Carroll Rogers Walton, co-author of Chipper Jones’ new memoir Ballplayer, stood near home plate at BB&T Ballpark in Winston-Salem. Before calling Jones onto the field, she posed a question she had recently considered for the eight-time All-Star, who spent all 23 years of his legendary baseball career in the Atlanta Braves’ organization.
“Is [Jones] gonna be happy to be back in Braves country?” she wondered aloud.
The crowd roared. Despite a cold and windy evening on April 6, 750 supporters showed up to the first tour stop for Ballplayer, an event presented by the Triad-based literary arts nonprofit Bookmarks.
Walton’s question didn’t acknowledge the 300 miles between Atlanta and Winston-Salem, but she was right: Jones was back in Braves country.
It’s a reign more dominant than any other in professional sports in the United States: The American South belongs to the Atlanta Braves.
A quick review of social sports geography is in order.
Despite the pastoral appeal of baseball, it isn’t the South’s favorite game. In the dearth of other Major League Baseball teams in the Deep South, the award goes to football, where collegiate and professional football teams divide and conquer the rabid fandom. At the region’s northern border, college basketball holds court in Kentucky and North Carolina, and MLB teams are absent until farther north in Cincinnati and Washington DC.
Aside from Florida — a state whose southern cities of Tampa and Miami don’t seem to provide the camaraderie found above the peninsula — the closest baseball teams are in Houston to the west and St. Louis and Washington DC to the north. This leaves an enormous Southern vacuum, and with Ted Turner’s help, the Braves have commanded it for decades.
Ted Turner, an owner of the Braves between the mid-’70s and mid-’90s, nationally broadcasted the team’s games on his TBS network — another factor contributing greatly to their following throughout the Southeast.
Along the parallel arteries of I-40 and I-10 between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mississippi River, Braves gear hangs in gas stations. A familiar, cursive ‘A’ adorns the caps of tens of thousands across the region. The South belongs to the Braves, and Chipper Jones — a native of northern Florida, a World Series champion and National League MVP — helped make it that way.
As Jones walked onto the Winston-Salem field on April 6, the crowd gave a standing ovation. He and Walton took seats on tall barstools on either side of home plate as towering space heaters flanked them on three sides. Between Jones’ white button-down, his navy-blue blazer and the red tablecloth on the high stand between them, all of the Braves’ colors were conspicuously represented.
“It’s been 25 years since I’ve been in Winston-Salem,” Jones told the crowd. He discussed his early days in the Atlanta Braves organization, playing for the Durham Bulls — then the Braves’ minor league affiliate — and his affinity for Bull Durham, which he called his favorite sports movie.
“It’s such a good portrayal of what happens in the minor leagues,” Jones assured, revealing his own transition from a being cocky rookie like Tim Robbins’ “Nuke” LaLoosh character to a more savvy veteran akin to Kevin Costner’s “Crash” Davis.
As the conversation between Jones and Walton continued, the Southern thing came right off the bat.
A bit blushingly, Walton asked Jones if she was still his favorite interviewer despite his recent appearances on ESPN, Fox & Friends and other networks.
“Of course you are,” Jones responded. “You’re from the South.”
The crowd — fans of all ages adorned in Braves gear, some in camo style — lapped it up.
Later, a smattering of applause sounded as Jones recalled his childhood: “I got many a-whoopins… some with my pants on, some with my pants off.”
Those in the stands appreciated Jones’ pregame snack disclosure — four chocolate-chip cookies and an orange Gatorade — and his description of opposing All-Star Jim Thome: “A big, corn-fed country boy.”
Supporters in the crowd knew the Braves’ history, too. They responded knowingly as Jones discussed his first home run that came in the top of the ninth in Shea Stadium. They cheered his World Series recollections, as well as his retelling of a walk-off homer against the Phillies at the end of his career.
For those less knowledgeable of the Braves’ traditions, Jones revealed some interesting tidbits and baseball subtleties: Past banter with umpires, how the position of a pitcher’s glove foreshadows his choice of pitch, which players had the messiest lockers, and more.
[pullquote] This summer, Bookmarks opens its nonprofit independent bookstore at 634 West Fourth Street #110 in downtown Winston-Salem. Learn more about their new home at bookmarksnc.org. [/pullquote]
After his book tour, Jones will have to consider the next steps he’ll take.
“Getting back into that MLB lifestyle doesn’t interest me right now,” he told the crowd when asked about a managerial role.
But through his role in the Braves’ enduring dominion, Chipper Jones should find fans across the South whenever he chooses to barnstorm through.