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Braves Throwback Thursday: Chipper Jones’ Atlanta ascent delayed by a year

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Rookie phenom was injured in spring training, 26 years ago this week

MLB Photos Archive Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Chipper Jones’ trajectory from No. 1 draft pick to Rookie of the Year candidate to National League MVP to first-ballot Hall-of-Famer was more or less a smooth one, with one major exception.

It was March 18, 1994 — 26 years ago this week — that Jones’ ascent from top prospect to “Face of the Atlanta Braves” hit its only major speedbump, when he suffered a season-ending knee injury during a spring training game against the New York Yankees. And it came in a spring in which the Braves had already lost one star player to injury.

Atlanta won its third straight NL West title in 1993, but moved to the NL East for 1994 after Major League Baseball re-aligned its divisions and created a wild-card playoff team in each league for the first time. Standout left fielder Ron Gant, who was coming off a 36-homer, 117-RBI season, wouldn’t be making that transition with the Braves.

Gant had signed a one-year, $5.5 million extension with the Braves for 1994, but broke his leg in a dirt bike accident in January and missed the entire season (because Gant’s injury occurred in a non-baseball fashion, the club ended up paying him only a portion of his salary before releasing him in mid-March). With a sudden hole in left field and in the middle of its lineup, Atlanta had to get creative.

David Justice was a fixture in right field and two-sport star Deion Sanders was coming off an excellent 1992 season in center, but the Braves entered spring training with three options in left, all of them rookies. Jones would battle it out with Ryan Klesko and Tony Tarasco for the job, though only Tarasco was a natural outfielder (Klesko was a first baseman, but was blocked by All-Star Fred McGriff at that position).

All three had seen action down the stretch for Atlanta in 1993, with Tarasco appearing in 24 games, Klesko in 22 and Jones in eight (going 2-for-3 with a double and a walk in four plate appearances). Before ascending to the big-league club, the trio had been teammates at Triple-A Richmond in 1993 (Jones and Tarasco had also been part of a legendary 100-win team at Double-A Greenville the year before).

Atlanta Braves v Philadelphia Phillies
Tony Tarasco was considered the odds-on favorite to win a battle for the Atlanta Braves’ starting left field job in 1994. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

Klesko and Tarasco were considered excellent prospects, but it was Jones who was the jewel of the Braves’ minor-league system. The No. 1 overall pick in the 1990 draft, the switch-hitting Jones was Baseball America’s No. 1 prospect prior to 1993 and batted .325/.387/.500 with 13 homers and 89 RBIs before earning his call-up to Atlanta in September.

Jones was drafted as a shortstop, and had played exclusively there throughout the minors and in his 1993 cup of coffee in Atlanta (Jose Oliva was considered the Braves’ third baseman of the future in those days). But with Jeff Blauser entrenched at short and Terry Pendleton returning at third, the Braves envisioned more of a utility role for Jones in his rookie season, particularly after the injury to Gant.

As Jones wrote in Ballplayer, his 2017 autobiography with Carroll Rogers Walton:

“Early in camp, Bobby (Cox) pulled me aside and said ‘I’ll tell you what I’m thinking. I don’t think Oliva can play every day at third, and I’d like to platoon Klesko in left. I think you’re a good enough athlete to play both. So I’m going to play you at third base against righties and left field against lefties.’”

At least publicly, though, Jones was competing for the every-day left field job. On Feb. 27, 1994, I.J. Rosenberg wrote in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that while Jones was a future star and Klesko a “big bat,” Tarasco — who had batted .330 at Richmond in 1993 — was “the favorite to take Gant’s job in left.”

In that same edition of the AJC, columnist Tim Tucker compared Jones to fellow future Hall-of-Famers Robin Yount, Cal Ripken and Barry Larkin — all shortstops. Jones took it in stride.

“I’ve got a unique name, and I’d like to get my own 3,000 hits,” Jones told Tucker. “I plan on being around a long time.”

When the Braves played their first spring training game March 3 (an exhibition against the University of Georgia baseball team), it was Tarasco who got the start in left field. Two days later, Jones was in the lineup playing left field against the Boston Red Sox, and went 3-for-4 with a home run.

He also appeared to handle the defensive responsibilities well.

“He had a great day,” Cox told the AJC. “He handled the ball with ease in the outfield. He can catch it.”

