped out of the visitors dugout.
Sunday, almost 500 people attended Winthrop Universitys 14th First Pitch Dinner, the baseball teams preseason banquet, to pay their respects to Jones with cheers, a lot of cell-phone snaps and not a boo to be heard.
He regaled them with some career highlights and insights but continually stressed baseball is a team, rather than individual, sport.
It is one event for which baseball keeps no official statistics, though, that Jones described as his scariest game ever and the players on the opposite side of the field wore the jerseys of the Charlotte Knights.
It was a late-season 1993 game between the Knights, then a franchise of the Cleveland Indians, and the Richmond Braves. The teams were locked in a pennant race and Jones was in a batting race with Jim Thome of the Knights.
Thome would finish the season with the International Leagues best average at .332, and Jones led the league in runs scored (97), hits (174) and triples (12).
Jones said the game in Richmond, Va., started getting ugly and got worse when teammate Ryan Klesko who would go on to play for the Braves, Padres and Giants smashed a home run to center field. Jones said Klesko might have celebrated too much in his home-run trot. After that, Things got nasty, benches cleared and the brawl moved to behind the plate.
Thats where Thome, jacked me up 2 to 3 feet up the screen, Jones recalled.
What Jones remembers most, however, was the expression on his moms face. She and his dad had were in the stands. I saw horror in my moms eyes, Jones said.
Jones Class AAA season would come to a close a few games later at Knights Stadium. The Knights and Braves were playing to advance to the International League championship game. It was a doozy, Jones remembered of his last minor-league game.
We were down 10-1, but we battled back, Jones said. Then Sam Horn (who led the league in homers with 38) hit a home run off Pedro Borbon to win the game for the Knights. Charlotte went on to win the International League championship.
Jones also recalled the previous year when he played half a season for the Class AA Greenville Braves. Greenville became the first Southern League team to win more than 100 games en route to the championship. We were some bad mo-joes, he said. At the time the Knights also were a Class AA team and Jones remembers playing at then almost-new Knights Stadium.
Jones said those minor-league seasons, playing teams stocked with future major-leaguers, gave me the chance to find out what the big-leagues are like, what big-leaguers are like.
Jones was 1-1 in baseball parlance the first pick in the first round of the baseball draft. He got his major-league shot in 1993, being called up from Richmond. In 1994 the first of seven knee surgeries sidelined him. The next year, he won his only World Series ring.
He was the 1999 NL Most Valuable Player and the 2008 batting champion. He was selected to the NL All-Star team eight times. He retired in 2012, finishing his career with a .303 batting average, 468 home runs, 2,726 hits and 1,623 RBIs.
The numbers and his ability to hit with power from either side of the plate make him a likely Hall of Famer.
Thats not up to me, he said Sunday. My motto in life has been worry about things I can control and that only thing I can control is my resume.
Jones spent his entire career with the Braves, a rarity in todays game where free agency allows players to pick where they want play.
I never wanted to play anywhere else, Jones said. He described his Braves career as a good marriage, one in which he never wanted to let manager Bobby Cox down. I spent two decades trying to make him proud, not regret the decision to pick me.
During his farewell season, Jones said he took the time to step back and let it in. There was a lot of love and gratitude thrown my way. I reacted with that sheepish, aw-shucks look. Im not used to getting ovations on the road.
While he will be attending the Braves spring training camp for a couple of days, Jones said his priority is to become a full-time father to his four boys.
He also wants to spend more time helping baseballs young players. He talked to the Winthrop squad prior to Sundays banquet. The players were like spellbound 6-year-olds, said Eagles coach Tom Riginos, who coached at Stetson with Jones father.
I wish I could have talked with some of my childhood heroes such as Barry Larkin and Cal Ripken when I was coming up, Jones said.
Jones has talked to college teams at Georgia Southern, Mercer, Tennessee and Georgia Tech.
If I can affect one person, Ive done my job, he said.
His advice to young players is to have fun, rely on the fundamentals and have trust in your teammates. Having good models is essential, too, he said.
Role models start at home, he said. He earned the nickname Chipper because of his adoration for his father Larry Wayne Jones. His dad, a high school and later college baseball coach, never pushed the game on me. Nonetheless, Jones said he was 4 years old when he told his parents he wanted to be a baseball player. His dad wore the No. 10, so his son did, too.
Jones said he has no regrets in retiring, and says it might be as much as 10 years before he returns to the game.
Out at least for now is the idea of managing, he said.
They couldnt pay me enough money to be a manager, he said. I would have to delegate too much responsibility and I dont like to delegate things. I would also have to deal with the press every day.
He is interested, though, in the idea of becoming a hitting coach at some point.
Its my passion. Its my craft, he said.
Don Worthington • 803-329-4066