ATLANTA -- To the distinguished list of National League Most Valuable Players, add the name Larry "Chipper" Jones.
In a Wednesday afternoon announcement that caught no one by surprise, the Atlanta Braves third baseman was named the MVP in a landslide victory over Houston Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell.
Jones received 29 of 32 first-place votes from the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) for a total of 432 points, far outdistancing Bagwell, who garnered one first-place ballot and finished with 276 points. Arizona's Matt Williams took the remaining two first-place votes and had 269 points for third place.
"It's exciting and I couldn't be prouder," said Jones, who became the third Atlanta Brave and first since Terry Pendleton in 1991 to win the award. "To have this in your corner, to always be able to say you've won an MVP is a tremendous honor. Thinking back to the players that have won this award makes it special."
At 27, Jones, whose 45 home runs set an NL record by a switch hitter, is the youngest NL MVP since Bagwell won it in 1994 at age 26. Since the BBWAA began recognizing an MVP in 1931, only five Brave players have won. Jones joins a group that includes Bob Elliott (1947), Hank Aaron (1957), Dale Murphy (1982-83) and Pendleton.
"I was thinking last night back to when we were in San Francisco earlier this year and I couldn't hit anything with a boat paddle, I was hitting about .260, and the farthest thing from my mind was having the numbers to compete for an MVP," Jones said. "It just goes to show you that some perseverance, some patience and getting a few hitting lessons, things can turn around pretty quick for you."
Jones finished with a career-best .319 average, 110 RBI and was among the league's leaders in 10 offensive categories. He set Atlanta records with 87 extra-base hits and reached base in 39 straight games, hit .308 with runners in scoring position and became the first Brave since Murphy (1982-85) to post four consecutive seasons with at least 100 RBI.
Jones, who won a World Series in his rookie season in 1995 and is a career .301 hitter, has been expected to blossom into a superstar since the Braves made him the first player chosen in the 1990 draft. But it wasn't until this year that he put everything together and had what he described as "a coming-out season."
Until this year his hitting philosophy was simple: Hit home runs left-handed and hit .300 right-handed. But a spring training conversation with hitting coach Don Baylor convinced him to take a more aggressive approach to the plate and the result was a club-leading 15 home runs against left-handers, three more than in his previous four seasons combined.
"He's always been on the verge of having a year like that," said Baylor, who was named the Chicago Cubs manager following the World Series. "For him to have a year like he had without Cat (Andres Galarraga), it's incredible the numbers he put up."
Said Jones, "I got to give a lot of credit to Don Baylor. He changed my attitude about hitting right-handed, changed my approach and things worked out."
There's no question when Jones solidified his claim to the MVP. That came during a September series against the second-place Mets when his four homers and seven RBI carried the Braves to a three-game sweep and virtually assured them an eighth straight division title.
"Those four home runs were huge," he said. "I'd like to think my name was already on the map before that, but that kind of jump-started everything. It catapulted myself and the team."
Jones, who says he can put up better numbers, wants to get a long-term deal worked out with the Braves before he starts thinking about becoming the first back-to-back MVP in the National League since Barry Bonds in 1992-93. He doesn't expect negotiations to begin in earnest until spring training and when they do he will become one of the game's highest-paid players, earning a salary in line with Shawn Green's deal with the Dodgers that averages $14 million per year.
"I expect talks to get underway here pretty soon," Jones said. "The lines of communication are open between myself and (general manager) John Schuerholz. It's going to be interesting. John and I have a pretty good rapport and we're going to try and talk and hopefully get something worked out."
After learning of his MVP Award Wednesday morning, Jones' first call was to his father, Larry, in his hometown of DeLand, Fla. After all, it was Larry's instruction that set the foundation for Chipper's career and it's the father who remains his son's most trusted hitting coach. Starting when he was six, the pair would go out between the barn and the carport on their Central Florida ranch and fire tennis balls at each other from 40 feet away.
At first, Chipper wasn't strong enough to swing a regular bat, so his father cut a length of PVC pipe and heFd use it as a bat. It wasn't long before Chipper became so good with the pipe, he switched to a Louisville Slugger, just like the players his father coached at Pierson Taylor High School.
"That's how I learned how to hit," Jones said. "That's probably why I'm such a good fastball hitter."
Also why he's an MVP.
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