LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – He’s an old man now, by baseball standards — closing in on the big four-oh, slowed by myriad nagging injuries, revered as one of the elder statesmen of the game — but Chipper Jones was The Kid once. He was The Phenom. He was 19 years old, a former No. 1 overall pick, a can’t-miss prospect. He was destined for stardom, and he knew it.
“The Braves took some flak when they made me the number one pick. There were critics,” the 19-year-old Jones blurted back in 1991. “Well, right now the Braves are looking good.”
If all that bravado brings to mind another, modern-day 19-year-old phenom, a certain hard-charging, fauxhawk-wearing, confidence-oozing outfielder for the Washington Nationals — well, it’s a link that hasn’t gone unnoticed by Jones. A long time ago, he was Bryce Harper, or close to it.
There are differences, of course. As heavily hyped as Jones was as the top pick of the 1990 draft, he was nowhere near the instant superstar that Harper was as the top overall pick in 2010. He didn’t appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 16-year-old, as Harper did. He also didn’t have to navigate a media world that included Twitter and an explosion of blogs and publications devoted solely to baseball prospects.
But the biggest difference was this: At 19 years old, Chipper Jones, a future seven-time all-star and one-time National League most valuable player, spent the entire season in the low-Class A South Atlantic League — the same league in which Harper spent less than three months as an 18-year-old in 2011 — earning no mid-year promotion despite hitting .326 with a .407 on-base percentage and a .518 slugging percentage.
“When I was coming up through the minors, the Braves believed in taking their time, letting kids mature — and succeed and fail — at the minor league level,” Jones said. “Now, [teams] are just rush, rush, rush to the big leagues. They put so much money into young kids these days that they feel the need to justify their pick at the big-league level as quickly as possible, when it might be the worst thing for a particular prospect.
“I’ve seen some guys over the last half-dozen years here who weren’t allowed the opportunity to struggle at the minor league level and have done it up here and have continued to struggle. You hate to see that happen with the rare breeds who are drafted high because of their ability.”
Jones stressed he was not making a value judgment on the major league readiness of Harper, whom he had never seen in person until the Braves played the Nationals on March 6. But when he flipped through his own memory, reaching back to 1991 and the 19-year-old shortstop who tore up the Sally League, he saw a kid who was right where he belonged.
“No way,” Jones said, when asked if he felt he should have been in the majors at the time. “I would have been completely overwhelmed. Tearing it up in A ball and tearing it up in the big leagues are completely different. For that matter, tearing it up at Double-A and tearing it up in the big leagues are completely different.
“Nowadays, they think if you have any kind of success at the Double-A level you’re ready for the big leagues. It’s not necessarily true. I think you need to go to Triple-A for a while and experience big league pitching on the way down and prospects who are right on the cusp.”
For Jones, it would take three additional seasons, beyond his age-19 season, for him to stick in the majors for good. He split 1992, his age-20 season, between high-Class A and Class AA, then spent most of 1993 in Class AAA, earning a call-up to the majors in September. The Braves were set to put him on their opening day roster in 1994, until he blew out his knee in spring training, costing him the entire season. In 1995, finally — as a 23-year-old — he arrived, hitting 23 homers and finishing second to Hideo Nomo for NL rookie of the year.
“Chipper was loaded with confidence,” former Braves manager Bobby Cox said, recalling the young Jones.
“You could call it a little bit of cockiness maybe. But it wasn’t a bad thing.”
Obviously, it shouldn’t take Harper as long to establish himself in the majors. The Nationals are saying publicly he has a chance to make the major league roster out of spring training, although the more likely path has him starting 2012 in Class AAA, then playing his way to the majors later in the season.
But that means Harper will be undergoing in the major leagues the same maturation process Jones underwent within the relative tranquility of the minors. Jones smirks knowingly when the subject of Harper’s youthful indiscretions is broached — the ill-conceived tweets, the professed love of the New York Yankees, the comparisons to Joe Namath.
“It’s disappointing to hear,” Jones said. “You’d like for somebody with his ability, being his first big league job, to be one of those kind of kids who’s practicing to be an ambassador for the game. Hopefully he follows that script as opposed to the Joe Namath way.”
How much overlap there is between the Jones Era and the Harper Era remains to be seen. Jones acknowledges having contemplated retirement, saying, “The body’s starting to bark at me a little bit, telling me things it hasn’t told me before.” Already this spring, Jones missed five straight games because of soreness in his thighs.
“I certainly think my skills are still there, to where I can be a productive major leaguer,” he said. “Whether or not I can play up to the level I expect to play up to — that’s a different thing. It won’t be long [until retirement]. If it’s not this year, it’ll definitely be next year.”
Given the chance, Jones was asked, would he seek an audience with Harper, to impart some of the wisdom gained from surviving phenom-hood and producing a borderline Hall of Fame career?
“No, I’m not going to seek him out,” Jones said, “unless he wants to sit down and talk — which I’ve done with other players. Let’s just say he doesn’t seem to me to be the type of kid who wants to walk up to me and pick my brain.”
He said it as if laying down a challenge, as if he hopes Harper proves him wrong.