Hero worship in sports is not always a good thing. It can skew perspective about who is worthy of admiration, especially when the object of affection turns out to be a heavily flawed human being.
Take the late Mickey Mantle, for instance. It wasn’t until shortly before he passed away in 1995 — after the New York Yankees baseball star needed a liver transplant to combat years of alcohol abuse — that he publicly declared himself unworthy of kids’ adulation and had “wasted” a good part of his life.
Harsh admission aside, Mantle had an undeniable impact on millions of baby boomers who grew up loving baseball. Among his most fervent admirers was Larry Jones, the father of Chipper, the former Atlanta Braves star third baseman and a Bolles School product.
When Chipper is likely voted in Wednesday as a first-ballot selection to the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Mick’s influence as the greatest switch-hitter of all time will have been a huge part of it.
Because if Jones had remained a natural right-handed hitter his entire 19-year career with the Atlanta Braves, putting up the same gaudy numbers, his case for the Hall of Fame wouldn’t be considered a lock. However, being a .300 hitter from both sides of the plate, and the only player in history to hit at least 400 career home runs in the process (Jones hit 468), nobody doubts he’s Cooperstown-bound.
And those seeds of greatness were sown in the late 1970s on the family’s fern farm in Pierson by Larry, a decade before his only child transferred 95 miles away and became a boarder at Bolles for two years.
Larry’s passion was to mold Chipper into a ballplayer. Not just any player, but a switch-hitter like Mantle, who was Larry’s idol growing up.
It turns out, the kid was a natural. Chipper not only took to the instructions of his father, an ex-shortstop in the Chicago Cubs organization, but also inherited the same love of the game.
“He just had an ability when he was young to love the game and mimic hitters,” said Don Suriano, Chipper’s coach at Bolles. “That’s something that’s always been in his DNA. He wanted to be a switch-hitter and good at the game. That’s not something in everybody. Chipper loved to be taught, loved to practice, loved to play. It just oozed out of him his whole career.”
With tennis balls in hand, Larry began throwing pitches to a then 4-year-old Chipper, wielding a PVC pipe for a bat. The two played simulated games as often as possible. They used lineups from major league teams and Chipper, a natural right-handed hitter, often chose the Los Angeles Dodgers because they had more right-handers.
But when it was time for Rick Monday or the switch-hitting Reggie Smith to hit, Chipper (facing his right-handed throwing dad) was forced to bat from the left side. He made it so much part of his muscle memory as a kid, he even started writing and brushing his teeth as a southpaw.
“Being a switch-hitter was always talked about,” Jones said in a phone interview Tuesday. “My dad wasn’t as hard on me when I switched to the left side because it wasn’t my natural side. I dabbled hitting left-handed in some games in Little League, but I didn’t start doing it on a regular basis until Legion ball when I was 15 or 16. I only [hit left-handed] in high school when I was feeling good.”
It took a while for Chipper to commit to the idea of switch-hitting all the time. But knowing how much harder it was to hit a good breaking ball pitcher, he soon realized switch-hitting had its benefits.
“I never had trouble with the fast ball all my life,” said Chipper. “Now a pitcher with a good breaking ball, that was different. So being a switch-hitter, it dawned on me that it was a lot easier hitting it if that pitch was always breaking into me.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt whatsoever, [being a switch-hitter] is probably the No. 1 reason I’m in this situation right now. I can’t imagine all those years playing in the big leagues having to face Randy Johnson as a left-handed hitter or Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling right-handed. When teams turned you around to hit right-handed [by bringing in a lefty relief pitcher] late in the game, I was ready for it.”
What a big-league career it was, too.
Jones was the Braves’ primary No. 3 hitter for nearly two decades, went to the postseason 14 consecutive years, accumulated eight All-Star selections, won both a World Series and a batting title. Jones’ numbers — .303 batting average, 1,623 RBI (most of any third baseman), 2,726 hits, 1,512 walks, .529 slugging percentage — elevate him into a spot right behind Mantle as baseball’s all-time best switch-hitter. He hit .304 right-handed and .303 left-handed.
“That’s probably the numbers I’m most proud of,” Jones said. “There might have been a hair more power left-handed, but it’s cool to be at .300 for a career from both sides.
“A lot of great players made a decision as young kids to go one way [hitting exclusively left or right]. I did it both ways. It was a decision I felt would help me in the long run.”
When the voters’ ballots are counted Wednesday, another decision Jones made about 20 years ago — to not give in to the temptation of using steroids at a time when many of his peers were indulging — should also work to his benefit.
Jones, who lives in the Atlanta suburb of Milton, acknowledges he was tempted to use steroids in the 1990s as he watched his peers put up monster numbers. His first wife, Karin, talked him out of it by asking one simple question: Would he want to face his father and mother, Lynne, if they ever found out?
“Yeah, there was some pressure there [to use steroids],” Jones told me last year while promoting “Ballplayer,” his newly-released book. “Ultimately, I wouldn’t have been able to look my Mom and Dad in the eye. It would have cheapened all those days I spent working on my game on those fields in Pierson. It would have killed them. That was a huge motivator in staying clean.”
That choice, along with becoming a switch-hitter by his father’s prodding and admiration for Mantle, should pay huge dividends with a favorable call Wednesday afternoon from the Baseball Hall of Fame.
“I went golfing today and played really well,” said Jones. “Hopefully, that’s a good omen for the week.”
While it’s long been documented that Jones, like Mantle, made some questionable off-the-field decisions in his own life, which doomed his first two marriages, nobody disputes what Chipper accomplished between the white lines.
It’s almost certain there’ll soon be another power-hitting, switch-hitter in Cooperstown. When Jones gives his Hall of Fame speech, from up in baseball heaven, The Mick will probably be tipping his cap.
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