Dear 18-year-old Chipper,
I get that you’re excited. I mean, that prom last night was the best. Leslie looked great, and the condo you and the guys rented on Ponte Vedra Beach for the after-party was perfect. Then, this morning, when you talked to Dad on the phone, things somehow got even better.
“The Braves want to sign you with the first pick of the draft.”
That was the very first thing he said. Just that.
I know … right?
It’s a dream come true, no doubt.
So I get why you’re about to motor down I-95 to make sure you’re not late to meet with the Braves’ brass in Daytona. This is shaping up to be the greatest 24 hours of your entire life. But for real, when you peel out of that beach house and hit the road….
Your 1983 Ford Escort is not built for speed. Plus, I can tell you for certain that you’re going to make the 2 p.m. meeting at the Olive Garden with time to spare. So, please, just take a deep breath and slow down.
Up to this point, everything has been pretty easy for you. Hit bombs righty. Hit bombs lefty. Rinse and repeat.
And not only because your car might fall apart on the highway if you try to push it any faster than 50 mph. Also slow down because from here on out life is going to come at you fast, Chip.
Tomorrow afternoon, Atlanta will select you with the first pick in the 1990 MLB draft.
Up to this point, everything has been pretty easy for you.
Small-town kid from Pierson, Florida. Work to help keep the family fern farm in order. Hit bombs righty. Hit bombs lefty. Rinse and repeat.
It’s been the same old thing for as long as you can remember.
But that’s all about to be in the rearview mirror. Your days of pulling weeds all afternoon and hanging out at Carter’s Country Kitchen are over. That beat-up Escort is gonna be history before you know it.
You’re about to buy yourself a damn Corvette.
Buckle up, kid.
The Corvette will be black. And super shiny.
It’s also going to have a vanity plate.
When you arrive for rookie ball in Bradenton, someone will have already nabbed your number 10, so you’ll take 23 instead. That’s right, MJ’s number. You’ll choose it because you’ll be ready to show off that kind of dominance — to be the Jordan of baseball — and so you’ll send in the forms for a license plate that fits the bill.
Yeah, Chipper, you’re gonna be one of those guys. Someone who believes he’s better than every other player on the field at all times. A guy who truly thinks no one can hold his jock when it comes to baseball….
The sort of person who would get the vanity plate CHIP23 so everyone knows who owns that brand new shiny black Corvette.
But, you know what? Based on all the effort you put in over the years, I’m not mad at you strutting your stuff a little bit. You worked your ass off to become the type of player that some team would select first overall in the draft.
And plus, you’re only going to be doing what you were taught as a kid.
No one else will know it, but you know you got your confidence and demeanor from Mom, the equestrian pro who is an alpha female if there ever was one. She instilled within you that necessary arrogance that all the great ones possess.
To this day, she still talks about that time when you turned to her one Saturday afternoon as a five-year-old kid watching the MLB Game of the Week and told her that you were going to play in the major leagues.
Back then, those Saturday games were everything to you. They were the only baseball broadcasts the family TV picked up. So when one o’clock on Saturday rolled around, you’d sit cross-legged in front of the television set dissecting each at bat with Dad.
You never wanted those games to end.
But when they did, you and Dad would head out into the backyard and play a game of your own using the lineups of the two teams you had just watched, a PVC pipe for a bat, and a tennis ball.
Those were the days.
Dad probably tossed you upwards of a million pitches in the yard over the years.
But he never really needed to push you to work at the game. You loved baseball so much that when you got your first uniform, you wore it to bed so you wouldn’t have to take it off. It was your idea to move up a level in Little League to play against older kids, and then to keep doing it year after year. And when it came time for Dad to teach you how to switch hit, like his idol Mickey Mantle, you didn’t just take a bunch of swings. You started doing everything lefty — brushing your teeth, writing, throwing a football. You tried to reprogram your brain.
You put in the work, man.
So I’m not going to ride you too hard for being a little bit showy out of the gate.
That cockiness is going to be a front, though. That’s the big secret no one will realize.
The swagger you show on the field only pertains to baseball.
