A little more than 22 years ago the Atlanta Braves made Larry Wayne Jones the first overall pick in the 1990 draft. Braves fans soon learned that the young high-school slugger out of Deland, Fla. went by the name Chipper. It didn’t take long to become the most recognizable first name in the history of the franchise.
Jones, who announced in March that his career will end in retirement after this season, captured the eyes and hearts of baseball fans throughout the Southeast with his consistent bat, country boy image and star power. He’ll leave baseball with at least one World Series ring, a National League MVP and eight All-Star selections.
He’s used his final season as an appreciation tour of sorts, playing in big league ballparks one last time and often leaving to the ovations of respectful fans appreciative of an athlete who has remained with the same team for his entire career.
“I think I’ve really tried to take a step back and really just enjoy all the compliments and things that fans are saying,” he said. “We get tunnel vision so often about what our job is. We’re trained to tune out fans, but I think it’s awfully difficult here in my last year not to be able to take a step back and to listen to all the gratitude and all the good things that people say.”
The accolades don’t begin to fully measure Jones’ impact on baseball fans, including those in the Augusta area. While fans honor many baseball stars by seeking autographs, collecting baseball cards and buying their jerseys, Jones’ legacy has prompted another level of devotion. Fans across the South have named pets and children after Chipper, including Jackson, S.C. resident Hampton McIver, who was just 8-years-old when he picked out a puppy to bring home.
The small dog was rescued from a flea-infested puppy mill, and Hampton didn’t waste time finding inspiration for a name.
“I liked following the Braves even when I was little,” said Hampton, now 13. “We talked about what we should name him and that’s when ‘Chipper’ came to mind.”
Hampton plays second base for a travel baseball team in Aiken named for the Braves, and the entire McIver family follows Jones on the field and off through Jones’ Major League Bowhunter television show.
“You have to respect him,” Hampton’s father, Darren McIver, said. “He’s been good for the sport. He’s stayed with the same team his whole career, and that’s rare these days.”
As the Braves enter their final month of regular season play, they’re gearing up for one last run of Chipper parties. The promotions and ceremonies commemorating Jones’ last days on the field have already started.
The first 30,000 fans at Friday’s game in Atlanta received a free Chipper Jones commemorative print highlighting his 1999 MVP season. Another opportunity for fans to get their hands on the Jones print will come in two weeks when the Braves open an important series against the Washington Nationals Friday, Sept. 14.
Though the team has positioned itself to play into October with at least a potential wild card berth, the big party will culminate at the end of the regular season when the Braves open their final series with a Chipper Jones tribute ceremony before the Sept. 28 game against the Mets. The first 45,000 fans will receive the commemorative print and the team will auction off Jones memorabilia.