In the days to come, the baseball world will bid farewell to one of its truly great players. Chipper Jones has decided to retire at the end of this season, which means the last of my all-time favorite professional athletes will walk off into the sunset.
For me, it all started on my birthday, October 25, 1995. I turned 17 that day and was about to get one of the best birthday gifts a baseball fan could ask for.
It was Game 4 of the World Series and my beloved Braves went to Jacobs Field in Cleveland and won 5-2 to go up 3-1 in the series. It was the only game of the series to be decided by more than one run.
The Braves would go on to win their first championship since moving to Atlanta, and one of the great careers the game would ever see was just beginning.
Before the '95 season, I had a hard time identifying anyone as my favorite player. The guys I liked all played on other teams.
Ozzie Smith was the guy I tried to imitate in my days of playing shortstop. As a pitcher, I wanted to be like Nolan Ryan. At the plate, my best friend Charles and I liked to think we were like Oakland's Bash Brothers, Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire.
None of those guys played in Atlanta, and I had too much loyalty to the Braves to claim any of those guys as my "favorite player."
In 1995, Braves fans were excited about a hot new rookie shortstop turned third baseman named Larry Wayne Jones Jr. The first overall pick of the 1990 draft was trying to overcome an injury that delayed his first full season in the league by a year.
His knack for coming up big when it counted most would become evident right away. In his first playoff game against the Colorado Rockies, Chipper went deep twice.
That was enough to make me become the biggest Chipper Jones fan in the world. There was just something about the way he played that caught my attention.
Chipper is that rare switch-hitter that can hit for average and power from either side of the plate. That type of ability has not been seen in the big leagues since Mickey Mantle.
In fact, it was the Mick who was probably the reason for Jones' prowess as a switch-hitter. His father was a huge Mantle fan and wanted his son to hit just like the Yankee great. Chipper would spend hours in the back yard with his dad learning how to hit just like Mickey.
To this day, anytime Jones is struggling or looking for help at the plate, he turns to his dad. I think we can say Larry Jones Sr. has done a pretty good job as a hitting coach.
Somehow, Chipper has always been one of the most underrated players in the game. He's rarely in the MVP conversation, and if you ask anyone who the best third baseman of all-time is, you will almost never hear his name.
That seems a bit hard to believe once you take a good look at what he has accomplished.
Sabermetrics has changed the way players are judged now. But for more than 100 years, home runs, RBI and batting average were the way we graded a player's value to the game, and the last time I checked, it was the team that scored the most runs that won. And no third baseman in the history of the game has driven in more runs than Chipper Jones. Not Mike Schmidt, not George Brett and not Wade Boggs.
In July, Jones passed Pete Rose to move into second on the all-time list of extra-base hits by a switch-hitter, behind only Eddie Murray.
He's also the only switch-hitter to have a career batting average over .300 while still hitting over 400 home runs.
Only Mantle and Murray have more home runs as a switch-hitter.
As Jayson Stark pointed out in his ESPN.com article, there are 130 active players who have hit over 100 home runs. Only three of them have more walks than strikeouts. Albert Pujols, Todd Helton and Chipper Jones.
Considering Jones has typically been known as a power hitter, this stat is pretty difficult to believe. Especially for a switch-hitter.
How many times have you seen a manager make a pitching change to make a switch-hitter move to the other side of the plate? You can't do that with Jones. He can kill you from either side of the plate and is more than capable of using the entire field.
One of the Greatest Clutch Players Ever
Perhaps the only people looking forward to seeing Chipper walk away from the game are Mets fans. All you have to do is look at one game in New York when the Braves came to town, and you will understand what I mean. Look at the first time Jones came to the plate, and you will gain a full understanding of just how much pain this man has caused Mets fans.
On May 9, 1995, Chipper hit his first career home run against the Mets at Shea Stadium in New York. The very next night he hit another homer off Pete Harnisch. It was the beginning of a long run of dominance by Jones over the Mets.
