By Alex Tresniowski
April 29, 2002 12:00 PM

They come to see him by the thousands, little boys with baseball gloves and big-league dreams. They cheer him from the stands of Atlanta’s Turner Field, a sea of worshippers in Braves shirts bearing the number 10. “He’s got everyone wearing his jersey,” says his teammate, pitcher John Smoltz. “Most kids Want to be Chipper Jones.”

When it comes to role models, few athletes seem to fit the bill as neatly as Jones, 30, the Braves’ handsome, farm-bred All-Star left fielder. The Golden Boy, they called him—that is, until he got caught in a whopper of a scandal three years ago. Married since 1992, Jones had an extramarital affair with a Hooters waitress who bore him a son in 1998. Jones decided to go public about the affair and also chose not to meet his son, Matthew, for a year in a failed attempt to save his marriage to Karin Fulford, now 31. “I wouldn’t wish all that on my worst enemy,” says Jones, a career .306 hitter. “But I’ve come out of it a better man.”

In the party-hearty culture of pro sports, Jones broke the mold at a press conference in 1998, in which he publicly apologized for his actions without making any excuses. “He accepted responsibility for showing incredible lack of judgment,” says his father, Larry, 52, a former high school math teacher and baseball coach who taught his son the game. Today Jones is remarried; he and wife Sharon, 28, have a 22-month-old son, Trey. He also shares custody of Matthew, 4, with the boy’s mother, Jennifer Rutledge, now a retail manager in Michigan. Jones cares for him three weeks a month in the off-season and one week a month while playing. Finally meeting his son “changed my life on a dime,” says Jones. “I was your all-American jock-type guy who only cared about himself. I’m not that way anymore.”

An only child raised by Larry and Lynne, 50, an equestrian, he grew up mainly on a 10-acre farm in tiny Pierson, Fla., a one-traffic-light town just west of Daytona. Jones—who was born Larry but so resembled his father he was nicknamed Chipper, for chip off the old block—learned to hit trying to swat home runs in a contest against his dad. “I’d throw the ball just as hard as God would let me,” says Larry. “By the time he was 12 or 13, I couldn’t win anymore.”

Jones bypassed college and was drafted by the Braves in 1990. As a major league rookie, in 1995, he hit 23 homers and helped the Braves win the “World Series. By then he had already been married for three years to Karin, a college student he met while he was in the minors. “I probably got married a little too early,” Jones says. “I started to yield to temptations and to the pressures of the big leagues.” He carried on a secret affair with Rutledge, and when she got pregnant, Jones told his wife as well as his parents, who “steamed and cleaned him,” says his father. Although he paid child support from the start, he made the tough decision not to see Matthew at first. “I felt I owed it to Karin to try and make the marriage work,” he explains. “Matthew and my first wife couldn’t coincide.”

The couple divorced anyway in December 1999. After separating from Karin, Jones met current wife Sharon in an Orlando bar. “His name rang a bell, but I wasn’t an avid baseball fan,” says Sharon. “But we both liked to hunt and fish, and we just really clicked.” Married in 2000, they live in a four-bedroom home on Jones’s 4,200-acre ranch in southwest Texas (his parents also live on the property). As for Jones’s son Matthew, “he told me about him on our second date,” says Sharon. “He was really up front about it. Now it feels like Matthew is my natural-born son.”

Today his teammates notice a change in Jones, from restless to settled down. Just a few years back “he was searching,” says Smoltz. “He’s gone through a lot and he’s learned a lot. He wants to be a complete person now.” And his fans? To them “he is still a god,” says Matthew Ryan, a senior director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta, one of the many charities with which Jones is involved (he also chairs a campaign that raises money to fight cystic fibrosis and helps fund two camps for seriously ill children). “Chipper reaches a lot of kids and makes a difference in their lives.”

The two most immediate beneficiaries are Matthew and Trey. “He gives them baths, changes Trey’s diapers, reads them books,” says Sharon. “He’s wonderful with the boys and they adore him.” One of his biggest thrills is bringing Matthew on the field before games to play catch with him. “With Matthew it’s not really catch yet,” Jones explains. “He still closes his eyes every time I throw him the ball.”

Jones, meanwhile, has never seen things more clearly. “I can go 0-for-4, make an error and lose the game,” he says, “and as long as my boys are happy to see me when I walk in the door, my day’s all right.”

Alex Tresniowski

Kristin Harmel in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.