Home run king Hank Aaron surprisingly criticized Braves’ manager Bobby Cox Tuesday in an interview with Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Terence Moore.
Aaron supposedly called Moore to talk about things that ‘need to be spelled out correctly.’ He contends Cox has taken too much credit for the selection of Chipper Jones as the Braves’ first pick in the 1990 draft, and that it was he (Aaron) who, in fact, urged the team to pick Jones at the top of the draft.
”I told Bobby. I told them all, and I told them, ‘Y’all better go and get Chipper Jones,” Aaron told Moore.
Aaron also said that when he was the farm director and Cox was the Braves’ general manager in the late 1980s, “there absolutely was no connection between the two of us.”
”Here I am the farm director, and we have a bad ball club, and it seems like he would talk to me about the kids we have in the minor leagues. It didn’t happen.”
Let’s first deal with the Chipper issue. You may remember the Braves had a huge dilemma with that top overall pick. At the time, they were rebuilding the organization with pitching, as Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Derek Lilliquist, Pete Smith, and Steve Avery were becoming the focus of the team.
Cox, along with Braves’ scouting director Paul Snyder, had decided back in 1985 when Cox returned from Toronto as the GM that pitching would be the priority. Well, that year (1990) there was a tall right-handed pitcher from Texas who everyone believed was the next Nolan Ryan. The next Roger Clemens. The next great star pitcher for the major leagues.
His name was Todd Van Poppel.
Aaron says Cox wanted to take Van Poppel, and he’s probably right on that. Van Poppel was perhaps the most heralded high school pitcher ever going into a draft. There was not a scout that saw him that didn’t believe Van Poppel could develop into a star pitcher. The chance of adding him to the list of Braves’ prospects already in the fold was very tempting.
But Van Poppel was telling everyone that he was going to attend the University of Texas. He said it wasn’t just because the Braves were a bad team (at that time the worst in baseball), but that he truthfully wanted to play college baseball. Some thought he was just using it as leverage so he wouldn’t have to go to the Braves, but either way, Van Poppel was telling teams at the top of the draft to not pick him on draft day.
So the Braves had a choice. They had to either take a chance that Van Poppel was trying to get a huge contract and that he would sign for the right amount, or believe him with his desire to go to college and instead pick someone else.
I did extensive research on this topic in 2005 for my book, ‘Scout’s Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team.’ I’d like to add some information from chapter 11, ‘A Chipper or a Van Poppel.’
”The first time I saw Chipper I really loved the guy,” says Rod Gilbreath, the Braves’ Assistant Director of Scouting in 1990. “You could just see big league all over him. Just the way he walked; he had that cockiness about him. It wasn’t an arrogant type, but just the confidence that he could play baseball. He caught everything. He had a plus arm. He was a switch-hitter. Paul (Snyder, the Braves Director of Scouting), Bobby Cox, myself, Hep Cronin (crosschecker), and we even brought (former Blue Jays Manager) Jimy Williams up from Tampa during this time to look at Chipper. After the game, Jimy came up to Bobby and said, ‘If you guys can’t make up your mind on this damn guy, you don’t need me here at all.’”
“I didn’t see Chipper play bad,” says Snyder. “I saw him twice at Bolles High School while we were in Spring Training. Then Lou Fitzgerald (Braves scout) and I had the benefit of the Tigers workout in Lakeland and Chipper with a wooden bat. They didn’t know we were there. They were working him out on one of the back fields. He put on a pretty damn good show. Then at one of the games I was there with Hep Cronin and Jimy Williams. We were sitting there and we were going to talk with Larry, his dad. We were going to head over to the first base side so we could have a good look at his swing. Larry said, ‘Stay here guys. He’s hitting left-handed tonight.’ And the first swing he took, the ball ended up out on the street.”
The Braves liked Jones tremendously, but Van Poppel was just so good it was hard to lay off him as their top choice. (Red) Murff (Braves scout) was adamant about Van Poppel’s talent and lobbied hard for the pitcher. But the more they were around Van Poppel, the more they became convinced he was serious about his desire to go to college. Whether he just didn’t want to play for the first place Braves or not, the team was not in a position to lose their top pick. They were rebuilding and needed all the help they could get.
”We couldn’t afford to draft a guy with the top pick and have him not sign,” Snyder says. Not the way we were. We had to get our guy.”
As the Braves continued to scout both players, they backed off from talking to them directly. They were pretty sure Jones would sign and that Van Poppel was still a question mark. So they concentrated on taking their time and making sure their evaluations were complete. The more people scouted Jones, the more they became enamored with his talent and his potential.
“For me, I just thought it was General Lee up there sitting in a gray uniform on a horse leading the troops,” says Dean Jongewaard, a Braves crosschecker. “He was a leader. You really get happy when you see that. There’s not even one in every draft. You can go two or three drafts and never see that kind of ability. Like a Ken Griffey or Alex Rodriguez, you can go years without seeing that type of player come along.”
A few days before the draft, the Braves decided to take a vote. Which player should they take with the first pick? Van Poppel or Jones?
”We had nine different reports from nine different people that had seen both of those guys,” Snyder says. “The vote was 5-4 Chipper.”
