Former Atlanta Braves third baseman Chipper Jones receives the ultimate honor this weekend – induction into the Hall of Fame
I was 10 years old the first time I saw Chipper Jones take the field during his rookie season with the Atlanta Braves. That same year, I saw the Atlanta Braves win the first of what was sure to be a string of World Series championships. Now he’s going to be in the Hall of Fame.
Two things stand out about that year. First, 10 year-old me had absolutely no clue how special and rare that World Series championship would prove to be. Second, but most importantly, 10 year-old me had absolutely no idea that he was witnessing the start of something great with the emergence of Larry Wayne Jones.
At the time, I casually watched the ballgames during the summer. It was a rare evening when the Braves were not on the family television, and I was consumed more with running around the living room and imitating the players than I was with the action on the field. I have to admit…I had that Steve Avery delivery down cold.
When it came to Chipper, the first thing that stood out to me was the brashness, the cockiness, and of course…the knee-high baseball socks. As my baseball imitations carried their way from the living room to the Little League ball fields, I always wore my pant legs rolled up to the knees and tried to mimic that same attitude that Chipper seemed to approach the game with. Now that I think back on those days, there is a solid chance that I misinterpreted that swagger and acted more like a jerk with a terrible attitude than anything else. But hey, I was a kid.
The first year that I really began to live and die with every pitch, with every win, and, unfortunately, with every loss, was 1999. To that point, I had attended countless games in person, been to more playoff and World Series games than most kids or adults could dream of, and spent many a summer night watching the Braves on TBS. But 1999, was different.
1999 was the first year that I truly recall becoming invested in a down-to-the-wire pennant race. In previous seasons, it was a foregone conclusion that the Braves would win the division and move on to the postseason. ’99 was different. With the Braves and Mets tied in the standings in the late August, Chipper put that team on his back and mounted one of the greatest late-season surges that you’ll ever see.
The six games against the Mets that September were some of the most intense and entertaining games that I can recall watching in person. Between Chipper launching homeruns in New York and Atlanta and John Rocker sprinting in from the bullpen and antagonizing Mets fans, that was the fall where I truly began to appreciate the gift that I had been given.
For me, baseball is in a different realm from the other major sports. Don’t get me wrong…I love spending Saturdays and Sundays on the couch watching football from noon to bedtime, but there’s no real connection for me with the teams or the players. That hasn’t stopped me from throwing television remotes and cell phones against the wall, but baseball is different.
Watching these guys every night for 6-7 months out of the year creates a certain bond between the players and fans, whether they know it or not. And if you are lucky enough to have the opportunity to watch your favorite player on your favorite team nearly every day for 20 years, consider that a blessing.
Most true baseball fans can probably point out that one player that defined their childhood. For my dad, it was certainly a combination of Hank Aaron and Dale Murphy. Hank came to Atlanta with the Milwaukee Braves when my dad was 8, and by the time he turned 20, Murph was making his debut.
For me, that player was Chipper Jones. I was 8 years old when he made his Major League debut, and 10 when he played his first full season with the Braves. I was starting my freshman year of high school when Chipper led the Braves past the Mets while winning the NL MVP in 1999. As I was preparing to graduate from high school, Chipper had selflessly transitioned from the star third baseman to play left field for the good of the team. As I was finishing up my fifth and final year at Georgia Tech, Chipper was in the midst of chasing the elusive .400 batting average at age 36. The year that I bought my first house prior to getting married, Chipper was making the rounds in his final season of professional baseball.
That’s 18 full seasons with one team, folks. Since the start of the free agency era, that just simply doesn’t happen. Even the three aces of the Braves – Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Greg Maddux – played for other teams in their career.
As great as Chipper was, his impact on me and others like me go far beyond the reach of statistics, or wins. Yeah…being a member of the .300/.400/.500 club (batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage) is an incredible achievement. It’s hard to argue when you are on a short list that includes the likes of Ruth, Williams, Gehrig, Hornsby, Shoeless Joe, Cobb, Foxx, Musial, Speaker, Greenberg, and Ott.
Chipper Jones was my childhood. Chipper Jones was my young adult years. Even at the young age of 33, I have accepted the fact that there will probably never be another player that I will watch with the Braves that will have the accomplishments, the longevity, and the loyalty that Chipper had in Atlanta.
As the National Baseball Hall of Fame inducts their class of 2018 this Sunday, the moment remains bittersweet for me. Unless the Baseball Writers of America pull their heads out of their collective rears and vote in Andruw Jones at some point in the coming years, then Chipper will be the last link to that incredible run of Braves teams that filled my childhood and formative years with memories that will never be forgotten.
We’ve seen Glavine, Maddux, Smoltz, Cox, and Schuerholz become enshrined in the Hall of Fame over the past few years, and it’s fitting that the final piece, the true face of the franchise for 20 years, will be the last to go in.
I realized not too long ago that I am the same age that my Dad was when the Atlanta Braves started their run in 1991. With a crop of new, young, exciting talent making their way to the MLB level, maybe I’ll get to create another 20 years of memories with my family. Maybe Acuña or Albies will be my son’s Chipper Jones, but it’s hard to imagine that there will ever be another like him.