Without Chipper

On the pre-emptive emptiness that precedes a great player's retirement
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Thinking bad things about the Mets, you can just tell.

Image via Flickr/Dirk Hansen.

This is a strange time for Southern sports fans of my generation, perhaps the strangest of times. A few years ago, longtime Braves announcer Skip Caray passed away. Two seasons ago, Bobby Cox walked out of the Braves dugout for the final time. Last year we lost Larry Munson, the voice of University of Georgia sports for four decades, as well as Ernie Johnson, Sr., who played for the Boston and Milwaukee Braves and called games in Atlanta. Last week, legendary Atlanta sportswriter Furman Bisher died at 93 years old. And a few days later, last Thursday, Chipper Jones let us know this would be his last season playing baseball. I find myself terribly sad to see him leaving, as Chipper joins this army of the voices and the heroes of my youth exiting from my life, one after another.

For many years, my favorite Brave was Andruw Jones. I loved Andruw because he was a terrific ballplayer, but also because everyone else loved Chipper Jones more. I’ve always had a natural affinity for the underdog and the overlooked, but as Andruw declined and Chipper continued producing, the more I realized I was overlooking Chipper for no good reason.

Last year I wrote a book about growing up as a fan of the Braves during the Bobby Cox era. In looking back, I was struck again by how often and how profoundly Chipper’s offensive excellence was overshadowed by the tremendous starting pitching the Braves trotted out night after night, and diminished, in a strange and unjust way, by the consistency of his own greatness—by being as great as he was every day, he made his own brilliance seem almost ordinary. It wasn’t, of course—Chipper is the only switch-hitter in baseball history with a career batting average over .300 and at least 400 homers. Only two men in baseball have a career batting average of at least .300, 400 homers and at least ten trips to the postseason; Babe Ruth is the other. He’s hit more home runs as an Atlanta Brave than any player in the team’s history.

All that greatness just sort of accrued, though; it was oddly easy not to notice. Which, perhaps, was the most Chipper Jones aspect of it. For two decades, despite those numbers, Chipper defined an understated sort of brilliance—cutting off countless slow rollers to short to gun out runners at first; looking terrible on one swing only to homer to deep center on the very next pitch; chewing out teammates who needed it; calmly walking to the mound and pretending, slowly, to clean non-existent mud from his cleats in order to give time to a struggling young pitcher who needed just that. All those stats, but mostly all of that.

We called him Chipper, but he was actually a Junior, the son of Larry Wayne Jones, and nobody seemed to know Junior like Senior. A few weeks ago, Chipper talked about playing during the steroid era and admitted he never seriously considered juicing mainly because he couldn’t bear the thought of his father finding out that he had cheated. Through the years, whenever Chipper struggled from the plate, from the right side or the left side, he would casually mention in an interview that he’d spoken to his father or spent some time in the cage with Dad, and they figured out a few mechanical adjustments, and before long he’d get back to knocking the skin off the ball. It was always a reminder that Chipper’s sweet swing may have seemed natural, but was actually a product of work and practice.

Most of all, for Braves fans, Chipper Jones was ours. Chipper may be leaving the Braves this fall, but at least we’ll never be forced to see him in a camo Padres uniform or a concrete gray Mets jersey. While other Braves ended up leaving—even Glavine, Maddux and Smoltz did stints with different franchises toward the ends of their careers—Chipper gamed the system, and has stayed with Atlanta his entire career, for his sake and for ours. To be frank, Chipper probably chewed up a disproportionate amount of the Braves’ budget the last few years considering the production the team got for its millions. Braves fans grumbled about this, but softly—we were still paying Chipper for a time that had passed, for those 14 consecutive division titles, for the 1995 World Series, for allowing Braves fans to sleep easy each March with the knowledge that once the baseball season started. And we would at least have a dude hitting third who could cause all sorts of problems for opposing pitchers.

Though he battled injuries throughout his career, Chipper was country strong, a Southern boy with a high-and-tight haircut from a barbershop, with a plug of tobacco wedged into his cheek and an ability to switch-hit unlike anyone we had ever seen. He was also a winner, a vague and unspecific tag that happens to be altogether true in his case: until 2006, none of Chipper’s teams, from Little League through the Major Leagues, had never missed the playoffs. There was no Braves player I’d rather have up to bat with the game on the line. His stats may have been a product of labor and repetition, but there was some magic underlying those numbers, too. That special something was at its most evident when Chipper beat—he has 48 career home runs against the Mets—and beat down the Mets time and again; he famously so enjoyed playing at Shea Stadium, where he put up a .313 career average, that he actually named one of his sons Shea. He was so dominant that Mets fans couldn’t really even complain about Chipper coming, conquering, and literally taking the name of their home back home with him. They could boo him, and they did, but he was at his most inevitable in New York.

I probably should stop thinking and writing about Chipper in the past tense. After all, he has 162 games left to play—or as many of those as he can manage after recovering from the upcoming arthroscopic surgery on his left knee—the Braves have solid pitching, and with a little bit of production from the offense, have as good a shot this year as in any other. Chipper's career could end in the postseason. It could end in the World Series. But the end is rushing up.

In my book, I wrote that Chipper was “the de facto captain of the Braves for the last 15 years and, in turn and in many ways, the captain of the South, the modern day Rhett Butler of baseball.” This remains the case. We live and we die, and in between we work hard at our craft to be the best we can be at it. We succeed or we fail, to varying degrees, but Chipper—our captain, the man we trusted to lead us—succeeded, in front of all of us and over and over again, for almost two decades. We weren’t perfect, and neither was Chipper, but he was closer to it than we would ever be. And while he isn’t gone, not yet, I already know that I will miss him, a lot, and somehow more than I ever suspected I would.

Correction: Since the publication of Lang's book, both Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez have qualified for the.300 career batting average/400 HRs/10 trips to postseason club.

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Only two men in baseball have a career batting average of at least .300, 400 homers and at least ten trips to the postseason; Babe Ruth is the other. He’s hit more home runs as an Atlanta Brave than any player in the team’s history.
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