You’ve never really been confident in other facets of your life. You’ve never been the smartest guy in school, or the most comfortable in a crowd, or the most outgoing. You’ve always doubted yourself in those settings. And you’ve used cockiness all along as a defense mechanism — a way to cover up for insecurities.
You come from a town where there is one grocery store … and it’s called Meat World.
You bow out your chest and hope people are intimidated and impressed, and that they won’t look any deeper. That’s always been your way. And, of course, it’s always worked for you on the baseball field.
But I’ve got news for you: That’s about to change in a hurry.
That cockiness is going to be a front, though. That’s the big secret no one will realize.
Rookie ball is going to be like a bucket of cold water to the face.
Every player there will be the BMOC from his hometown. And early on, you’ll be way behind the other guys … I might even say overmatched.
You’ll start off slow, and for the first time in your life, you’re going to struggle on the baseball field. You’re going to hit in the .220s and make 18 errors in just 44 games at shortstop. Eighteen! You’ll be sailing balls over the first baseman’s head like nobody’s business.
And then you’ll start to ask yourself some questions:
Am I really as good as I thought?
Are all these guys better than me?
Did the Braves mess up by picking me that high?
A few months down the line, when you get to Class A ball in Macon, the home fans sitting behind first base are going to start wearing catcher’s equipment to the games — like they need protection from your throws to first. They’ll be making fun of you, kid.
It’s going to be awful.
You’ll be embarrassed.
And that’s just the baseball part of the equation. We haven’t even gotten to the issues and challenges you’re going to face off the field.
Before too long, 18 errors is going to seem like child’s play in the grand scheme of things.
The Corvette is going to be a bad call.
You’re a country boy, Chip. You love hunting, and fishing, and getting dirty. You come from a town where there is one grocery store … and it’s called Meat World.
You’re not the Corvette type.
And you know what else you won’t be at that point? Marriage material. Believe that. You’re not going to be ready to be married and to do things the right way until you’re damn near 40 years old.
The one bad thing about this letter is that I can’t use it to reach back and slap you upside the head to knock some sense into you. I can’t actually stop you from getting married at 20.
You’re going to do what you want.
But you should know that, for the most part, your life going forward is going to be like two sides of a coin. There’s going to be baseball … and then there’s gonna be everything else.
I’ll get to the everything else in a minute. But first, let me just give you a taste of how wonderful your baseball career is about to be.
Those rookie ball struggles aren’t going to last long, Chip. You’ll put up monster offensive numbers in Macon, and then take off from there.
Two years later, you’ll be playing Triple A ball for Richmond and you’re going to get a chance to hit off Roger Clemens.
From the moment you find out that he’ll be making a rehab start against your team, it’s going to be all you can think about. And on the day of the game, you’ll be so excited that you wake up extra early.
I’d be lying to you if I said you weren’t going to be nervous stepping into the box against the Rocket, but you won’t be intimidated. You’ll step in there knowing full well that hitting fastballs is your thing. It always has been. So you’ll be ready — confident even. You’ll be talking to yourself up there. Pumping yourself up.
This guy better not try throwing me a first-pitch fastball.
Chip, wouldn’t you know it, the very first pitch Clemens is going to throw to you will be a heater, right down the middle. When you see it coming in, you know what to do.
Barrel that s***, man. See it and hit it like you know how to.
If you do that, it’s going to result in a double off the top of the centerfield fence. And even though you’re gonna curse yourself over and over again for not muscling up just a tad bit more and hitting it out the park, that double is going to be big for you. When you get to second base, you’ll smack your hands together and try to seem composed, to look tough.
You’ll be smiling like crazy on the inside, though, because right then, at that very moment, you’ll know that you’re ready for the Show.
Not long after, you’ll get the call and head to San Diego to join the Braves and become a part of the major league team that you’ll play with for the next 20 years.
Yeah, you read that right.
You’re gonna be a Brave for life, Chip. How cool is that?
And get this: You’re also going to be a third baseman.
There will be an opening there when you’re breaking into the bigs. The Braves will trust that you can make the transition. And then you’ll….
