8.14.2010

Chipper Jones: Baseball Great. Mortal Man.

It's a superstar nickname. Chipper, as in Chipper Jones. Sort of like Mickey, as in Mickey Mantle. Much more marketable than Larry Wayne Jones. Yet whatever his name, the kid (now 38) can play some baseball. He's considered to be the game's third best switch hitter. Behind fellows named Mickey Mantle and Eddy Murray.

He tore his ACL just the other day, for the second time in his career. Unfortunate, for many reasons. He is out for the rest of the season as his Atlanta Braves are two games up in the NL East. It's manager Bobby Cox's last season and a championship--even if only a divisional championship would have some real karma attached to it.

Unfortunate, because Larry Wayne Jones may have played his last game. During Spring Training Chipper made it clear that if his contribution to the team and his ability to play MLB-calibre ball were not up to his personal standards he would retire.

Today he will undergo surgery. At a press conference yesterday he expressed his intention to rehab and be ready for Spring Training. "I don't want to go out this way," he said. Chipper also expressed frustration that he's going to sit out the Pennant Race and that the Braves were on the verge of "doing something very special," an obvious reference to wanting Cox (and Larry) to go out on top with a championship.

His voice trailed off, in what I take as genuine, deep regret that even if his team goes all the way, he won't be running off the field to hug the crusty Cox--his manager for the great majority of his professional career-- then lock eyes and say, without uttering a word, "we did it for you, Bobby."

I don't think he'll come back. I don't think he would have played this year if it wasn't for the fact that it's Bobby's last year and there was just enough buzz about the Braves being legit contenders to go all the way. Going out with Cox as World Champions would be a story book ending to a great career.

I've met Chipper Jones twice, although the meetings were so impersonal it's almost a stretch to say we met at all. We did shake hands, anyway. The first meeting was when Chipper opened the 1992 season with the Durham Bulls. The Bulls always have a "meet the Bulls" party and that year it was held in a hotel bar. As I'm baseball-centric, I wanted my first son (a little shy of 4 years old, for goodness sake) to meet the already baseball-famous Chipper.

The bar was expansive, and at the time the "in" pick-up and after work place. When we arrived at the appointed time the place was already packed. With as many young women as bona fide Bulls fans. Not that women can't be fans, mind you...

The place was dark, there was no formal program and the players were seated throughout the bar. If one wanted to "meet the Bulls" you better know what they look like! So, since the only player that I even vaguely could recognize (and the only one I really cared about meeting) was Chipper, the plan was find Chipper, talk to Chipper, get picture with Chipper, autograph from Chipper and get the hell out.

We found him hunkered down at one of those built-in half round deals that you have to slide in and out of (is that called banquet seating?). Chipper was just off the middle of the curve, surrounded by four other players. A tight fit. Protected, one might say. So I swallow hard, adjust the son in my arms so I can quickly get out a NL baseball stuffed in the diaper bag (!) and walk up to the table. They all just look at me, blankly.

I look at the white kid at the table. "Chipper Jones?" I ask. He points to the good looking Latin guy next to him and the table explodes in laughter. I think we are the first to find him. I smile nervously and continue to look toward Chipper. "Well, welcome to Durham. All of you. I'm looking forward to watching you guys play, but I hope you don't have to stay here too long. The Show beckons."

Chipper's bored, awkward, out of his element facial expression warmed at that. He smiled briefly, said "Thanks" as the others at the table mumbled some response to to my expressed hope. All accepted my comment as genuine, and they warmed up a little, slightly embarrassed that they had a good laughed at my expense--someone who seemed to respect their talents.

The Latin guy pointed to my son, still up in my arms and wearing a Bulls cap and asked "whose the player? That your son?" So there were "introductions" all 'round, I apologized for not knowing the others and asked Chipper for an autograph...for my son. That got a laugh. He obliged with his trademark "Chipper J", the o-n-e-s one long ink line.

The Latin said "take a picture Chipper, he's got a camera." So Chipper Jones took our picture, then I got one with him holding my son. There were handshakes all around, profuse thanks on my part and we got the hell out. I was ecstatic, to say the least. Chipper was on his way to becoming the family's favorite baseball player (along with Will Clark, but that's another story).

That season Chipper played 70 games in Durham and we attended as many as possible, usually sitting in the left field bleachers. Because Larry played third. Every time I saw Chipper--including that evening in the dark, expansive bar--I thought of Mickey Mantle. Somehow I sensed something heroic yet flawed in both of them.

At the All-Star break Chipper was promoted. He reached The Show not long after, and a little before my sons grew old enough to want to watch Braves baseball on TBS with me. But soon we enjoyed following Chipper's exploits together, including the World Series Championship in 1995. And the heartbreak of World Series losses to the Blue Jays and Twins.

At our house the question was "is Chipper on tonight", rather than are the Braves on TV.

The second meeting was a few years later at a baseball card show. Chipper was the guest autograph celebrity. Signing for money. Now the boys were old enough to enjoy the experience of meeting Chipper, so we stood in line to get another autograph and to say hello. Chipper was polite but reserved and obviously in a hurry. The line was long. I mentioned the night in Durham a few years ago but he didn't remember. Maybe sort of...

His first wife was with him that day. She was drop dead gorgeous, looked prim and proper and was wearing the biggest diamond engagement ring I've ever seen. It was blinding. Larry must have been blinded too, in some way, when he met that Hooters waitress a few years later that swept him off his feet and bore his first child. The marriage ended, and he did not--as many think--marry the Hootress. I'm sure she gets a big tip each month, though.

Of course we were all disappointed by the news of Chipper's infidelity. One of my sons even shed tears. His hero proved to have flaws. A good life lesson for my son. In case later in life he's ever blinded. As we have all been, however seriously. But Chipper is not the only one, and it wouldn't be news if he were not famous. And if he were not famous the child most likely would have sadly been aborted. It took a while, but we forgave him. Sadly, the Braves are no longer on TBS virtually every night so following Chipper became more limited.

I'm thinking the final letting-go of my personal disappointment in Chipper was listening to that recent press conference in which it was evident to me that he understands how the stars are trying to align this season for the Braves. But he won't be part of it past last week. His star is now out of alignment. Yet he showed his passion and love for the game to me in that interview, so wanting to be part of whatever happens.

I believe he wants to run off the field victorious, and find Bobby Cox to hug more than anything. After all, he has spent his entire MLB career in Atlanta. There was more money elsewhere. And in 2005 Larry Wayne Jones reworked his 90 million dollar contract inked in 2000 and gave back 21 million of that contract so the Braves could afford to bid on some quality free agents entering the market. That's a team player if I've ever seen one. Rouges and "white trash"--as John Rocker once called him--don't do things like that.

But it's not going to happen that way. He won't be running anywhere for a while. And by January, just before Spring Training, Larry Wayne Jones will have come to terms with the fact that Bobby Cox is gone, the Atlanta Braves Karma Season is history no matter happens, the stars will never come close to aligning this way again for him and that he has nothing else to prove. As a baseball player, anyway. I wonder what kind of manager he'd be...

Accomplishments

1st pick overall in the 1990 amateur draft
TSN Rookie of the Year (1995)
5-time All-Star (1996-98, 2000-01)
National League MVP (1999)
2-time Silver Slugger at 3rd Base (1999-2000)
Holds the Major League Record for most consecutive games with an extra-base hit (14, tied with Paul Waner).
8 straight 100 plus RBI seasons (1996-2003)
Most home runs in a season by a National League switch hitter (45 in 1999)
Third most home runs for a switch hitter behind Eddie Murray (504), and Mickey Mantle (536)


Chipper's official website

No comments:

Post a Comment