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March 13, 2009

The Great Emancipator, the Carson Crusher and Chipper

Over the last month, I’ve come to grips with the fact that the story I am about to re-tell is more than likely (“more than likely” equating to about 100%) not true.

That being said…I’m going to share it anyway.

Last month, I took my family on a pilgrimage to Springfield, IL to celebrate the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln. We hit all the sites; the Lincoln Museum, his family home and of course…the tomb. But it wasn’t amid those tourist attractions where I had my brief brush with celebrity.

A famous person in Springfield this side of Lincoln’s funeral in 1865? Sure…why not!

Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Jayson Werth (looking eerily like Australia’s resident “party kid” Corey Delaney) is from the state’s capital, downtown is typically crawling with government officials and on this weekend…I had breakfast with former power hitting third baseman Matt Williams.

I know what you’re thinking…the Matt Williams who was part of the 2001 Arizona Diamondback championship team?

Yes. THAT Matt Williams.

It was Sunday morning and my family (and presumably his given the kid at the table) were taking advantage of the Baymont’s complimentary continental breakfast. As is customary when I travel, I had Raisin Bran (I would never PAY for Raisin Bran mind you) and I believe Williams had some toast.

Maybe it was yogurt…I’m not certain but that’s not the point.

The rest of the morning and afternoon I couldn’t get the thought out of my mind that at one point Williams appeared to be heading toward “legend” status. This guy terrorized opposing pitchers. The team surrounding him his one year in Cleveland was fantastic. His 1999 100-win Arizona team gave opponents nightmares.

The dude had ten straight years with 20 or more home runs (he ended his career with 378), four Gold Gloves and appeared in five All-Star games.

There are also plenty of folks out there that believe that Williams would’ve topped Roger Maris’ 61 home runs had the strike not occurred. Minus some injuries and the 1994 strike robbing him of immortality, who knows how Williams’ career would’ve played out?

As it is…378 round trippers is nothing to sniff at. Looking at those already enshrined in Cooperstown, they would place Williams third all-time at his position behind Eddie Mathews and Mike Schmidt. But as we know…a slew of home runs do not necessarily get you a plaque on the walls.

The reason this tale is of worth is not because I eventually was able to convince myself that the “Carson Crusher” was NOT in Springfield that morning. I mean, while he LOOKED like Williams, he was far too short and, frankly, why would he stay at a Baymont given the other options?

I tell it because sometimes I need to be reminded that since baseball came back from the strike thanks to Cal Ripken, Jr. and his remarkable, well publicized streak, we’ve had the honor of watching one of this generation’s best third basemen.

And no, Yankees fans…I am not talking about Alex Rodriguez.

I’m talking about Larry Wayne Jones, Jr. or “Chipper” as we’ve come to know him.

Initially a shortstop and occasionally a left fielder…Chipper has anchored the hot corner for the Atlanta Braves for 80% of the games he’s played. But why doesn’t he get mentioned in the same breath as baseball’s elite?

Here’s a guy who isn’t stuck in a smaller market. Atlanta is on the East coast and TBS (or the Turner Broadcast System to you high brow muckety-mucks) carried “America’s Team” from 1972 until 2007 so obviously Jones got his fair share of exposure.

He hasn’t bounced around from team to team every year a la Matt Stairs or Royce Clayton (both played for 11 teams)…he’s been with ONE team since he was selected with the first overall pick in the 1990 amateur draft. There is absolutely no need to look at the transaction wire to see where Number 10 is suiting up next.

And arguably, while he is currently one of baseball’s best hitters going into this upcoming season…he is possibly the greatest switch hitter the game has ever seen. With all apologies to Mickey Mantle and Eddie Murray…it’s Jones who holds the distinction of being the ONLY switch hitter to have a career batting average of .300 (currently .310) and 400 or more home runs.

Add to that the fact that Jones’ 2008 league leading batting average of .364 is only one tick off of Mantle’s season best .365 for a switch hitter and you’ve got more than just a great hitter from both sides of the dish…you’ve got one heck of a ball player.

12 out of the last 13 seasons, Jones has hit .295 or higher. He has 14 straight seasons with 20 or more home runs and eight straight seasons (nine total) of 100 or more RBI.

And speaking of streaks, Jones also played in a startling ELEVEN straight post seasons from 1995 to 2005.

Incidentally (perhaps coincidentally), the Braves brought Atlanta their lone World Series championship in Jones’ rookie year, 1995. That post-season, he hit .364 and finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting to Hideo Nomo. As a sidenote, Nomo lost his only start that post-season as the Dodgers were swept by the Reds.

Four seasons later, in 1999, Jones brought home the MVP trophy when he hit .319 with 45 home runs and 110 RBI. He also swiped 25 of 28 bases! And not to sound like a broken record, but in 12 of his 14 seasons…he’s nabbed some MVP votes.

For his career, Jones has belted 408 home runs…third most for a switch hitter behind Mantle (536) and Murray (504). And as an attempt to bring this train back around to the Matt Williams opener, Chipper has 330 as a third baseman.

By the end of 2010, he’ll have easily surpassed 1500 RBI and 2500 hits. His career OPS of .956 is 22nd all-time and the only player ahead of him that is Hall eligible and NOT enshrined is Mark McGwire.

The six-time All-Star holds most of the ATLANTA Braves team records and is situated alongside Hank Aaron and Mathews atop many of their franchise records. In a season or two…he’ll have eclipsed most of Mathews’ numbers except home runs. It’s safe to say he’ll never touch what “Hammerin’ Hank” did.

That being said…the dude is a lock for Cooperstown. He could retire today and waltz in without any more icing needed for the top of the proverbial Hall of Fame cake.

Chipper Jones is, without a doubt, the best third baseman since that other converted shortstop-turned-third baseman saved baseball.

And to the fella in Springfield, if you were Matt Williams…I’m sorry my daughter spilled orange juice on your shoe. If you weren’t…well, please let Kellogg’s know that I apologize for only partaking in their “two scoops of raisins” when I can get it for free.

BallHype: hype it up!

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