Guerry Clegg commentary: Braves need a Chipper-like leader

sports@ledger-enquirer.comJune 14, 2014 

Watching the Braves post game shows last week with the special on Chipper Jones and the in-game interview Friday night and in both instances I had a sudden thought:

I really miss Chipper.

Well, of course, you might think. Any player who was a lifetime .303 hitter and 30 homers and 105 over 162 games would be missed. Any Braves fan would miss seeing a future Hall of Famer playing. We miss seeing Smoltz, Glavine and Maddux every fifth day, too. They were arguably just as good as, if not better than, Chipper at what they did. I could watch replays of Greg Maddux paint the outside corner with his moving darts all day long.

It's not the fact that I just loved watching Chipper play, which I did. He wasn't necessarily my favorite Braves player ever. That's not his fault. Hank Aaron and Dale Murphy set that bar too high for anyone to leap.

It's not even the fact that Chipper was one of the greatest third basemen -- and maybe THE greatest -- in baseball history.

An overstatement? Throw Alex Rodriguez and his juiced up numbers out of the conversation. Talk about the greatest third basemen ever and the list is short: Mike Schmidt and Eddie Mathews for their power, Brooks Robinson for his 16 consecutive Gold Glove awards and George Brett for his all-around hitting and defensive skills.

Consider where Chipper ranks all-time, again among players who were never linked to performance enhancing drugs: first in RBIs, first in runs scored, first in slugging percentage, first in on-base plus slugging percentage, second in on-base percentage, third in home runs and eighth in batting average.

I have contended that Chipper is among the most underrated and underappreciated players of all time. How legendary would he be regarded if he played his entire career with the Yankees, Red Sox or Dodgers?

But again, it goes beyond the numbers. I miss Chipper not just because how he produced but how he played -- and how he led.

Watching the current Braves gets frustrating. They are the embodiment of inconsistency. The lack of plate discipline. Failure, or maybe refusal, to adjust. Often casual effort in the field -- vis-a-vis BJ Upton's dropped fly ball Friday night that nearly cost them the game.

When Chipper was around, he would not tolerate any of that. He wasn't always liked by his teammates. But he was respected. He spoke up when necessary, sometimes to the media, sometimes directly to the player.

Chipper played hard every day and expected everyone else to. Yes, he was hurt a lot later in his career. But he averaged missing only five games a season his first 10 years in the big leagues. Then the injuries started taking toll. We saw the number of games he missed. What we didn't see was the countless games he gutted through in pain, and often still produced.

Baseball people talk about grinding out at-bats. That is stepping into the batter's box with a plan -- that is, a plan based on what's best to help the team -- fighting every single pitch to win battle. Grinding it out. Sometimes that might be hitting the ball hard to the right side to move the runner to third. Sometimes it might be just getting something into the air deep enough to score a run. That's why Chipper ranks tied for fifth among non-juiced third basemen with 96 career sacrifice flies.

Sometimes, though rarely, it might be looking for a pitch to hit out of the park to win the game. That's why Chipper finished with nine walk-off home runs. More often, it's not the best plan. A player has to discern when it's the best strategy and when it's just plain selfish.

The Braves are near the bottom of baseball in several key offensive categories -- 23rd in batting average, 26th in on-base percentage, 28th in runs scores. Here are some less obvious but equally telling statistics. They rank 26th in sacrifice flies. They are tied for last in the National League in sacrifice bunts. They rank 14th out of 15 National League teams in intentional walks. So what does that mean? Perhaps opposing managers and pitchers feel confident enough in those key situations that the Braves hitters will get themselves out.

Brian Jordan, the retired Brave and Cardinal, was talking about the Braves' lack of situational hitting and run production. He cited "a lack of trust" so players try too hard to be the hero rather than set up a teammate for that job.

The Braves miss Chipper's production and presence in the lineup. They miss his presence and his voice in the clubhouse even more. There may not ever be another Chipper statistically. But somebody in the clubhouse needs to step up and be a leader. If not, just get accustomed to the mediocrity.

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