But Van Poppel was a pitcher who was being labeled a potential franchise pitcher. The same month as the draft in 1990, the Braves had a pitcher with similar expectations making his debut in the big leagues. Steve Avery had been considered a franchise type pitcher when he had been drafted two years earlier, but Van Poppel was considered an even better prospect. The thought of having Van Poppel join Avery, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Pete Smith in a rotation were enticing. So two days before the draft, Cox decided to go to Texas one more time to see if there was any way Van Poppel would sign if the Braves picked him.
”Bobby had the idea that if he went out (to Texas), they’d meet with him,” Snyder says. “We knew we could sign Chipper. We just didn’t know if we could sign Van Poppel. So we’re in the draft room and he goes out there. We’re putting the board together and Bobby goes out and the kid doesn’t show, again. Bobby called back and said, ‘Just go the way you’re going guys.’ He just wanted to find out for sure. Something might happen in the next day or two where Chipper wouldn’t sign. So we just had to make sure.”
Not one time in my reporting on the decision for the first pick did Hank Aaron’s name ever come up. Never. Yet today he decided to make a stink about this issue.
Terence Moore took the bait of listening to what Mr. Aaron had to say. Aaron said, ‘I talked to Van Poppel’s daddy, and he told me that he wasn’t going to sign with the Braves, but that’s who Bobby wanted with that first pick, because he always was into getting pitching. The only reason they didn’t take Van Poppel was because of what I told them about what his daddy told me.”
But Paul Snyder, who as Scouting Director was in charge of the draft, obviously remembered things differently. The vote the scouts took, when Chipper won out 5-4, was a major factor in the decision to take Jones over Van Poppel.
Why would Aaron want to bring this up now? What’s his purpose of trying to embarrass Bobby Cox with some bush league story about how Aaron was the one responsible for Chipper being a Brave?
The bigger question, I believe, is what has Hank Aaron done over the past eighteen years to draw his paycheck as a Senior Vice President. Okay, so he’s Hank Aaron. That’s understandable. But he’s been to spring training to talk to the minor leaguers only a handful of times. If he’s some big executive, with big responsibility, shouldn’t he have been expected to do more?
Who knows if that’s the Braves fault or Aaron’s fault. But he’s been a figurehead. Why isn’t Moore more interested in Aaron’s lack of activity as a Braves’ executive?
Truth be told, from what I’ve been told through the years, Bobby Dews, Aaron’s Assistant Farm Director for many years, and Paul Snyder, the team’s Director of Scouting, were more active and influential in running the farm system when Aaron had the title of Farm Director. In a way, Hank Aaron had to be Hank Aaron. He didn’t have the time to run a farm system, so Dews and Snyder did the work.
But again, what has Aaron done to earn a paycheck from the Atlanta Braves over the past eighteen years? Willie Mays has been on the Giants’ payroll for years, but he actually does things for the organization. Mays is at almost every big event for the Giants and represents them in the community. Getting Aaron to even come to spring training has proven to be like pulling teeth.
And now, as a Senior Vice President, he’s calling out the Braves’ manager for something that happened eighteen years ago? Huh?
Someone in the Braves’ organization, whether it was Stan Kasten or John Schuerholz or Terry McGuirk, should have demanded that Aaron be more involved. If Aaron refused, he should have been fired. Yes, he meant a lot to that organization and to the game. But if you pay someone a large salary you have to get something out of it.
And didn’t we hear just a year ago, when Schuerholz took over for McGuirk, that Aaron would become more involved? Are his comments today what he had in mind?
You know that John Schuerholz is spitting fire about this. If it had been some Senior Vice President named John Doe who had called out Bobby Cox like this he would have been escorted from the building before the end of business day. But this is Hank Aaron, who has gotten a pass for doing nothing for years and will probably get a pass on this as well.
Maybe Bobby Cox did prefer Todd Van Poppel. Not many scouts back then would have blamed him considering how great Van Poppel projected for the future. But Cox allowed his scouts to have the final word. He trusted his guys, the ones who had actually seen both players play, to make the call. That's why Chipper Jones was the Braves' pick.
There must be some reason Aaron decided to pick up the phone to get Moore on his latest push-button topic. But it sounds like someone who is just bitter he hasn’t gotten more credit as the credit has been passed around over the years. Maybe Mr. Moore should ask Mr. Aaron the next time he calls how his great prediction of greatness for Brad Komminsk worked out back in the 1980s. That might be the better story.
If Hank Aaron had come out and criticized Bobby Cox's managing, that he doesn't know how to use a bullpen or that the game has passed him by, that might have been one thing. That would have been his opinion, just like Bill Ford, Jr. gave when asked about Matt Millen with the Detroit Lions. But Aaron instead took the low road, by calling the biggest sucker in the world for a story about an issue eighteen years ago where the facts say Aaron is just wrong.
The timing is curious, and the purpose is questionable. Either way, Aaron is the one that comes out of this mess looking bad. Very bad.
Bill Shanks hosts The Atlanta Baseball Show on 680 the Fan in Atlanta and The Bill Shanks Show on SportsRadio 105.5 the Fan in Macon. He is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. You can email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.