I often wonder how Chipper Jones career would have been different had he not tore his ACL during Spring Training in 1994. He came to West Palm Beach that year and had what appeared be the inside position in the battle for left field. Would he have still ended up playing third base following Terry Pendleton’s departure from Atlanta, or would he have spent the entirety of his career in the outfield? Would he have been a 30/30 guy? How many more doubles and triples would he have hit? How much higher would he have been able to push his career slugging percentage? Would he have been able to leg out more hits?
It’s ultimately a pointless question of course. The history of the Atlanta Braves and the career of Chipper Jones were undeniably altered on March 19, 1994. All Chipper did was hit a grounder to short. He hurried up the line with everything he had. The throw pulled Jim Leyritz off the bag, and Leyritz realized his only chance to get Chipper out was to try and tag him. Chipper took a strange angle to avoid the tag and fell to the ground. The diagnosis came the next day. His ACL was torn and what was to be his rookie season was lost.
Chipper wasn’t your typical prospect. At the time, people weren’t aware of every top draft pick in baseball. It just wasn’t followed that closely. The circumstances under which the Braves came to take Chipper in the 1990 draft though led to numerous news stories. (By circumstances, I mean the Van Poppel’s family attempt to game the system.) As he moved through the system, the team’s hype machine began their job. Not since Brad Komminsk had the Braves so heavily hyped a young player.
Expectations can be a funny thing. When a team hypes a player as heavily as the Braves did Komminsk, fans can become jaded about the next big thing. Right up to his injury in 1994, there were no misgivings about Chipper among the Atlanta faithful. It was a given that he was going to be a superstar. The severity of his injury changed everything. Anyone aware of the kid’s makeup knew that he wouldn’t drown under the weight of the fans’ expectations, as Komminsk did. The question was simply this: would his body hold up?
We could look at the back of his baseball card and know that after a torn ACL, he was unlikely to steal 40 bases as he had with the Macon Braves in 1991. As the 1994 season progressed, we were left to wonder. What could we expect out of his legs? Would the injury affect his burgeoning power stroke? Would the time off affect his impeccable timing at the plate? Could he still play the outfield on his knee, or would he have to move back to the infield?
With time, we got the answers to those questions.
The ACL injury that Chipper Jones suffered during Spring Training in 1994 did nothing to sour the card manufacturers attitude towards his potential future stardom. Each remained solidly behind him and continued to feature him among their top prospects. Over the next few years, he would go from three or four dozen cards to quite literally hundreds. If a manufacturer had an insert set, chances are, they were going to include Chipper Jones. In the eyes of the hobby, he was the face of the Atlanta Braves.
1994 Topps Stadium Club #638
His best card in 1994 celebrated his debut as a big leaguer the previous season. Stadium Club was Topps first and best premium set and it was getting better with each year. The 1994 set remains one of the best. The 1994 design retains the impeccable full bleed photography and high quality photo stock from the previous years, but breaks out with design elements that are more colorful, while remaining subtle enough not to detract from the picture. This is the perfect set to capture the most beautiful left handed swing in baseball. That follow through would be featured on card after card for years to come, but no card shows it better than this one.
1994 Score #572
One thing is certain about Chipper Jones defensively, he makes the play coming in as well as anyone playing the game. Photos of Chipper Jones rushing in on a ground ball, like his left handed follow though, would remain a staple of sets throughout his career. Sure, those navy blue borders are nice, but the design is somewhat less than exciting. Still, you have to respect that a Score design looks like a Score design. You would never mistake a Score card for anything but a Score card. Their brand identity was established in a short amount of time. They don’t get a lot of love today for their work in the early 90s, but I think they were a worthy addition to the list of manufacturers.
1994 Upper Deck Collector’s Choice #152
As good as the Score card is, the Collector’s Choice card is better. The only way I know to describe Collector’s Choice is that it was Upper Deck’s attempt to do a late 80sFleer set. While most of the manufacturers were putting their emphasis on developing premium sets, Collector’s Choice seemed like Upper Deck’s attempt at doing a regular baseball set. I’m not sure what position Chipper was playing here, but it looks like a shortstop shot to me. It’s the picture on the back that sets this card apart. Chipper looks like a kid himself, and I think we can all remember when we were the young kid at the ballpark hoping to get the signature of one of our favorite players.
1994 Bowman’s Best Blue Chip #B1
The Bowman’s Best Blue Chip cards are just great. While I typically prefer cards with a real background, the design works here since there’s little to distract from the picture. I especially like the marble background on the design elements. As for the picture, check out Chipper’s face. I’m not exactly sure what face he’s making, but I like it. There aren’t many Chipper Jones baseball cards that make you laugh, but this is one.
1994 Donruss #453
In 1993, Donruss featured Chipper Jones as a Rated Rookie. It wouldn’t have been unheard of them to do the same thing two years running, but they chose to just give Chipper a regular base card. Fortunately, it was a good one. It’s easy to believe he just drove one into the gap. I’m puzzled by the number on his uniform though. As far as I know, he wore number 16 during his brief time in the majors in 1993. During his rookie season in 1995, he switched to the number that we will one day see retired, 10. In this shot, he looks to be wearing a number in the sixties. I suppose it might just be an older shot from an earlier spring training. (Any ideas?)
1994 Fleer Major League Prospects #18
At first glance, this card seems somewhat pedestrian. The border is simply boring. The text at the bottom sort of blends in without adding anything to the design. Sure, the picture is a nice shot of Chipper running, but it certainly isn’t anything special. There’s one little design element on the card though that has me loving the card. The picture is cropped at the top and his batting helmet sneaks above the border. I can’t think of any rational reason to crop the picture like that on such a dull card, but it does add a little bit of spice to an otherwise boring card.
1994 Bowman’s Best #108 (with Travis Fryman)
Two of the more interesting, if not especially attractive cards, are his two combo cards from the year. Topps featured him on a Combo card with young Detroit Tigers phenom, Travis Fryman. Fryman was certainly an up and comer at the time and looked ready to establish himself as one of the top power hitting third basemen in the game. He certainly seemed the natural complement at the time considering Chipper Jones potential. Fryman remained an excellent offensive player throughout his career, even if he fell considerably short of superstar status. The Bowman’s Best cards are largely great for single players, but I find them somewhat lacking on the multi-player cards. The division of the cards in the middle is strange and off-putting.
1994 Topps Coming Attractions #777 (with Ryan Klesko)
Of course, the Bowman’s Best card looks like 1953 Topps when compared to the utterly awful Coming Attractions subset in the 1994 Topps base set. This card is certainly well-intentioned. For Braves fans, it featured two of the most exciting young players in the system. Unfortunately, it’s just ugly. While the Ryan Klesko photograph is fine, the Chipper photo is simply embarrassing. He looks like anything but a future MVP. If the divider on the Bowman’s Best set was strange, on this card it’s just stupid. I can’t imagine what possible rationale Topps had for blurring the photograph. Were they just showing off because they could? Who knows? Here’s one thing I do know: the less said about the awful red theatre curtains on the design the better.