Hall of Fame moment for ex-Bull Chipper Jones
Chipper Jones’ time in a Durham Bulls uniform was short — a mere 70 games.
But that experience in 1992 has stuck with him for a lifetime.
“This is the greatest place to play minor league baseball in America,” Jones told a sold-out crowd at Durham Bulls Athletic Park on Tuesday night. “I said it 21 years ago, and this is my first chance to step on the field here since then, and it’s gotten better.”
For the first time since he left Durham when the Atlanta Braves promoted him at midseason in 1992 to Double-A Greenville (S.C.), Jones returned to Durham as the Bulls retired his No. 10 jersey.
Since then, he helped Atlanta win the 1995 World Series, won the 1999 National League Most Valuable Player award and was chosen to eight National League All-Star teams in 19 seasons with the Braves.
The Braves retired his No. 10 in a ceremony at Turner Field on June 28. The Bulls matched that honor on Tuesday.
But, even after two decades, it’s not as if the team is far from his mind.
“Anytime I’m flipping through the movie channels and I see `Bull Durham’ on,” Jones said, “I always stop just to get a glimpse of that park.”
Back in 1992, Jones and the Bulls played in the Single-A Carolina League at Durham Athletic Park, which is where the movie starring Kevin Costner, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon was filmed. The team moved to the DBAP in 1995 and became the Tampa Bay Rays Triple-A affiliate in 1998.
Jones remembers coming to Durham in the spring of 1992 and being genuinely excited about wearing the Bulls uniform.
“When I got to Durham, I thought this was one of the greatest places to play minor league baseball,” Jones said. “When I got called up to Double-A, it was kind of a bittersweet day. As my ex-teammates can attest, this was a special place to play. Anytime you have a movie named after you and Kevin Costner playing in it and got his jersey retired here, you know it’s a special place.”
Then as now, the Bulls weren’t the only popular team in town. The same month Jones arrived, in April 1992, Mike Krzyzewski’s Duke Blue Devils men’s basketball team won the second of its back-to-back NCAA championships. Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill starred on those teams.
Jones remembers a bar and grill in the Forest Hills Shopping Center on University Drive called Halftyme Table and Tap that he and the Bulls used to frequent. They often ran into some other famous, accomplished athletes.
“Sure enough,” Jones said, “in would walk the Duke basketball players. We became great friends. I’m sure we were getting each other tickets to games and stuff, leaving each other on the pass list. I don’t know if that’s against NCAA violations. It’s been 21 years so I don’t think anyone is going to mind too much.”
A few of Jones’ former Bulls teammates were on hand for Tuesday night’s jersey retirement ceremony. They included Mike Potts, Grant Brittain, Brian Kowitz and Brad Rippelmeyer.
Potts, who made it to the Major Leagues just like Jones and Kowitz, was participating in his second memorable ceremony of the Bulls season. After baseball, he went into law enforcement and eventually became an N.C. State Trooper.
Last February, he was shot repeatedly at close range while making a traffic stop on U.S. 70. Potts recovered enough to throw out the first pitch at the Bulls home opener last April.
Matt West, the Bulls pitching coach in 1992 who became their manager in 1994 and 1995, also spoke during Tuesday night’s pre-game ceremony for Jones. He said one of the highlights of his career was coaching a 20-year-old Jones because he was “getting an opportunity to watch a young player grow and develop and became arguably one of the game’s greatest players.”
Jones remembered defense being his prime area of instruction that season. A raw shortstop, he committed 56 errors in 1991 at Macon (Ga.), where they kept a “Chip-O-Meter” tote board to count his miscues.
“The emphasis for me to improve was defense,” Jones said. “I had instructors in and out of town. I don’t think anybody ever worried about the offensive side. They knew that would come and solidify itself. But I really needed to solidify things. Once I proved to them that the defense was improving they moved me on up the ladder.”
Jones committed only 14 errors with the Bulls and was off to Greenville.
On Tuesday night, he came back and his jersey became the fourth retired by the Bulls. The others are Joe Morgan (18), Crash Davis (8) and former manager Bill Evers (20).
Jones admitted being somewhat incredulous when he learned of the honor.
“I couldn’t believe it, to be honest with you,” Jones said. “I think I only hit .270 when I was here. But I did hit the Bull for a steak dinner one time. I had a great time here. For the Durham Bulls to retire No. 10 I’m very honored.”