Why the Braves need Chipper Jones

Atlanta Braves' Chipper Jones goes yard in his second at-bat against the Houston Astros Tuesday night. (David J. Phillip/AP)

Well, it’s been a pretty rough start to the season. That is, of course, if you’re a Braves fan. Or a Yankees fan. Or a Phillies fan. But if you like the other team from New York, the Mariners or the Orioles, you feel pretty good, huh?

I say this only to point out that these things won’t last. The Houston Astros are above .500 for the first time since June of 2009. The Braves will pick it up; they will pull themselves together and start backing up their pitchers with good offense. Their pitchers will start throwing more than five innings. These things will happen, but it’s definitely a good time to talk about Chipper Jones.

My slant has changed, however, from talking about Jones as a player and how impressive a career he has had, but you all know that. Anyone who has followed baseball knows how much of an influence Jones has had on the Braves, how his numbers at the plate will go down in history as one of the best switch-hitters to pick up a bat.

Instead, I’m going to talk about his influence on his team and why his coming back this year is such a good thing. I know people have complained about his declining numbers. I know when he went under the knife (or laser) early in the spring, people sighed and thought this was just another time that Chipper whined about his health. But as I listened to the game Tuesday on a crappy clock radio in my hotel room in Braselton, Ga. (for some reason, the TV doesn’t get Fox SportSouth), I know that Chipper’s presence in the dugout and on the field is irreplaceable.

This post is about leadership. It’s about veterans and what they bring to a team, even if they aren’t what they used to be. The Braves are a young team; they have always been about nurturing young talent and bringing up rookies to the show. This year brings a lot of familiar faces back, but youth is more than one year in the bigs. Even Jones himself has talked about keeping his head down and staying silent after years in the major leagues. There’s a hierarchy in baseball. There’s a certain respect paid to players who have carved out a career and especially to those who have flourished playing this game.

Chipper Jones is no exception. There are many young players who grew up watching him play and would give anything to share the bench with him. And for good reason. He has an eye for the ball, an instinct for the game and how it’s played, and his success at the plate is nothing to turn one’s nose up at. But for the past few years, it’s his leadership that makes him such a valuable asset to the team.

Jones said in his retirement speech that one of the aspects of the game that has kept him involved is being a teacher to young players, helping to shape them into better ballplayers and for that, they should be grateful. Baseball teams need leaders. They need someone to set examples and follow through; to take the time to explain pieces of the game that cannot be read in books. And Jones has a lot of that.

It’s true that he doesn’t hit like he used to. It’s true that his range has shortened while guarding the hot corner. But tonight proves my point. First, he fields an excellent bunt by former Brave Jordan Schafer, making what appeared to be an impossible out. Then, his first at-bat back from surgery, he singles right up the middle. In the meantime, Tommy Hanson looks a little better on the mound. Tyler Pastornicky seems a little more patient at the plate. These could easily be the result of the opening week jitters settling down, but they could also be the result of feeling a certain amount of relaxation and confidence, knowing that one of the anchors of this team is holding steady at third.

I’m sure I sound a little sappy writing this. But back in 1995, my best friend and I decided to shift our baseball card collection and pick a rookie to start collecting. He picked J.T. Snow and I picked —  you guessed it —  Chipper Jones. And as I write this sentence, Jones just put one out of Minute Maid Park.

‘Nuff said.

Chipper Jones and Tim Hudson are important to this team, especially this season, and their presence simply makes the Braves better. They’re going to leave an impressive legacy and they’re also going to pass the torch. In fact, Jones has already named his successor and that player is Brian McCann. Even though McCann has played plenty of seasons so far and proved not only his talent, but his baseball knowledge, it makes it real to have Jones say it out loud.

Hopefully, McCann will have the same storied career that Chipper has, and he’ll pass along that same legacy to another promising player.

This is why I chop.

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