ATLANTA — Chipper Jones always looked up to the Mick.
Now, they’re members of the same exclusive club.
Jones was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on Wednesday , getting in on his first try with one of the highest voting percentages ever. The longtime Atlanta Braves third baseman was picked on 97.2 percent of the ballots — yep, even more than his idol, Mickey Mantle.
“There are only a few days that change your life forever,” Jones said during an evening news conference at SunTrust Park, arranged before the voting totals were even announced since his selection was a foregone conclusion. “Today was another one of those instances where my life will never be same.”
He headed the latest list of inductees, joined by Vladimir Guerrero (92.9 percent), Jim Thome (89.9) and Trevor Hoffman (79.9) . Edgar Martinez (70.4) just missed out on the 75 percent threshold in his next-to-last year on the ballot.
Growing up, Jones heard early and often about the player he should try to emulate. His father worshipped Mantle, who retired four years before Chipper was born but became a huge influence on his career. For instance, Mantle was a switch-hitter, so it was only natural that Jones hit from both sides.
In 1992, still three years away from claiming a spot in the Braves lineup that he would hold for 18 seasons, Jones got a chance to meet Mantle at an autograph session in suburban Atlanta.
Another of those life-changing days, it turned out.
“It was one of the only times where I found myself, the night before, practicing how I was going to meet somebody in the mirror,” Jones recalled.
When the moment came, he couldn’t get any of the words he had practiced to come out of his mouth.
“That’s how high a pedestal this guy was on,” Jones said, chuckling at the memory.
Composing himself, Jones finally began a conversation.
He wondered how Mantle dealt with the adulation, always carrying himself with a mythical aura that would still drive some fans to tears long after he was done playing.
“Mickey, does this ever get old?” Jones asked. “How do you keep this in perspective?”
Mantle told the young ballplayer of a recurring dream.
“I’m standing at the pearly gates. God walks up, and apparently I’ve got this worried look on my face. He says, ‘Mickey, I’m gonna let you in. But can you sign these dozen baseballs?”
Jones roared with laughter.
So did everyone else in the room.
“That was his life,” Jones said.
It was a life he learned to embrace, even though he didn’t play in the bright lights of New York City.
“I don’t mind signing an autograph or taking a picture,” Jones said. “To be honest with you, if they weren’t asking, I’d be more worried.”
The first two things he signed after his election to the Hall: a pair of baseballs for his mother and father .
He personalized each with their nicknames — “Blondie” for his mom, “Hawk” for his dad — but the message was the same.
“We did it,” he wrote. “HOF ’18.”
Jones said he was especially proud to be part of an induction class that includes Thome, a friend since their Triple-A days who shares a passion for hunting, not to mention Guerrero and Hoffman.
“He wasn’t nicknamed ‘Vlad the Impaler’ for nothing,” Jones said. “He was one of those scary hitters when he walked to the plate. Me, as a third baseman, I couldn’t play deep enough when Vlad was hitting.”
Hoffman was a shut-down closer who “had the second-coolest walk-up song in baseball,” Jones quipped, undoubtedly thinking his song, “Crazy Train,” tops the list. But he had to concede, “When ‘Hell’s Bells’ came on, it was pretty darn intimidating to you as an opposing player.”
Along with Martinez, two other players who didn’t make the Hall: Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. They continued to tick up in their vote totals — 57.3 percent for Clemens, 56.4 percent for Bonds — but were still far short of induction.
Both had the credentials to be first-ballot Hall of Gamers, but allegations that they used performance-enhancing drugs continue to thwart their selection. This was their sixth year on the ballot, leaving four more tries to get in.
While some Hall of Famers have come out strongly against Bonds and Clemens — most notably, Joe Morgan — Jones was more diplomatic.
In fact, he flatly stated that he wasn’t best player on this year’s ballot.
“I will say ’til the day they lay me in the ground that Barry Bonds is the best baseball player I’ve ever seen,” Jones said. “It’s unfortunate that some of the best players of our era have a cloud over them, following them, whatever. It doesn’t change anything for me.”
He wouldn’t object to Bonds joining him in that exclusive club at Cooperstown.
“We were all fighting to be All-Stars,” Jones said. “Barry was a charter member of the galactic All-Stars. That’s how good he was. I wouldn’t have a problem voting for Barry. But anybody who does, I completely understand.
“I guess I’ll leave it at that.”
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