Nevertheless, Jones also saw time in the infield that spring, at both third and short. He got an injury scare on March 9, when he rolled his ankle in a collision with the New York Mets’ Tim Bogar while turning a double play at shortstop.

With Jones limited to pinch-hitting for a few days, Tarasco took advantage. He had four hits against the Los Angeles Dodgers on March 10, lifting his spring average to .409.

By the time the Braves got ready to face the Yankees in Fort Lauderdale on March 18, the left field race was still too close to call. Jones was hitting .364 with seven RBIs in 33 at-bats, while Tarasco was at .342 with a team-best 12 knocked in. Klesko was also holding his own at .265 with three RBIs.

Chipper Jones was expected to contend for the Atlanta Braves’ left field job in 1994 before a knee injury suffered in spring training. (Getty Images photo)

Jones was in the lineup batting third that night, and homered off Yankees starter Terry Mulholland in top of the first inning. But in the fifth, disaster struck.

Jones hit a bouncer to Yankees shortstop Dave Silvestri, whose throw pulled first baseman Jim Leyritz off the bag. As Jones wrote in Ballplayer:

“I saw Leyritz coming toward me, so I planted my left leg to jump to the outside and avoid the tag. My knee exploded. The pop was so loud the whole stadium could hear it. … It was the most blinding pain I’ve ever felt in my life.”

Jones at first thought he had broken his left leg, but tests later revealed he had torn his anterior cruciate ligament. He was facing surgery, followed by a 10-to-12-month recovery.

Chipper Jones’ 1994 season was over before it even began.

“He had done more than make the team,” Schuerholz told the AJC the following day, after an MRI confirmed Jones’ injury. “It would have been really fun watching him play all year.”

Jones put on a good face publicly, telling the AJC in an interview published March 23, “I don’t see why the Braves shouldn’t get the old Chipper Jones back.” But privately, he wondered if his career was in jeopardy.

As he related years later in his book:

“ACL tears weren’t all that common in baseball at the time. I was scared to death I would not be the same player I had been or that I wanted to be. I didn’t just want to make it to the big leagues and have a nice career. I wanted to be great.

“Would I still be agile enough to play shortstop? Would I still be able to steal bases? Would I be fast enough to beat out infield singles and turn doubles into triples? Or had one misstep on the first baseline just ruined everything I was determined to do with my life?”

Jones had surgery in Atlanta on April 4, the same day the Braves opened the 1994 season in San Diego. After a thigh injury slowed Tarasco late in the spring, Klesko ended up winning the left field job.

On Opening Day, Klesko was in the starting lineup batting third. He homered in the fifth inning off Padres starter Andy Benes as part of a 4-1 Braves win.

Tarasco entered the game in the sixth after Justice sprained his ankle trying to beat out a throw at first. He struck out in his only plate appearance.

The next night, Klesko homered again in a 5-1 Braves victory. Tarasco started in right, hitting sixth, but went 0-for-5.

Ryan Klesko Converted first baseman Ryan Klesko wound up as the Atlanta Braves’ every-day left fielder in 1994 after season-ending injuries to Ron Gant and Chipper Jones. (Getty Images)

Justice missed just the one game, but tweaked his ankle again and left the lineup the next week against the Dodgers in Los Angeles. That provided another opportunity for Tarasco, who had two doubles and a homer in a 6-3 Braves win.

Justice missed a week this time, but Tarasco was unable to seize a full-time job. Klesko remained red-hot, and was hitting .395/.449/.814 with five homers by the time Justice returned to the lineup on April 18 in St. Louis.

And so it went for the remainder of what turned out to be an abbreviated 1994 season, which ended Aug. 11 due to the MLB players’ strike that wiped out the playoffs and World Series. Justice batted .313/.427/.531 with 19 homers in 104 games, while Klesko hit .278/.344/.563 with 17 homers in 92 games.

Tarasco saw time in both right and left, batting .273/.313/.432 with 5 homers in 87 games. But once the strike was settled the following spring, he was traded to the Montreal Expos with center fielder Roberto Kelly (who had been acquired the previous May from Cincinnati in a trade for Sanders) and pitching prospect Esteban Yan for Marquis Grissom, then one of the elite center fielders and leadoff men in baseball.

Heading into 1995, the Braves appeared set in the outfield with Klesko in left, Grissom in center and Justice in right. Mike Kelly, Atlanta’s No. 1 pick in the 1991 draft, was given first opportunity to be Klesko’s platoon partner.

