From the dry writing of John Schuerholz last month to the exciting retelling of Chipper Jones’ career, we open the April Book of the Month – “Ballplayer.” With the help of former Atlanta-Journal Constitution writer, Carroll Rogers Walton, “Ballplayer” is more gripping than I figured it would be. Most of the time, if you read one player’s autobiography, you’ve read them all. They are whitewashed and focus more on highlights over real substance. Chipper doesn’t do that, though. He dives in – good or bad. It’s not really apologetic for the most part. Rather, it’s an attempt to be true to both the player and the 40+ years on the planet.
Here’s the schedule of our weekly book club meetings. If you’d like to purchase “Ballplayer,” it’s definitely a fun book and recently came out in paperback. Feel free to follow along with your own thoughts.
April 8 – Chapters 1-6
April 15 – Chapters 7-12
April 22 – Chapters 13-19
April 29 – Chapters 20-Epilogue
So, with that out of the way, let’s dive in.
Foreward by Bobby Cox
Bobby Cox is a lot of things, but a captivating writer he is not. This becomes even more apparent as Chipper provides lively stories of his youth soon after Cox’s three-page foreward ends. It’s just standard fluff. I would have liked a fun story of how he decided to draft Jones in 1990 or, well, something.
Prologue – The Last Big Play
Chipper jumps right into the last time he was on the field. What again differentiates Chipper’s approach to this book compared to many other ballplayers is that Chipper doesn’t retell one of his best moments. As Chipper himself points out, it wasn’t supposed to end like this. His amazing career was supposed to have a storybook ending. He wasn’t supposed to make an error in his final game to help cost the team. But it wasn’t to be.
Chapter 1 – Chip Off the Old Block
Let’s meet the Joneses. There’s Larry Sr., a former college player who later becomes a math teacher and baseball coach. There’s Lynne Jones, a former competitive dressage horse rider. Cue the 80’s sitcom music and zoom out to show a fern farm. Yes, a fern farm. Which is more fun to say than it is to work on according to Chipper.
Chipper retells a number of stories of his youth with his parents. How his dad knocked out a tooth by hitting him with a ball, how his father taught him to switch-hit, and Chipper’s love of the 80’s-era Dodgers. There are some great back-and-forths how Chipper and his dad would watch the Game of the Week and have their own game afterward where they would mimic the lineups of both teams. Chipper would often add left-hand hitters to the lineup just to get the practice.
There’s also a good story how Larry Sr. got a tryout with the Cubs after college and they offered to sign him. However, in a situation that is similar to what many modern players decide nowadays, the money that was offered wasn’t very good and Larry Sr. had a growing family to think about. Lynn was pregnant with a boy. Fortunately, Larry Sr. was given the chance to live through his son’s career.
Chapter 2 – “I Got This”
Chipper follows his little league career and his growth as a player and a young boy. There’s a great moment when Chipper strikes out looking on a “cock shot.” That’s when the pitcher throws a belt-high, fastball and you freeze. Chipper had battled the guy for a dozen pitches and was his team’s last hope. After the game, he was inconsolable. Later, after he calmed down, his Dad tried to reason with him. “You play this game enough? You’re going to do it again.”
This is a quick chapter that serves as a transition from being a boy playing ball with his dad to becoming a young man many people were taking notice of.
Chapter 3 – The White Elephant
Before his tenth-grade year, Chipper Jones was given an opportunity. He could stay at Taylor High School, where he had starred as a freshman. Or, he could attend the private Bolles School, which has some of the best athletic programs in Florida. He didn’t want to go at first, but the opportunity was too great and even though he suffered a lot of scorn from his Taylor buddies – many of whom he had played with for years – Chipper made the right call.
There’s a fun comparison made between something his father said and what Chipper later said. His dad was the offensive coordinator for the Taylor football team and publicly felt that despite Chipper also playing football for Bolles, that Taylor could beat them. It was a reasonable assumption. Bolles was going through a few lean years on the gridiron, though having Larry Sr. say his team was going to beat his son’s was certainly a problem for Chipper. Of course, many years later, Chipper publicly said that the Braves would lose to the Dodgers in the NLDS.
The Braves were livid. Chipper had just retired and had played with much of the roster the Braves had. He was also supposed to throw out the first pitch. The team sent their former mascot, Homer, out to catch the ball. Not a former teammate. Not even a bullpen catcher. Apparently, that was Tim Hudson’s doing. He later apologized.
