In the summer of 1993, during the thick of a highly contested race for the International League’s Governors’ Cup, the Charlotte Knights and Richmond Braves met at The Diamond, the Braves’ home park.
Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome headlined the Knights’ deep roster. Chipper Jones, Javy Lopez and Ryan Klesko accounted for some of Richmond’s stars. And with multiple other future big-leaguers on the field, a brawl broke out.
The scrap marked Jones’ first of his professional career, the Atlanta Braves legendary third baseman recalled Monday on a visit to BB&T Ballpark, where he signed copies of his new book, “Ballplayer.”
Twenty-four years later, Jones said he remembered the fight just as vividly.
After a pitch was thrown behind Klesko, Jones said Klesko swung through the next one and whirled his bat over the head of the Charlotte pitcher. Chaos ensued.
Both benches cleared, and before he knew it, Jones said he was pinned up against the backstop, with his face pressed into the screen. As Jones found out, Thome, 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, was applying the pressure.
“My parents oddly enough were in the stands that day sitting on the third row,” Jones said. “I can remember looking up at my mom as (Thome) had the death grip on me, and her eyes were as big as silver dollars.
“We had some hot heads, they had some hot heads and we were both vying for what we knew was going to be the league championship. Trying to juggle that with trying to get to the big leagues as quickly as possible made for a pretty stressful environment in Triple-A.”
More often than not, the Knights were the source of that frustration for Jones and the Braves.
During another game that season in Charlotte, Jones said he stepped to the plate with a runner on third base and less than two outs. A ground ball to second could have scored a run. Instead, he struck out.
Jones said he stormed back into the dugout, where he grabbed the knob of the bat with his hand and slammed it into the rack. However, his hand slipped. The bat ricocheted back toward him, knocking out his two front teeth.
He said he visited a local dentist that night.
“I got ripped a couple of times during my playing days in Atlanta because I wasn’t emotional enough,” Jones said. “That was why I wasn’t emotional enough, because I have a tendency to break stuff.”
The Knights also shattered Richmond’s championship hopes that season.
The two teams met in the division finals of the playoffs, and Charlotte won the series 3-1 before upending the Rochester Red Wings for its first of two Governors’ Cups. The Knights clinched the series against the Braves with an 11-10 win in Charlotte on Sept. 9.
“After that game,” Jones said, “(Richmond manager) Grady (Little) called me into his office and told me I was going to San Diego, that I was going to the big leagues and he didn’t ever want to see me back in minor-league baseball again. I said, ‘Grady, you won’t.’ ”
Jones made his Major League debut two days later, on Sept. 11. He kept his word to Little and never played in another minor-league game again, excluding rehab assignments.
Two seasons later, Jones proved to be one of the key cogs in the Braves’ run to the 1995 World Series. After tearing his ACL before the strike-shortened 1994 season, he batted .265 with 23 home runs and 86 RBIs as a rookie in 1995, finishing second in the National League Rookie of the Year voting to Hideo Nomo.
In the World Series, Jones and Atlanta defeated Thome, Ramirez and the Indians, the Knights’ Major League affiliate in 1993-94.
“I seem to recall getting the best of ’em in 1995,” Jones said, “so I’ll take that one.”
Jones and Thome squared off several more times during their big-league careers. Both retired after the 2012 season, with Jones finishing as one of the best switch-hitters in Major League history and Thome blasting 612 career home runs.
When voters receive their ballots for the 2018 Hall of Fame class, Jones and Thome will be on it for the first time. However, Jones said he does not expect a rematch of their brawl in Richmond if they’re both inducted.
“We’ve been rivals all along,” Jones said. “He played (with the Philadelphia Phillies) for quite some time, and there’s not a nicer dude on the planet. I’m pulling for him. To be standing up there with him next year would be pretty darn cool as far as we’ve come since 1993.”