When Chipper Jones drove a Mike Pelfrey pitch into the center field stands for his 398th career home run on Wednesday, the blast tied him with long-time Atlanta Braves fan favorite Dale Murphy for 45th on the all-time list. Elite company to be sure, and yet another accomplishment in a storied career of Chipper Jones.
Now Chipper is quickly approaching the 400 home run club, a mark which remained just out of reach for the stoic Murphy. In the 43-year history of the Atlanta club, Jones and Murphy may well be the most popular players of their respective generations. And while homer number 400 will be yet another Hall of Fame qualifier for Jones, it's number 399 that will see him surpass the "Murph" in the record books.
Murphy, now 52, visited Turner Field with his son Jake over the weekend, perhaps paving the way for his son to join "the family business."
With son Shawn drafted by the NFL's Miami Dolphins, it was time to see what the next in line could do with the leather and the lumber. After watching Jake take a round of batting practice prior to Saturday's contest against the Oakland Athletics, Murphy had high praise for the man who was then closing in on his spot on the home run leaderboard.
"I knew it was a matter of time before all that would be erased," said Murphy of the offensive numbers he put up over his 18-year career. "Chipper is a great talent and he's having one of his best years. He just gets better and better."
No one questions Murphy's class-act credentials as Hall of Fame caliber, but his statistical accomplishments have fallen into the borderline category amongst the majority of voters. We remember Murphy as the clean living, two-time NL MVP who won the hearts of Atlanta fans in his nearly 15 seasons with the Braves. It was more than enough to earn him a spot in the Atlanta Braves Hall of Fame.
However, Murphy's decline was precipitous over his final five seasons. A career-best 44 homers and a .295 average in 1987 marked the last great campaign for Murphy. In 1990, shortly after the Braves drafted an 18-year old shortstop named Larry Wayne Jones out of Jacksonville, Florida, Murphy was on his way to Philadelphia to make room in the Atlanta outfield for an up and comer named David Justice. The Braves immediately embarked on a magical post-season journey that lasted for 14 seasons, with Chipper Jones at the center of most of those teams.
For a moment, it looked as though Chipper may suffer the same kind of late career decline, albeit thanks to a number of nagging injuries that began in 2004. But those injuries have been unable to derail the former number one pick from making good on all the talent that the Braves saw in him way back in 1990. Moving back to his more familiar position of third base after a brief sojourn in the outfield, Jones has embarked on a renaissance of sorts at the plate.
"Chipper's just a great player," said Murphy, singing the praises of this generation's premier Braves hitter. "He's a Hall of Famer. Switch-hitter, he's smart and he knows how to hit."
His dominance has been noticed by just about everybody this year. Jones is the only batter still boasting a batting average above .400. Chipper's nightly hitting displays this season have put him in line for that elusive batting title that escaped him in 2007, when he hit a career-high .337.
While we are on the subject of batting average, Chipper (.309) is the only switch hitter in the history of the game to have 300 or more homers and a career batting average above .300. Trailing only Mickey Mantle (536) and Eddie Murray (504) on the homer list for switch hitters, Jones' accomplishments could earn him a spot in Cooperstown one day. That, my friends, is some pretty serious company.
"It's incredible," remarked Murphy. "Let's be honest, he's towards the other half of his career as opposed to the beginning half and it's amazing to get your average to continue [at that level]. Most guys go the other way. Mike Schmidt is one of the few guys I remember that got better and better."
They don't come much better at the hot corner than Schmidt. Throughout the early '80s, Murphy and Schmidt traded MVP seasons, with the two combining to win the award every season from 1980-83 and Schmidt grabbed another in '86. Chipper captured his MVP in 1999 as the Braves reached the World Series for the fifth time in the decade.
Braves manager Bobby Cox saw most of Murphy's and has seen all of Chipper's career in his time with Altanta. He has spent years at the helm in the dugout, beginning with his first stint in 1978-1981. In his final season as the team's general manager, Cox was the man who both drafted Chipper and traded Murphy during the last of the lean years. Some 18 years after the summer of '90, Cox has seen every one of Chipper's 398 career home runs. It's the most to start a career by any player under one manager.
With his two-homer game against the Los Angeles Dodgers on July 5 of last season, Chipper passed Murphy's Atlanta record of 371. Having managed them both, few could put it in better perspective better than Cox, who echoed the sentiments that best described the occasion.
"It's a pretty darn good honor to pass Murphy," said Cox when Chipper became the Atlanta homer leader. "Murph has been a legend in Atlanta for a long time, and still is. So I think it means an awful lot."
Murphy is not alone in his summation of Chipper's surge in the latter part of his career. This extended period of hot hitting over the past few seasons has catipulted Jones back on the offensive leaderboards each season, a fact that is certainly not lost on Cox.
"I think Chipper, the last two years, is swinging a bat and playing... as good as I've ever seen him,' said Cox.
Chipper's hitting exploits continue to power the Braves offense this season, as always. Conventional wisdom may have pointed to his decline when the injuries crept in, but Jones has thrown that aside and continued to be one of the best hitters in the game. His resume for Cooperstown seemingly grows each game.
But what of Dale Murphy? Will Murphy one day make it to the Hall of Fame? It's difficult to tell. Murphy is on a short list of the very best players from the 1980s, the last decade before the steroid question really came into the picture. If the stigma of the steroid era starts to keep a Rafael Palmeiro and a Barry Bonds and a Mark McGwire out, there could be a whole new appreciation for the numbers that the ultra-cleanDale Murphy put up. Maybe he will eventually find a place next to Chipper in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.