Chapter 4 – Draft Day
You already know this story. Todd Van Poppel was the can’t miss guy. In his final year of prep ball, he had a 0.97 ERA and 170 strikeouts. However, with his agent Scott Boras, they sought to manipulate the draft. The Braves – and they weren’t alone – were told that if they drafted Van Poppel, he would go to college. That’s all Bobby Cox, then the GM, needed to hear. Boras and Van Poppel wanted to be drafted by the A’s. At the time, the A’s had won back-to-back pennants, including a World Series in 1989, and would win a third pennant in 1990 and make the playoffs again in 1992. They were a dynasty and Boras worked the system to get Van Poppel there.
He became the first multimillion-dollar draft choice. Meanwhile, the Braves tried to get Chipper signed before the draft. Chipper wanted $300K while the Braves countered with $250K. They met in the middle and for nearly a million dollars less than Van Poppel, the Braves got Chipper.
This chapter is full of fun stories about Chipper being recruited for the University of Florida, working out in front of scouts, and walking out on a meeting with Boras. Apparently, he didn’t care for the super agent’s bravado.
Chapter 5 – Carry a Big Stick
For those of us who will never know what it’s like to be a professional player (at least 99% of people who read my stuff), getting a glimpse into the beginnings of a Hall of Famer’s career is fascinating. Chipper recalls staying in the same hotel with three other guys in his room and two other teams in the same hotel. He would face a Pirates or Expos pitcher and get lunch the next day with them.
If you’re ever curious why Chipper hit an abysmal .229 with three extra-base hits in 1990, it’s because just before he was drafted, he got into a fight with a teammate. The teammate was upset because Chipper got a second turn at BP during practice so Chipper could show scouts what he could do both left-handed and right-handed. It was hot and the teammate likely felt tired of all the attention Chipper was receiving. Chipper confronted him, the dude swung at him, and Chipper nailed him with a punch. He broke a knuckle in the process and simply didn’t have the swing strength once he started his professional career.
By the way, Chipper has no problem embarrassing himself. He writes of getting drunk off Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill. I mean, what the hell?
In another twist, Chipper got his rookie league manager, Jim Procopio, fired. I’m sure it wasn’t the only thing that led to the decision. As Chipper’s numbers slumped in 1990, he went to his manager and suggested hitting right-handed for a week to get his numbers up. His manager gave him that leeway. It was just a few days later when Bobby Cox and company showed up to make it clear Chipper was going to be a switch-hitter. They didn’t care about the numbers. They cared about the progression.
There’s some good stories of Chipper meeting and working with Willie Stargell and Frank Howard to close off the chapter.
Chapter 6 – Major Motivation
Chipper tells of all the baby ballplayers, including him, and 70+ other recent draftees and Latin America signees who were on a spring training field in 1991. David Justice, who had just won a Rookie of the Year, spoke to them. He told the group that one, maybe two, of them would get to the majors. Who would it be? According to Chipper, he was right. Not counting Chipper, the only other person from that group to make it to the bigs was Tony Graffanino.
It was that kind of motivation that drove Chipper. I’m sure it drove the other players who heard it, too, but Chipper was convinced he wasn’t going to be one of the many who didn’t make it to the majors. He also received motivation when, as spring training games opened up, he was still on the Gulf Coast League roster. The Braves had a rookie-league team in Pulaski, VA and short-season-A squad in Idaho Falls. Chipper wasn’t on either one. He worked his butt off and by the end of spring, he still wasn’t on either roster. Instead, he jumped both teams to open 1991 with Macon. In 2004, he would again be in the South Atlantic League on a rehab assignment. This time, he was in Rome, as the franchise moved from Macon.
There’s some good stuff with Chipper hanging out with his new roommate, Tyler Houston, and even playing with Justice during a three-game rehab assignment. Justice even gave Chipper one of his bats before he left. We also meet Karin, a young lady Chipper is quickly smitten with.
There are some of the highlights of the first six chapters of “Ballplayer.” Are you reading along? If so, what are you enjoying? In addition, if you need some supplemental reading material, consider the 2018 Atlanta Baseball Preview. It’s just $9.99 and is full of player profiles of nearly every player in the system from the Gulf Coast League to the majors.