The people in DeLand, Fla., knew Chipper Jones was going to be a big leaguer when he was about 12 years old. He had enormous ability, but he also had that look. So there was upheaval in a town that expected state championships when Chipper's father took him out of public school and sent him 90 miles up the road to a private school because his father thought teachers were giving his son preferential treatment. "I still have some people in town,'' Larry Jones said many years later, "who won't speak to me.''
The first time Braves scouting director Paul Snyder saw Jones play in high school, he was dazzled. Others in the organization wanted to draft Todd Van Poppel, but Snyder won, taking Jones with the No. 1 pick in 1990. The contract negotiations took about 30 minutes. The Braves made an offer. Chipper, who didn't have an agent, agreed to it. Larry Jones took his son upstairs in their house and told him "you can get a lot more than this.'' Chipper said, "I don't care. I want to play right away.'' Chipper said he knew he didn't need to get rich with the first contract -- the really big money was to come later.
The first time Braves manager Bobby Cox saw Jones, he knew he was going to be a star. "That face,'' Cox said. "He has that face.'' It is the face of a baseball lifer, a guy who was born to play the game. A baseball lifer doesn't necessarily mean playing until you're 45, then managing or coaching the rest of your life. It also means playing the game properly, doing what you're told, doing what's best for the team, adjusting constantly and, of course, winning.
Jones was born to play shortstop, but an injury to his left knee cost him the 1994 season, and his career as a shortstop. The next year when he came to spring training, Cox put him at third base and in the third spot in the order. Jones' first year was terrific. He finished second to Hideo Nomo for the National League Rookie of the Year. He had a marvelous postseason, which ended in the first, and only, World Series title for the Braves during their amazing run. After the season, Jones received an autographed baseball from his baseball hero, Cal Ripken, a baseball lifer whose early career was similar to Jones'. Ripken congratulated Jones on his success his first year, then wrote, "now comes the hard part.''
Jones has made it look easy on his way to the Hall of Fame. Cooperstown is short on third basemen (there are 10, fewest of any position) and switch-hitters; Jones excels at both. Jones' .303 lifetime average is the second highest in history among switch-hitters, trailing only Frankie Frisch (.316). Jones is the only switch-hitter with a .300 average and 300 homers. The only Hall of Fame third baseman with a .300 average and 300 homers is George Brett. Jones' eight straight 100-RBI seasons ties Willie Mays and Mel Ott for the second longest in NL history behind the nine by Sammy Sosa. He is one of 21 players of all time (minimum of 5,000 plate appearances) with a .300 average, .400 on-base percentage and a .500 slugging percentage -- 13 of those are in the Hall (Joe Jackson is No. 14) and seven are active.
But with Jones, it's so much more than the numbers. It's not being overwhelmed when the manager puts you in the No. 3 hole as a rookie on a team that had won three division titles in a row. It's having a Hall of Fame career going as a third baseman, then moving to left field for a year, without complaint, for the good of the team -- then moving back to third base for the good of the team. It's about being one of guys, a team spokesman through good times and bad.
And through it all, the expression on Chipper Jones' face has never changed. It is a look of complete calm, of utter confidence, the look of a player who always knows where he's going and how he's going to get there. Jones is already there, and at age 33, he is far from done accomplishing things. Despite being slowed by a foot injury earlier this year and a possible shoulder injury suffered on Tuesday night, there are more 100-RBI/100-run seasons to be had; there is a run at 500 home runs and more division titles to be won. And when Jones is inducted into the Hall of Fame in, say, 2016, the people in DeLand, Fla., will say that they saw it coming 30 years earlier.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.