Twenty years ago this month, the Braves were strongly considering taking Todd Van Poppel, a high school pitcher from Arlington, Texas, with the No. 1 overall pick in the June draft when Paul Snyder, the Braves scouting director, said: We are taking Chipper Jones. That decision changed the direction of a franchise, a division and a league, and it made history. Chipper Jones has remained a Brave for 20 years, and played his entire career for one manager, something that might never happen again in baseball history.
"I was at my senior prom when my parents ran me down and told me to come home, the Braves wanted to meet about my signability,'' Jones recalled as he prepared for a game Wednesday against the Phillies. "We went to the Olive Garden for dinner. We made an offer, they came back. We went home, I went upstairs with my dad [Larry Jones acted as Chipper's agent]. We asked for $300,000. They offered $250,000. My dad said we could get more, but I told him I wanted to play now, and I'll make money on the big league level, not with a signing bonus. The quickest way to the big leagues is to go out and play, not hold out. We met in the middle: $275,000. I was signed and sealed the night before the draft.''
Twenty years later, Jones might be the best, most important No. 1 pick in the history of the draft because he has played his entire career for his drafting team, and for one manager, Bobby Cox. Former top picks Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr. are more talented than Jones, and have gaudier career numbers, but they have played for multiple teams, and they eventually left their original club on somewhat shaky terms. But Jones has never left the Braves. And, like A-Rod and Griffey, he'll be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
"I wasn't in a tux when my parents told me, the prom at [The] Boles [School] was more of a weekend, I was at the beach, hanging out with my friends, when word got out that my parents were looking for me, it was urgent. They said, 'Get your butt back here now!' '' Jones said with a laugh 20 years later. "My right hand was in a cast, I broke it in a fight on the field the day before our championship game. It took me two hours to get home. Twelve hours later, I was a Brave. I was playing two weeks after that.''
A serious knee injury cost Jones the entire 1994 season, and forced him to switch from shortstop to third base, but he was in the opening day lineup in 1995, hitting third for Cox. Jones later moved to left field for a year and a half to help the team, but he is back at third.
"I'm the kind of guy who likes to get rooted, a guy who stays in one place, I'm not much for living out of a suitcase even though that's what I've done for the last 20 years,'' Jones said. "This is my spot. This is my speed. It doesn't have a big city feeling to it. The media coverage is not as serious. This is the perfect fit for me. When I signed my big deal in 2000, I knew that I wanted to spend my entire career in Atlanta. We made the playoffs every year, we have a chance to win every year. It's my speed of town. The grass ain't always greener.''
Jones has never really come close to leaving the Braves.
"It goes to show you that it's really not that difficult to do this,'' Jones said. "If you want to stay somewhere, you must play at a certain level. And you have to be willing to make sacrifices. Tony Gwynn made sacrifices. Cal Ripken made sacrifices. I'm not sure Derek Jeter made sacrifices given the ungodly deep pockets [the Yankees] have. I have made sacrifices. [The Braves] needed me to restructure my contract to bring in good players. I've done that. If you want to play somewhere, the onus is on the player. Some guys don't want to stay in the same place, they want to go the highest bidder, they want to go to a new place for the most money. It has never been about money for me, and it never will be about money.''
It has always been about winning, comfort and playing for Bobby Cox. On May 7, Jones played his 2,191st game, moving him to second place on the all-time list of games played for one manager. The Pirates' Honus Wagner played 2,591 games for manager Fred Clarke.
The guy [Bobby Cox] who, 20 years ago, drafted me No. 1, went on to become my manager, then 17 years later, here we are.
”-- Chipper Jones
"The guy who, 20 years ago, drafted me No. 1, went on to become my manager, then 17 years later, here we are,'' Jones said. "Bobby is perfect here. He handles the media so well. He handles the players so well. All you have to know about Bobby is no matter how bad it gets, no matter how badly you stink up the joint, he'll always find a silver lining. That's why guys love to play for him. This year, we are celebrating a Hall of Fame managing career.''
Cox is, by any statistical measure, one of the 10 greatest managers in history, maybe as high as seventh. Jones is, by most statistical measures, one of the five best third basemen of all time. Jones has said that with Cox retiring at the end of the season, Jones may join him in retirement even though he will have two years and at least $26 million left on his contract. Jones says "when it stops being fun, I will stop playing,'' and he means it. The game wasn't fun for him last year when he batted .264. And it wasn't fun earlier this year when he was hitting .220.
"Everything is in play,'' Jones said. "I have not made a decision yet, but I will make a decision about whether to play next year toward the end of this year. I will not carry it into the offseason. I am having fun this year. We are winning, but retirement is in play.''
It would be fitting if Jones were to retire with Cox because of their connection. But no matter what happens next year, history has already been written. The draft was designed to improve teams, to build with young players, and no team has benefited more from one pick than the Braves did from the No. 1 pick 20 years ago when they took Jones, not Van Poppel.
Will Jones' career path, with Cox, ever be duplicated?
"I will never say never,'' Jones said. "But in this era of free agency, and the mentality of the players today, it will be hard to do. Plus, you rarely see managers staying in the same place for six or eight years. The only way it's going to happen is somewhere like Atlanta.''
And with someone like Chipper Jones.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.