By Nate Tenopir, Sports Editor
What makes someone the best at what they do? Does it take breaking and setting new career records? Is it consistency over a long stretch of time? Does it take some sort of validation from one’s peers?
In America, baseball has produced more heroes and more arguments about who’s the best than perhaps anything else in sports history. Stars like Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, and Joe Dimaggio have all been lauded and argued over. Those and many other baseball names transcend sport and have become part of the American character. Some will argue that we may never see names like those again.
In the last 20 years, there’s been no shortage of potential heroes. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa went blow for blow in a race to break Roger Maris’ single-season home run record. Barry Bonds redefined power and eventually passed Hank Aaron on the all-time career home run list. Alex Rodriguez started one Hall of Fame career and Rafael Palmeiro ended another.
But unfortunately, those names are some of the reasons we view today’s heroes through the prism of steroids. Try, if you can, to think of one player that we could all agree has done it the right way his whole career.
I’ll give you one…scratch that, not just one, maybe ‘the’ one since 1995 – Chipper Jones. If inflated muscles and inflated contracts have become commonplace in baseball, so too has Chipper going 2-for-5 with an extra-base hit, an RBI or two and a diving stop to save a run.
The Atlanta Braves third baseman has done it so good for so long that it’s as much a part of the game as the ceremonial first pitch and the seventh inning stretch. And that’s what most people come back to when you ask them for an opinion on Chipper Jones.
“I respect him because he’s always done it the right way,” most say. It’s a name that’s as clean as the foul line chalk the grounds crew lays down before the game.
But if all we’re gonna do is respect Chipper for doing it the right way, then we’re selling him short as probably the greatest third baseman of all-time. If not the greatest at his position, then at least one of the greatest switch hitters the game has ever seen.
At Jones’ position, George Brett, Mike Schmidt and Brooks Robinson have long been the standard for success. But Jones has a better slugging percentage, better on-base percentage and will soon have more RBI’s than any of the three.
A solo home run on Wednesday night tied Chipper and Brett at 1,596 RBI’s, the most ever for a player whose primary position is third base. Brett has a higher batting average but only by a thousandth of a point. Chipper has 72 games left in 2012 to catch that mark.
Schmidt has more home runs, but Jones’ average is 37 points higher, his on-base percentage is 22 points higher and his slugging percentage is five points higher.
Robinson doesn’t match Chipper in any offensive category. As a switch hitter, the best have always been judged against the likes of Mickey Mantle, Eddie Murray and Pete Rose.
Mantle has more home runs, Eddie Murray has more RBI’s and Pete Rose has more hits. But Jones has a higher batting average than all three, has an on-base percentage 27 points higher than Rose and a slugging percentage 56 points higher than Murray.
Chipper is the only switch hitter ever to have over 400 home runs while also maintaining a .300 batting average. Regardless, his marks, and the marks of his other famous third base brethren, are bound to be broken some day.
Yet there’s one mark Jones has achieved that will probably never be touched. In 2006 Chipper had an extra-base hitting streak of 14 games.
That mark has only been achieved once before, by Paul Warner of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1927.
But, maybe the one drawback to Jones’ career is his lack of gold gloves.
Though he’s occupied Atlanta’s hot corner for most of the past 20 years, he has never achieved a golden glove in that time. Robinson and Schmidt both have golden glove awards in the double digits while Brett has two.
But his defensive numbers hardly make him a slouch. Jones’ has a lifetime .957 fielding percentage and has fewer errors than Schmidt even though Chipper has played one more year than the famous Philly.
Regardless of the lack of golden gloves, to get a real sense of Jones’ value, just ask a Mets fan. In his career against the Mets, Chipper has 56 doubles, 49 home runs, 157 RBI’s and 263 hits. All of those marks rank in the top-10 for Mets’ opponents.
Jones was so dominant at the old Shea Stadium that he named one of his sons Shea. It’s the same story you’d hear from fans in Philadelphia, Miami and many other National League cities.
His is a mythology that has rightfully grown on fans of baseball everywhere. Rightfully so Chipper got a standing ovation by the fans in Kansas City in his final All Star at bat a week ago. When players were asked who they were most happy to see at the All Star Game, they all said Jones. In his final All Star at bat, Chipper grounded softly to the right side and hustled to first watching his final All Star Game swing sneak just past Ian Kinsler into right field.
It was weak enough that it forced a grin on Chipper’s face and a humble acknowledgement that Kinsler might have allowed that one to get through. That image captured the essence of who Jones is.
The smiling All-American boy who’s always had fun doing what he loves. That play and Chipper’s career have always reminded us why we play and why we watch, for fun.
And though those of us in sports media aren’t allowed to root, we can give Chipper a tip of the cap for reminding us of the innocence of the great American past time. For me he’ll always represent hitting that first home run, turning that first double play and having a catch with your dad in the backyard.