published Tuesday, June 18th, 2013

Wiedmer: Chipper Jones' return to site of title is special for prep stars (with video)

Retired Atlanta Braves star Chipper Jones listens to a question from the audience at the Best of Preps banquet  Monday at the Chattanooga Convention Center.
Retired Atlanta Braves star Chipper Jones listens to a question from the audience at the Best of Preps banquet Monday at the Chattanooga Convention Center.
Photo by Tim Barber.
Huge crowd attends Best of Preps banquet with Chipper Jones
A sold out crowd of more than 1,500 athletes, parents and coaches attended the annual Best of Preps banquet presented by the Chattanooga Times Free Press on Monday. Former Atlanta Braves all-star Chipper Jones was the featured speaker at the event, which highlights the best athletes and coaches from all 14 high school sports.

Monday night's Best of Preps banquet was not the first time former Atlanta Braves star Chipper Jones played to a packed house in the Scenic City.

It was merely the first time he heard cheers instead of jeers.

"I won a Double-A championship in this town in 1992 when I was with Greenville (S.C.)," Jones said. "I remember it was a mighty big poke to [Engel Stadium's] center field.

"But what I remember most was almost starting a brawl during one of the playoff games. I questioned the ancestry of this dude's mother after I thought he was trying to hit me with a pitch. It was pretty intense. But we ended up winning and got our pictures made with a five-foot trophy, which was probably the biggest thing I'd ever seen."

The Best of Preps -- which this newspaper stages each spring with considerable help from corporate sponsors -- has become one of the biggest things of its kind, in no small part because of speakers such as the future Hall of Famer Jones, New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning, tennis titans Venus and Serena Williams, New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees and swimming sensation Michael Phelps.

However, Jones may be the first of that elite group to cause one of our honored athletes to cancel a European cruise in order to attend the banquet.

Yet that's just what recent Girls Preparatory School grad and volleyball player of the year Sadie Lett did so she could pick up her award and meet Chipper.

"I was supposed to be on a cruise in the Baltic Sea right now," she said after having her picture snapped with Jones. "But I really wanted to be here. At first, my parents said, 'OK, we'll have to talk about this.' But then they said it was my decision."

So instead of touring Europe, Jeff and Alexa Lett accompanied their daughter to the Chattanooga Convention Center to hear Jones discuss a range of topics from his childhood to parenthood to retirement.

"I'm definitely glad I chose to do this," she said.

Jones said he definitely remains glad he chose to retire last October at the close of 19 big-league seasons, leaving the game with a career .303 batting average, 468 home runs, 1,623 RBIs and seven knee surgeries. He's the only switch-hitter in major league history to retire with a batting average north of .300 and more than 400 homers.

"Honestly, I thought it would be more difficult," he said. "I've been surprised at how content I am. It just reaffirms that I made the right decision."

All those knee surgeries certainly contributed -- "I got a little tired of them knocking me out and cutting me open," he said -- but that wasn't the overriding reason.

"I just got tired of living so much of my life on the road," said the single father of four. "I just got tired of living out of a suitcase. I was ready to focus on what to do with the rest of my life."

He understandably spent much of his time before the sold-out crowd of 1,500 focusing on the first 40 years of his life, especially his time with the Braves, which covered the entirety of his 19-year career.

He talked of his mother, a champion professional equestrian rider who he said gave him his toughness.

"She had this air about her when she'd arrive for the dressage competition, like, 'Don't mess with me,'" he said. "Kind of like Evan Gattis taking BP (batting practice). Everybody just stops what they're doing to watch."

He talked of his first days at the prestigious Bolles School (the Baylor and McCallie of Jacksonville, Fla. ) after spending the first nine school years of his life in the "one-caution-light town" of Pierson, Fla.

"Kids at Bolles were driving IROCs, Preludes, BMWs," he recalled. "I had a '83 Ford Escort they named the 'white elephant.' If you got it up to 55 [mph], you started losing parts. I had four F's in seven classes on my first progress report. But my parents made me stay. I graduated with a 3.2 GPA."

He also played baseball well enough for the Braves to make him the overall No. 1 pick in the 1990 amateur draft.

Asked why he never left Atlanta, he said, "It's been a great marriage, and that's saying a lot becaue I'm not real great at being married."

But he's committed to being a great father to his four sons, the youngest three of whom live in Atlanta.

"It's something new almost every day, and I love it," he said. "I take the youngest ones (8-year-old Shea and 7-year-old Tristen) to soccer practice every Saturday morning, then baseball later in the day. I keep my distance at practice. Everything's positive. No negative vibes at that age."

That's not to say he's always positive sitting in front of his home television, watching his old teammates.

"It's hard to keep my mouth shut," he said. "I've thrown a flip-flop or two at the screen. I'll shout at Dan Uggla, 'Don't swing at that ball in the dirt!'"

But on Monday night in front of so many of our brightest and most talented young people, the message was all about dos rather than don'ts.

"Try to be a hero," he said. "Try to be a great role model for all those who look up to you."

And if you one day become great enough, one of those folks just might cancel a cruise on the Baltic Sea to hear you speak.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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