Monday, October 1, 2012

Thank You Chipper Jones

Chipper Jones was on third base a few games ago, having doubled to lead-off the bottom of the ninth inning, when a walk-off home run by Freddie Freeman put him and the Braves into the playoffs.  It was only the seventh walk-off home run to put a team in the postseason in major league history.  The large Atlanta crowd was definitely into the moment as well.
On Saturday the baseball sub-cult of my 'Dillo friends went to see Chipper Jones play his next to last regular season home game. Jones went 0-4 but his glove is still quick at third base. He made two or three fine defensive plays.

My most distant memory of Chipper Jones is of the night the Braves won the 1995 World Championship. I have the moment on VHS in my library. Someday I must digitize all those Braves tapes. Abundant hours of them. Anyway, that night long ago Chipper was a kid and he looked like one. He was away from the celebration on the field and pointing into the crowd at someone, maybe his parents.

Chipper had a pretty decent year that first full season in his career. He appeared in 140 games and hit .265, certainly nothing noteworthy there, but for the fact that he was a switch-hitter - a potentially large advantage in baseball as he could always bat the same side of the plate as the pitcher's arm. Just like Mickey Mantle.

The impressive stuff is when you see what he did with that .265 average. That was 185 hits that showed solid power and productivity. 30 home runs. 110 RBIs. Anytime any player has a season with numbers like that you take note of him. 32 doubles. 5 triples. Yes, Chipper had some speed about him too. He stole 14 bases that season. In 1999 Chipper stole his career high 25 bases. He blasted a career high 45 home runs that year as well.

The rare thing about Chipper Jones is that he got better. And then he stayed better.

In 2001 he batted a (then) career high .330. An outstanding average for any baseball season. That was his fourth season in a row to bat above .300, the traditional average accredited to exceptional play. .327 in 2002, .305 in 2004. But in 2005 he hit only .248, showing how difficult it can be for any great hitter to hit a baseball consistently.

Chipper adjusted. That's another thing that makes him great - longevity and adjustments. In this respect he reminds me of Henry Aaron, among other baseball stars. In 2006 he batted .324, in 2007 it was .337. Then in Chipper's 2008 season he flirted with the Shangri-la of baseball batting, a season hitting 400. He was over .400 for many weeks of that season but fell short, leading all of baseball in hitting that year at an exceptional .364.

I thought the Chipper Jones story might have ended a couple of years ago. But, once again, Chipper emerged with resilience. This season Chipper will fall a bit short of the .300 average. He is batting .286 going in to today's play. But looking at his entire, extensive career, he batted .303 with over 2700 hits, while walking exactly 100 times more than he struck out, 1509 times versus 1409. All of those stats (and more I don't mention) are Hall-of-Fame caliber.

I am a lucky man in many ways, a fortunate man. One small way I am lucky is to have witnessed the entire career of Chipper Jones.

Jennifer and I drove to the game early to take in a bit of batting practice. I like to get there before all the cars and walk around on the old grounds of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. The section of the old stadium's wall where Aaron hit his famous 715th home run is preserved in its exact location. The part of the parking lot that used to be the infield is bricked-in rather than paved. Everything is in its exact position as it was April 8, 1974; even the pitching rubber and the location of home plate. Simple replica bronzes mark these spots. I noticed this year that Gene Garber has signed the rubber. I watched him save a lot of games for the Braves. Home plate is now signed by Dale Murphy himself. We all enjoyed our time in the parking lot before it filled up.

Me, Jennifer, Mark, and Eileen at the historic spot of number 715.  Clint took this photo.  Brian, Diane, and Ron joined us right at game time.
Gene Garber's autograph.  He saved many games from this exact location. 
Dale Murphy's autography where home plate is marked in the parking lot.
The view from home plat down the third base line.  In the distance you see the section of wall where Aaron hit the famous home run that surpassed the great Babe Ruth.
I bought these ear rings for Jennifer in 1991.  They are still chopping.
Murphy is a good comparison with Chipper Jones. Dale Murphy enjoyed a long, mostly successful career. He is the only player in baseball history to win back-to-back Most Valuable Player awards (1982-1983) and not be in the Hall-of-Fame. The Atlanta Braves retired his number, 3, in 1994. But Murphy probably won't ever make the Hall-of-Fame because, unlike Chipper Jones, Murphy did not stay better, he got worse in his last years. He batted .228 in 1989, his last season as a Brave. Murphy had 2111 hits in his career, certainly a respectable number. But his .265 lifetime batting average is rather bland. He was a great guy to watch though. I am lucky to have seen him play his entire career as well, though that was certainly in another era of baseball.

Anyway, our 'Dillo friends joined Jennifer and me for hot dogs and beer, exchanging baseball stories and discussing the full range of our usual eclectic conversation subjects from the latest iPhone to enjoyable books we'd just read. A few joined us right at game time so that eight of us got to watch the game together.  It was a lot of fun, being loud and outrageous.  Mark did a great job getting our seats.  We were on the third base line, up a level, able to see into the Braves dugout; a nice backdrop of the crowd makes the angle all the better I think.

We stood and cheered loudly each time Chipper Jones came to the plate. 48,000 fans gave a standing ovation with each appearance. In his last at bat of the game he tipped his batting helmet to us. It was grand. Then we watched him ground out to first.

They gave us all battery powered electric tomahawks when we arrived at the carnival atmosphere that immerses the gates of Turner Field. During the game whenever the Braves would get something going offensively, we'd all stand up and do the chop with the tomahawks, which were cool giveaways. They had a push-button on the bottom. There were three LED lights inside the styrofoam souvenir. Each push of the button made the three bulbs light up in different patterns - throb, pulsate, glow, or simply all lights stay on. Each fan had it set to their personal choosing and it was cool to look around and see all these flashing tomahawks chopping. It reminded me of the wristband I got at the Coldplay concert earlier this year.

The Braves beat the New York Mets 2-0 Saturday night. We all had a blast at the game. Manager Fredi Gonzalez sent in Craig Kimbrel to pitch in the ninth inning. Kimbrel is enjoying a future Hall-of-Fame type start to his young career. He struck out the last two batters he faced to the enormous roar of the near-capacity crowd. His 98 MPH fastball almost always means lights-out for the opposing team. It was his 41st save this season with four games left to play.

Next Friday the Braves will most likely host the St. Louis Cardinals in Atlanta for something new to major league baseball this year. The one-game play-off between two wild card teams. I don't really like the new system. I generally have great distaste for anything significantly changing the landscape of baseball. I am a baseball purist more so than in almost any other aspect of my life. Nevertheless, I don't control the path of the game. I'm glad Chipper Jones will end his career in the postseason. Just as I was two years ago when Bobby Cox ended his that way. Only I'd like to see Chipper get a little deeper into it than Bobby did. One last World Series appearance would be very sweet indeed.

Late Note: On Sunday the Braves and Kris Medlen made major league history.  In beating the New York Mets 6-2 the team won their 23rd consecutive game when Medlen was the starting pitcher.  This surpassed the New York Yankees and the great Whitey Ford who won 22 straight in the early 1950's.  Awesome stuff.

Very Late Note:  The Braves lost an ugly, controversial wild card game to the St. Louis Cardinals 6-3.  Three errors by Atlanta reflected a sloppy game.  Chipper got a broken bat single in the last at-bat of his career.  Kris Medlin took the loss, ending his history making streak at 23 games.  Blah.

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