Wait, you know what? I don’t want to spoil it for you here by running down all the things that you’re going to accomplish during your time with the Braves, both as a player and as a member of the team. But, at the same time, I can’t resist giving you a preview.
There will be World Series appearances … plural. As in more than one. And you’ll win it all at one point. There will be All-Star games — again, plural. And Silver Slugger awards, and a batting title. And, Chip, you’re gonna be an MVP! When it’s all said and done, you’ll be one of the most decorated switch hitters in the history of the game.
You’re going to be open to using steroids in 1996. Like, really open to it.
You will be successful, Chipper. I promise you that.
It won’t always come easy, though, and sometimes your drive to be the best is going to push you right up to the edge of complete disaster.
In 1996, for instance, you’re going to find yourself at a crossroads.
You will see guys putting up huge numbers and know that lots of them are juicing — based on everything you’re hearing, and just by seeing guys bodies change so rapidly. And you’ll seriously consider joining the crowd.
It’s mainly going to be because you’ll be fed up with guys beating you out for Silver Slugger awards and MVPs and All-Star games. But, beyond that, just the idea of getting a little extra boost that might propel you into that upper echelon of players is something that’s going to appeal to you.
So you’re going to be open to using steroids in 1996. Like, really open to it.
And you should be forever grateful that your wife was around to discuss it with you. When you raise the topic with her, and tell her what you’re considering, she’s going to ask you this:
“Would you be able to look your parents in the eye if you earned a bunch of accolades and honors while taking steroids? Would you be O.K. with that?”
It’s going to be all you’ll need to hear.
You’ll never touch the stuff.
And you’re still going to develop into an MVP-caliber player.
But it’s not going to be all good. And this is where I need to get real with you, Chipper. We talked about baseball. This is the “everything else” part.
Like I said, you are going to get married way too early.
That’s oversimplifying it, though. There’s more to it than that.
Things will start getting really bad for you and your wife when you begin having financial problems.
Most people will think it’s impossible for a successful major league baseball player to run out of money. You’ll think so, too.
Until it happens to you.
And when it does, it won’t be pretty.
Minor league salaries are a joke. Meal money will be $11 a day. So you’ll be living off your $275,000 signing bonus for four years. It’s gonna go fast. (I told you the Corvette was a bad idea….) And supporting a wife is going to make the money disappear even faster.
When you get called up, the major league minimum will be $109,000, and having that cash come in will be a huge relief … until the players go on strike in 1994.
With no paycheck, you’re going to have trouble making mortgage payments. The fridge is going to be pretty bare there for a while. It will be dry cereal straight out of the box for breakfast. Ham sandwiches a couple of times a day. The whole nine.
So here’s a quick tip to help you get through that period: Call up your mother-in-law a few hours before dinner time, and see if she happens to invite you guys over. When she does, it will be clutch. You’ll save $20 or $30 each time.
Free meals won’t solve the bigger problems, though.
The financial struggles will definitely put a strain on your marriage … but not as much as the fact that you’re going to be a terrible husband.
I’m sure that is not an easy thing to hear, but it needs to be said.
You’re not going to be able to keep the temptations at arm’s length — everything that comes along with fame, fortune, notoriety and attention. You won’t be a big enough person — a good enough man — to do that. You’re going to be unfaithful to your wife on multiple occasions, and lie about it, and hurt so many people who deserve better.
You’ll be extremely selfish, and you’re going to get sucked into the lifestyle of a big-shot athlete.
You’re not going to be able to keep the temptations at arm’s length. You won’t be a big enough person — a good enough man — to do that.
Living that life will be fun for a while, but trust me when I tell you that it’s not going to be worth it.
By the time you feel like you’re finally ready to get married, and to be the type of husband that a spouse deserves, you’ll have already ruined one marriage, helped to ruin a second, have four kids, and be two divorces in.
You’re going to regret so much about those times for the rest of your life — hurting the people you love, losing friends because you were thinking only of yourself. And to see the disappointment in the eyes of the people who you love the most is going to be rough.
When you talk to Mom and Dad about the infidelities and the mistakes and the lies stacked on top of lies and just … all of it, that will be the toughest conversation that you’ll ever have.
