I wasn’t there for his first game in 1993. But I was there for his first game as a full-time starter in 1995. After a knee injury and the devastating baseball strike/cancellation of 1994, Chipper Jones made his debut as the Atlanta Braves third baseman on Opening Day 1995.
The 1995 season had been delayed while the strike was being resolved and there was a lot of bad blood amongst many baseball fans. But, in the Spring of my freshman year of college, I decided to do something I didn’t do until my last week of college – skip a class.
I drove from Auburn University to Atlanta for an afternoon game at Fulton County stadium. Usually, Opening Day is a sure-fire sell-out for even the worst of teams, but as I recall the stadium was probably only two-thirds full. I could look up all the game details on baseball-reference.com, but from memory I can tell you that Greg Maddox started, Brad Clontz got the save and Chipper Jones got a hit.
Here we are nearing the end of the 2012 baseball season, the last in the Hall of Fame career Jones has enjoyed. And hopefully, I’ll get a chance to see him one last time since I was unable to see him play in the only game I went to earlier this year.
Jones is the last major, home-town star for whom I can route with the verve only found in routing for someone older than you. He isn’t that much older than me – only four years – but the way you cheer for someone older is significantly different than the way you (or I) do for someone who is almost half your age. You may like them, but you don’t want to be them (unless of course it is because you want to be young, again).
Sports heroes and music heroes share that in common. I like a lot of artists who are 15 years younger than me, but I don’t have anything in common with them. I don’t seek them out for solace in lyrics they way I did when I was 15 or 20 and looking for that in the music of someone 10, 15 or 20 years older than me.
Sports are the same way. When you are a kid, sports stars are bigger-than-life. As you get older, you find refuge is sport, not hope or emulation.
This all brings me back to Chipper Jones. I wasn’t a huge fan of his for the first half of his career. It isn’t that I didn’t like him, it is just that I liked other people better. I’ve always tended to root for players who aren’t super-stars. Maybe because they are more relate-able, maybe because I tend to be a contrarian, either way, in the last decade, my attitude toward Jones has changed significantly.
Why? Age played a role – both mine and his. The events that surrounded baseball – the steroids era – impacted it; so did his injuries. For the greater part of the last decade, Jones has battled serious injuries – mainly with his knees. He’s been good, sometimes great, during most of that time. There were a few times when he did look like he was done; the injuries just too much to overcome.
You see the passion and will of a man when he’s fighting to hang around. When you are the top overall draft pick in an entire year, as Jones was in 1990, talent isn’t the question. Seeing Jones battle and will his way to play the game he loves during the last five years has been special. Even when he was hitting .265 and not .315, I – and many other – found a new level of respect for the man because he could have easily walked away.
We all see the end. We don’t want it to come. We want to enjoy every second we can. As every game passes, I know, that Jones will soon become history. Someone whose numbers and place in history are among the best to play the game, but the hope and joy of seeing him apply is craft will be gone forever.
One day, I’ll be telling stories about the retired numbers that hang at Turner Field. I’ll have a golden glow of warm and fuzzy memories; but for those kids wo will be too young to remember, they just won’t be able to fully understand.
It is a bittersweet time to be a Braves fan. The greatest run in the history of the team – or at least the 46 years the team has been in Atlanta – has been over for six years. Kids who were born when the Braves last won a World Series will start college next year.
But since the end of the 1993 season, there has been Chipper Jones. Although their paths didn’t cross as teammates, Atlanta has had the privileged of seeing Jones become the face of the franchise, that, in retrospect, came from Dale Murphy just as Murphy took the baton from Hank Aaron. Although none of those three men overlapped each other as teammates, one of those three men has been the historical star of the Atlanta Braves for all but maybe five years combined.
During the time Jones has been an Atlanta Brave, there were other, bigger stars at various times – from Andruw Jones and Javy Lopez to the pitching staff of Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Maddox. But, in whole, there was no position player of greater magnitude than Jones.
With less than a month to go until the end of the regular season, time is winding down. Frankly, any game could be his last, because with every lunge, every plant, there is the gasp that one of Jones’s knees could give-way one final time.
With with every dramatic swing of his bat, or trademark bare-handed pick-and-throw from third, we are reminded why we find heroes in baseball stars. And why we marvel at a middle-aged man, playing a young man’s game, with the same zeal he had almost 20 years ago.
That’s why I’ll miss Larry Wayne Jones, Jr. And even the New York Mets fans will, too.
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