Okay, maybe "love" is a little strong.
But a Mets fan admitting to liking Chipper Jones is newsworthy, isn't it?
For most of his career, Jones was the perfect enemy for the Shea faithful. He was the young, confident, good-looking offensive star of the hated Atlanta Braves—the Braves that made the wildcard the only door to the playoffs for the Mets, and often shut that door at that.
Jones seemed to take delight in throwing daggers into the hearts of the Mets and their fans. The air of invincibility surrounding him due to the Mets inability to knock off the Braves for so many years only cemented Jones's villainous status.
The Shea crowds tried to knock him off his game with their "Larry, Larry" taunts. But the taunts were futile, merely an amusing footnote to a one-sided rivalry.
Jones was everything a Mets fan wanted: a home-grown star helping to put his team in position to win a championship every year. It probably made it worse that he only managed to win the World Series once.
"How could you not cash in on all those opportunities!?"
Infuriating. But at least we could enjoy watching him lose.
And then he had to rub salt in our wounds by naming his son Shea—that's how much he enjoyed playing in our home park. Glad we could be so accommodating. Have you tried the salsa?
Now it's 2008 and I find myself with a soft spot for Chipper Jones.
Yet, it's really not that strange to me. This has happened before. Let me explain.
My all-time favorite athlete is Mike Bossy (Hall-of-Fame New York Islanders hockey player, for those of you who are strictly baseball fans). Bossy could have been the premier offensive player of his time in the NHL except for one problem—he played at the same time as Wayne Gretzky.
I couldn't stand Gretzky, the young superstar who snuffed out any chance of Bossy getting the attention and accolades I thought he deserved. It's hard to be noticed when you're standing near the brightest light ever seen.
But after a few years, my perception of Gretzky changed. He kept doing wondrous things. I couldn't help but admire and respect him, and appreciate his extraordinary talent. I became a fan.
Then Mario Lemieux came along to challenge Gretzky's supremacy and the cycle started all over again.
Who does this guy think he is infringing upon Wayne Gretzky's legend?
Years went by. I kept watching Lemieux. I grew to appreciate his skill and character, and I became a fan. So much so that after each of his comebacks, I made sure to watch him as much as possible for fear of never seeing such a talent again.
Now, let's be clear—in the annals of sports history, Chipper Jones will never be in the same volume as Mario Lemieux or Wayne Gretzky.
But, for me, the process has been similar. I've grown to appreciate Jones as a player—and as a rival—over the long haul. I admit that it's easier to do that with the Braves having fallen behind the Mets in the NL East pecking order.
Whereas I once interpreted his son's name as a poke at the Mets and their fans, I now see it as a gesture that pays tribute to one man's personal relationship with the game of baseball. Perhaps it even forges a nostalgic bond between father and son.
Ken Davidoff of Newsday has a nice entry in his Baseball Insider blog about Jones preferring Shea Stadium to Yankee Stadium. With all the hoopla surrounding the final season of Yankee Stadium during this year's All-Star festivities, how can you not love that?
I don't think Jones will hit .400 this year. But I'll be rooting for him to make a George Brett-sized mark on the record books. It would make for a fun baseball story.
You know, just as long as all those hits land on the Mets' playoff hopes like a volley of Lilliputian arrows.
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