You’re not going to be able to do it in person. You’ll call them on the phone.
Mom will answer.
“I’ve got something to tell you,” you’ll say.
She’ll get Dad on the line at that point, so he can hear too.
Mom is going to say six words that will stick with you for the rest of your life: “We raised you better than that.”
Then you’ll talk. And, as hard as it’s going to be, don’t sugarcoat anything or try to justify your actions. Tell them everything. Be completely honest. You owe them that, Chipper.
But it will be rough.
When you’re done talking, Mom is going to pause for a few seconds and then say six words that will stick with you for the rest of your life. I wish telling you this now would help you be ready to hear them, but it won’t. It won’t make any difference.
“We raised you better than that.”
It’s going to hurt to hear her say that.
And then they’re both going to tear into you, one after the other. It will cut to the bone. The hurt is never going to disappear. You’re never going to forget that conversation. It will come back to you again and again as you grow older.
And you won’t ever be able to shake those six words. They’re going to hurt most because you’ll know, as soon as you hear her say them, that Mom is right.
She and Dad did raise you to be better. And you are going to let them down. You are going to let a whole mess of people down, Chipper. That’s just the truth.
I hate to break this to you on such an important and joyous day, but you are not going to be a real good dude in the near future.
Before your parents hang up, they’re going to tell you that, despite everything, they still love you, and that they will still be there to support you going forward. One of the most important things that Dad and Mom taught you coming up is that the mistakes we make mold us into the people that we eventually become. And that sometimes you have to make a bunch of mistakes before you get things straightened out.
Of course, for you, it’s probably fair to say that “eventually” will take a bit longer than it does for most people. But there’s light at the end of the tunnel, kid. Ultimately, you’re going to learn some hard lessons. You’ll get some things through that thick head of yours.
And I don’t want to give you the impression that every decision you’re going to make during the next 10 or 15 years is going to be a bad one. The reality is that you’re actually going to make some really great calls along the way, too.
That decision in the mid-’90s to reject the urge to use steroids is going to be the biggest of those, but there will be others. You’ll help the Braves out by playing different positions when they need you to, and by reworking your contract to free up some money that will be needed to sign players who can make the team better. You’ll decide to mentor younger players, and pass on what you’ve learned over the years.
Then, in 2012, you’ll wrangle with the decision that every ballplayer has to make at one point or another: whether it’s time to call it quits and end your baseball career.
Ultimately, you’re going to learn some hard lessons. You’ll get some things through that thick head of yours.
By that time you will have undergone seven knee operations. It’s gonna be Percocet and Red Bull every day in order to make it out onto the field. Running isn’t going to be easy. Your vision is also not going to be what it is now as you’re reading this letter.
It will be a struggle.
But at the same time … you will have another year on your contract. And in the back of your mind, you’re going to know that if you stick around you might have the chance to do some history-making-type things.
You’re not going to be all that far away from 3,000 hits. And the same goes for 500 homers.
There may never be another guy who plays his entire career in the National League and hits those markers. So there will be some “what ifs” pulling you in the direction of history. You will be able to envision those accolades beside your name in the record books. You’ll be able to imagine people saying them when they introduce you at fancy dinners after you retire. You’ll be excited about the possibility of reaching those milestones.
And then … you’ll step away from the game.
You’ll do the right thing. For the right reasons.
It will be time to devote yourself to being the husband and father and man that your family has always deserved.
Chipper, I know that at this point baseball is all you think about. It’s what excites you, and motivates you to be your best, and it’s what has you racing out the door of the beach house to hit the road for Daytona. But there is going to come a time, a few decades down the line, when baseball will cease being the center of your universe.
And, as crazy as this might sound, it’s actually going to feel really good.
You’ll be married to a wonderful and inspiring woman named Taylor. And the two of you will love nothing more than spending time together and enjoying the company of family and good friends.
For the first time in more than 20 years, you’ll be able to take a step back, and breathe easy, and focus first and foremost on being the very best person you can be.
You will finally slow down.
Ballplayer, an autobiography by Chipper Jones is out now from Penguin Random House and available for purchase here.