If you were a baseball fan back in 1990, you may remember the hype about a prospect named Todd Van Poppel. He was a big, laser-armed high school kid from Texas, the consensus No. 1 draft pick. But he had committed to attending the University of Texas.
The Atlanta Braves, coming off a 97-loss season, held the top pick. They weren't willing to take the gamble on Van Poppel. Bobby Cox, then the team's general manager, had made a last-ditch plea to sign Van Poppel. "He said he was going to school," Cox said at the time, "but I'm sure somebody will pick him."
The Oakland A's did take Van Poppel with the 14th pick -- and signed him. The Braves settled for a high school shortstop from Florida named Larry Wayne Jones Jr. -- everyone called him Chipper -- and gave him a $275,000 signing bonus plus $68,000 to cover college expenses in case his baseball career didn't work out.
"Chipper is a blue-chip high school talent," Braves vice president Paul Snyder said then. "The fact that he can switch-hit is a definite bonus, as is his tremendous speed. For us, it's a quality draft at a quality position."
No, Jones wouldn't need that $68,000. And I'd say that baseball career worked out pretty well.
Jones announced Thursday that he'll retire at season's end, after what will be 19 seasons in the majors and more than 2,400 games played. Back when free agency began, they said players would move around from team to team like traveling salesmen, or that they would retire in their early 30s because they'll have made so much money. But Chipper Jones stayed with the Braves, grinding out a career as long as he could, playing for years on bad, aching knees. He enters his final season with 454 home runs, a career .304 batting average, 1,561 RBIs, a National League MVP Award and 11 years playing in the postseason. When he appears on the Hall of Fame ballot in five years, he'll go straight to Cooperstown, one of the game's greatest third basemen.
He was in retrospect, the ultimate No. 1 pick, the ultimate franchise player.
Among No. 1 overall picks, only Alex Rodriguez has compiled more career Wins Above Replacement, but no player has accumulated more value with his original team than Chipper:
Chipper Jones, Braves, 1990: 82.7
Ken Griffey Jr.. Mariners, 1989: 67.6
Joe Mauer, Twins, 2001: 40.3
Darryl Strawberry, Mets, 1980: 37.7
Alex Rodriguez, Mariners, 1993: 37.1
Chipper didn't play well his first season in rookie ball, hitting .229 with one home run in 44 games. Baseball America rated him the 49th-best prospect after that season, but there were fears the Braves had blown the pick. Jones quickly became one of the game's top prospects, however, hitting .326 with Class A Macon in 1991. As Jones developed, so did the Braves. They went from last-to-first in 1991, reaching the World Series. In 1993, they signed Greg Maddux and Jones made a September cameo in the majors. In his first game he replaced Jeff Blauser at shortstop in the bottom of the ninth of a 13-1 win over the Padres.
Jones tore up his knee in spring training of 1994 and missed the entire season. Moved to third base, he became the team's starting third baseman as a rookie in 1995. By the World Series, Jones was the team's No. 3 hitter. Bobby Cox loved the kid. "I was 26 or so when I broke into the majors," Cox said before the 1995 World Series, "and I was scared to death. He's not. We put him on a good club and I hit him third because I thought he would succeed like heck and he did."
He'll be an All-Star "forever," Cox said. The Braves won it all.
"It feels good to win one of these," Jones said during the clubhouse celebration, acting like a veteran who had been on those Braves playoff teams that fell short in 1991, '92 and '93. "Maybe we should go out and win a few more."
Of course, that didn't happen. Jones has spent the rest of his career chasing another title. The Braves have made the playoffs 11 more times (Jones missed 2010 with an injury) and he made it to two more World Series. Even after Maddux and Tom Glavine left, the Braves kept on winning. Young stars like Andruw Jones and Rafael Furcal have come and gone. He's with a new generation of players now -- Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman and Craig Kimbrel. But Chipper Jones has been the constant, the foundation of the Braves for nearly two decades.
Franchise players aren't easy to find. Sometimes they don't stick around. The Braves had a great one.