Since there was no game last night (let’s hope the boys got some much needed rest and home cooking), and tonight’s game against the Arizona Grits is the occasion for a re-staging of last year’s Chipper Jones retirement ceremony to retire officially his #10 jersey, I thought it might be nice to make today’s game blog a forum for people to share their favorite memories of our Mr. Jones. Doesn’t have to be a huge, consequential game moment, necessarily – just whatever the most indelible LWJ, Jr. image that has stuck with you might be.
I have a weird confession to make, which is that Chipper was never my favorite Brave. I loved and respected his ability and, especially later on, his baseball acumen. I’ve admired his ability to break down, analyze, and rebuild both his own swing and batting approach and those of other players. (I do wish he wouldn’t help players on other teams on the nights the Braves are actually playing them [*cough*Adam LaRoche*cough*], but whatever. Bygones.) Nor do I hold his occasional character failings against him; we’re all of us human, and it would be pretty unrealistic, not to say hypocritical, to expect young, famous athletes with lots of money and access to the perks of that success not to falter now and then.
I guess it’s just that my favorite players have always been guys who seemed admirable or, failing that, more relatable to me. My favorite Brave will always be Henry Aaron, who withstood a firestorm of inchoate hatred during what would likely have been the most stressful part of his life even under the best of circumstances. To have done what he did under a mounting barrage of death threats and other vile assaults is beyond my comprehension, and, I’m certain, would have been beyond my own meager resolve. Hank is my hero in the truest sense. (I always hoped to name a son after him; I’m never going to have one now, so my daughter should be happy she didn’t get saddled with it instead.)
My favorite pitcher, in the Golden Era, was Tom Glavine, because I loved that he had to use guile and control to win, not power, and because as previously noted I’m pretty much a pro-union guy and respected his principled work as the team player representative and, later, as a rep for the whole union, even while more than a few fans basically spit on him for it. (I know some of you will not feel the same as I do on this issue, and that’s fine, but that’s my take.)
And my favorite current Brave, ever since he came up, has been Brian McCann, who seemed the real life version of who I might have been in my fantasies of growing up to be a Brave myself: a hometown guy, a catcher, a little on the portly side; not the guy who was heralded because of his obviously prodigious talent – that, of course, would be his pal Jeff Francoeur – but the guy without such gifts who toiled in the shadows, rising inch-by-inch solely by dint of commitment and work ethic, the guy who became a star while nobody was watching. I’ve found in my life that, while our society tends to worship at the altar of “talent,” hard work will beat out talent just about every time. Certainly I’d rather put my money on a Brian McCann or a Martin Prado or a Kris Medlen – guys who had to work harder because no one gave them much of a shot – than a Frenchy or his ilk. (No offense, Jeff. Best of luck.)
But of course I couldn’t help liking Chipper, because he had both (talent + work ethic). What I didn’t love was that he knew it. My grandfather, also previously discussed in this space, drilled into me the importance of humility almost to the point of pathology – which I respect from a moral standpoint, but which I have to say hasn’t always helped me get ahead in life. People who toot their own horns get more attention, and sometimes that makes a difference.
Chipper, though, was more complicated than that. He was famously cocky, but he could back it up. (In the phrase I’ve seen variously attributed to Andrew Jackson, Bear Bryant, and Muhammad Ali, “It ain’t braggin’ if it’s true.”) I think for a long time I didn’t know quite how to feel about that; I admired it even as it offended me a little.
Over time, though, as I’ve grown older and gotten more comfortable with the rich complexities and ambiguities of life, I’ve come to find a peace with the complicated Larry Wayne Jones. I found I didn’t need him to be (or at least seem, right?) perfect; I didn’t need him to be a hero. As his body got older and broke down more and more often, for longer and longer periods of time, I saw the effort it took to get himself onto the field and, far more often than not, still play at an elite level: swatting sweet-swinging doubles and home runs to put the team ahead late; moving in to grab the squibber on the infield grass bare-handed and hurl it, in one motion as his body fell, to nail the runner at first by an eyelash. I thought about the way he talked about learning from Terry Pendleton (another of my favorites) during his rookie season in that magical championship year, and how a worn-down TP would come in off the field and ask Chipper to take his shoes off for him because he couldn’t bend to do it himself. (A story repeated in DOB’s game blog today, by the way, if you want to hear him tell it.)