The chants of "Larry" and the raining of boos are nothing more than the leftover sounds of agony from 1999. That's the year Chipper became the Met Killer.
With the Braves nursing a one game lead going into a three game series against the Mets in Atlanta, Jones exploded for four home runs in three games. His two solo shots in the first game were just enough to give the Braves a 2-1 win.
Another two-run homer the next night helped the Braves take a three-game lead in the division. By the time Chipper got around to hitting a three-run shot in the third game he not only locked up the division title for the Braves, but had also wrapped up his first and only MVP award.
After the series, Chipper cemented his status as a villain in New York when he said to the media, "Now all the Mets fans can go home and put their Yankee stuff on."
Chipper so loved playing at Shea Stadium that he named his son, Shea, after the place where he put up his best numbers. In his 323 at bats at Shea Stadium, he has a .313 batting average and has hit 19 homers.
The Curtain Call
At some point over the next few weeks, Chipper will take his last swing and field his last ground ball at third, and then likely walk off the field tipping his hat to a standing ovation. Whether that's after winning a championship or not, the one thing he will be able to hang his hat on is that he did it on his own terms while still on top.
Every professional athlete wants to go out on their own terms, but most rarely do. I can still feel the pain of watching my two other favorite athletes put on another team's uniform.
Michael Jordan wearing a Wizards jersey and Joe Montana sporting the Chiefs colors were both painful to see.
What I appreciate most about Chipper has been his loyalty to one team. There was never a time in Atlanta in which Braves fans worried about him signing elsewhere. Both sides always made sure it never came to that.
His devotion to the team and to winning has been a rare site in today's world.
In 2002, Chipper made the move to left field so the Braves could sign Vinny Castilla. Jones was well aware that the move could cost him some All-Star selections. But it would not be the last time Chipper would make a sacrifice for the benefit of the team.
Following the 2005 season, Jones reworked his contract to help the Braves make room to pursue elite free agents. In return, the Braves extended his contract to ensure Jones would finish his career in Atlanta.
So, here we stand. Indeed he will finish his career in Atlanta.
Only a guy like Chipper with his flair for the dramatic and ability to come up big in the clutch could perform the way he has in his final season. Hollywood couldn't write a better script.
His final season has produced his first ever five-hit game at home (July 3 against the Cubs.) It's hard to believe that a guy like this had never accomplished that feat before.
Twice the Braves came back from a six-run deficit to win on a Chipper Jones homer.
After missing the first week of the season while on the disabled list, there was talk of Chipper being out of shape and that perhaps he wouldn't make it through the season. All that talk was erased when Jones homered in his first game back.
Chipper homered again on his 40th birthday and twice more on Chipper Jones Bobblehead Night. The two game winners against the rival Phillies were a perfect example of the type of clutch hitting Jones has produced his entire career.
On September 2, Chipper came to the plate against Jonathan Papelbon with two on and two out and the Braves trailing Philly 7-5. Jones just missed the first fastball by Papelbon and fouled it off.
What you don't want to do as a pitcher is make the same mistake twice to a guy like Chipper who has studied hitting as if he were in medical school. But that was exactly what Papelbon did when he came at Jones with yet another fastball down the middle.
Chipper parked it about 10 rows back in right-center field, and the celebration began. I still get goosebumps when I watch that video.
I was a young kid when Jordan retired the first time and when Montana left San Francisco. Both times I cried. I'm a grown man now, but don't be surprised if a tear is running down my cheek as Chipper walks off the field for the final time.
I'm not just losing the best player on my favorite team. I'm losing a piece of my childhood.
My son was named Maddux only because his mom wouldn't go for Chipper or Larry. Just like Chipper was made to study Mantle growing up, my son will be given Chipper Jones as an example of how to play the game.
This farewell tour has already been one of legendary status and is still being written. After the way this season has gone, there is only one appropriate ending to this movie. The final act could start with Chipper at the plate with a chance to win the World Series.
If that is the case, I think we all know how that will end.
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