Things were less settled in the infield, where both Blauser and Pendleton had been subpar in 1994. The Braves let Pendleton go as a free agent, and he signed with the Florida Marlins shortly after the Grissom trade.

Jones had still never played a regular season game at third base, but was handed the job as a 23-year-old rookie coming off major knee surgery during the abbreviated spring training in 1995. Schuerholz, Cox and Jones all downplayed the move to Tucker in the April 11 edition of the AJC.

“I have no concerns about that,” Schuerholz said. “He’s such a good athlete he could play anywhere.”

Said Cox, “He’ll be fine.”

Said Jones: “Third base is just a couple of steps from shortstop, where I’ve been used to playing all my life. I feel I can play at this level at any of the seven positions behind the pitcher; that’s how much confidence I have. And the fact of the matter is we’ve got a hole at third base.”

San Francisco Giants v Atlanta Braves Chipper Jones moved to third base full-time in 1995, and finished second in the NL Rookie of the Year voting. (Getty Images)

The injury and the year layoff didn’t appear to be any problem for Jones, as it turned out. He drove in two runs with a pair of singles in a 12-5 victory over San Francisco on Opening Day, and hit his first career home run — a ninth-inning shot off Josias Manzanillo — to beat the New York Mets 3-2 at Shea Stadium on May 9.

Jones homered again the next night, and twice more in a home series against Cincinnati. Twenty games into his rookie season, he was batting .264/.398/.542 with five homers and 13 RBIs.

After beginning the season at third base, he was also playing a lot of left field. Klesko started the season in a 3-for-23 slump, getting benched in favor of Jones, with Oliva taking over at third.

But Oliva also slumped his way out of the lineup by mid-May, and Klesko began to get locked in. Jones moved back to third base on May 17, and played there almost exclusively the rest of the way.

It was of course a banner year for both Jones and the Braves. Jones finished the season batting .265/.353/.450 with 23 homers and 86 RBIs, finishing second in the Rookie of the Year voting to Dodgers pitcher Hideo Nomo, and also receiving some down-ballot MVP consideration.

Atlanta cruised to a 90-54 record (the late end to the strike lopped the first 18 games off the season) and won the NL East by 21 games. The Braves topped Colorado 3-1 in the division series and swept the Reds in the NLCS before beating Cleveland in six games to win their first (and still only) World Series title since moving to Atlanta in 1966.

Jones’ first postseason was an excellent one, as he batted .364/.446/.618 with three homers (including two in Game 1 against Colorado) and eight RBIs. Klesko also was a monster in the playoffs, bashing homers in three consecutive World Series games.

As we know, Jones continued to establish himself as one of the best players in the game through the rest of the 1990s, culminating in his 1999 MVP season. In 157 games for the NL pennant winners, Jones batted .319/.441/.633 with 45 homers, 110 RBIs and 25 stolen bases.

Jones’ versatility came into play again in 2002, when he moved to left field to make room for Vinny Castilla at third. That experiment lasted two-plus seasons, as Jones was back at the hot corner by the end of 2005.

Jones won a batting title at age 36 in 2008, setting career highs with a .364 batting average and .470 on-base percentage. Another torn ACL — this one in his right knee — ended Jones’ 2010 season after just 95 games, but he returned to play well in both 2011 and 2012 before hanging up his cleats for good at age 40.

In 2,499 career games, Jones batted .303/.401/.529 with 2,726 hits, 549 doubles, 468 homers, 1,623 RBIs and 150 stolen bases, good for 85.3 Wins Above Replacement. He added a .287/.409/.456 line with another 13 homers in 93 postseason games.

Jones is one of 22 players in MLB history to post at least a .300/.400/.500 batting line in 5,000 or more plate appearances. Only five of them — Ty Cobb, Stan Musial, Tris Speaker, Mel Ott and Babe Ruth — played in more career games than Jones did.

Jones was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 2018, receiving 97.2 percent of the vote. And he did it all despite missing what would have been his rookie year, and while playing the remainder of his career on a surgically repaired knee.

Darryl Palmer is a contributing writer for Talking Chop. Email him at darrylpalmerbraves4@gmail.com. No, that’s not his real name.

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com; SABR.org; Newspapers.com; “Ballplayer,” Chipper Jones with Carroll Rogers Walton (Penguin Random House, 2017)