The young, cocky Chipper? That held little appeal for me. But the older, sadder-but-wiser Chipper, the one whose body was betraying him in that cruel, inevitable fate that comes to all athletes fortunate enough to have long careers? The one whose shame and sense of having failed his family, his public and himself forced him to acknowledge openly the failure of his marriage and the affair that had given him a son out of wedlock? The one who learned humility the hard way, synthesized it into his own sense of self, a self-regard that had been justified in its pride and superiority but which now began to be leavened with a knowledge that there was more to being a good or great man, or husband, or father, than being a great ballplayer? That there was accountability, as well?
That guy, I could relate to. That guy, I could love.
And so, oddly, my two indelible images of Chipper have little to do with his own prodigious feats on the field. One is from Game 7 of the 1996 NLCS; the Braves had trailed in the series to the St. Louis Cardinals three games to one, but had come back to tie the series at three-all. And, led by Tom Glavine, Fred McGriff, Javy Lopez and Andruw Jones, they quickly did away with any suspense. Glavine was masterful, dealing seven innings of three-hit, shutout baseball, and, by the time the Crime Dog singled in Mark Lemke and Chipper in the bottom of the 4th to make it a 6-0 game, the outcome seemed (and was) predetermined. My lasting memory, strangely, is of watching Chipper come across the plate and walk back to the dugout with Lemke, that cocky, lopsided grin spread as wide as it ever could be. The Braves looked and felt like world-beaters in that moment, and Jones was their king and knew it.
The Braves would go on to win 15-0 and skate to a World Series date with the Yankees, in the post-season curtain call for Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. That game may have been as much curse as blessing, though, because – and I’m speaking only for myself here – when the Braves went up three games to one on New York and then, after dropping the fifth tilt, led Game 6 by a 6-0 score fairly early, the memory of that last game against St. Louis led me (and maybe the Braves, as well?) to assume, wrongly, that our second championship in two years was all but won. A hanging slider from Mark Wohlers to Jim Leyritz killed that dream good and dead, the defeat was all the more excruciating for having been seized from the jaws of apparent triumph, and sometimes I wonder if the franchise has ever truly recovered. (When I think about that, I feel like I sort of know how Pirates fans have felt, post-Sid’s Slide. Although obviously they’ve had it much worse.)
That sense of melancholy, always the flip side of the euphoria baseball can lavish on us, brings me to my other memory of Chipper: his absence, due to injury, from the 2010 NLDS against the San Francisco Giants. You know he would have given anything to be out there, given that it was Bobby Cox’s last hurrah. But he couldn’t. His body wouldn’t let him. Which meant, in Game 3, with the series knotted at one apiece, Omar Infante had to start at third, which meant Infante couldn’t start at second, which meant Brooks Conrad had to start at second. Which, at least on that night, didn’t work out so well. (Nothing against Brooks. Can’t ever forget that grand slam in the day game against the Reds earlier that year that walked off a game the Braves had been losing like a jillion-to-zero. Or the bunch of other great homers he hit that year, often as a pinch-hitter. I’ll always love Brooks Conrad.)
Anyway, the point of all this is that there are players you look up at as if they’re gods on a pedestal, like Hammerin’ Hank Aaron. And there are players you look at as relatable human beings, mortals who’ve reached Olympus seemingly through hard work alone, like BMac. And then there are the guys who evoke Hercules or Jason or Perseus, characters who seem so charmed and blessed as to have been spawned by the gods, but whose human frailty eventually, inexorably reveals itself.
And you’re left seeing them for what they really are: gifted athletes and ordinary men, whose greatness and lowness coexist simultaneously within their complex natures as is true for every human being ever to be born, live, and die on this earth. They are gods, and mortals, and heroes, and failures, and their narratives are the myths we learn as children but perhaps only truly understand as adults.
But if they’re lucky and smart, like Chipper Jones, they learn not to buy into their own myths. They learn how to be men, and happy.
Congratulations, Chipper, and thanks for those memories and a million more.