Friday, August 13, 2010

The End of an Era in Atlanta

When I was a kid, my next door neighbors were all boys. There were four boys next door and they were all Atlanta Braves fans. I may have been a Giants fan early on, in the pre-Bonds age when Will Clark and Kevin Mitchell headlined the Giants' roster, but as a kid I just wanted to be one of the boys and being one of the boys meant being a Braves fan. That was twenty-some years ago and as I write this I remain a Braves fan.

Hank Aaron had retired more than a decade before I was introduced to the Braves and Dale Murphy was in his final seasons in Atlanta. Two young guns were coming up with the Braves, guys named Glavine and Smoltz, and there was still a Braves affiliate in Idaho Falls. In those early years of my Atlanta devotion, Terry Pendleton, David Justice and Deion Sanders were on the roster. I didn't know much about baseball in those early years, other than the fact that I sure loved to play baseball. My recognition of David Justice, Atlanta's high profile outfielder, had more to do with a rendition of the "Ballad of Davy Crockett" that replaced Davy Crockett with the name of Davy Justice that the neighbor boys had made up, than it did with Justice's stats. And then 1993 happened.

In 1993, a young shortstop came up through Atlanta's farm system. A young shortstop who would eventually become Atlanta's starting third baseman. A young shortstop with the talent to play three positions and then some. That young man was Chipper Jones. In 1995, Chipper's first full season in Major League Baseball, the rookie finished 2nd in National League Rookie of the Year balloting and played in the World Series. He would go on to play in the 1996 and 1999 World Series. He was the 1999 National League MVP, was selected to the All Star team six times, won two Silver Slugger awards, and 2008's National League batting champion. His career batting average is .306, he has hit 436 home runs, has nearly 1,500 career RBIs and 2,497 hits. Chipper has had 8 consecutive 100+ RBI seasons, has the third-most home runs for a switch hitter in Major League Baseball behind Eddie Murray and Mickey Mantle), and holds the Major League record for most consecutive games with an extra-base hit (with 14). In addition to phenomenal stats, stats that would be all the better had he not been hurt as many times as he has been, Chipper is the Atlanta Braves' all-time RBI leader, surpassing Atlanta hall of fame outfielder Dale Murphy. Chipper is also the Braves' all-time hits leader, surpassing MLB hall of fame slugger Hank Aaron. This week, Chipper Jones reminded those of us who watched him in his prime of what an amazing athlete Chipper has been. In the span of six games, Chipper hit two home runs, 4 doubles, averaged a .413 slugging percentage, and had 11 total hits. It was a great six games for a guy whose season was mediocre, at best, hitting .265 with 10 home runs and a great deal of speculation if he would retire with his long-time manager Bobby Cox at the end of the 2010 season. He was finally bouncing back from a rough start to the season and it looked like the Braves' chances of being in the playoffs were high.

Then Tuesday happened.

On a play that most of us haven't seen Chipper attempt, much less make, in years, Chipper went into the hole, jumped, and threw mid-air to first base. The play was amazing and the runner was out by a step or two, but while we were watching to see if Chipper hit his target, Chipper came down on his left leg awkwardly and crumbled to the ground in a heap of pain.Watching from the stands, Chipper's father looked on with complete worry on his face. Those of us who know Chipper know that he is susceptible to injury, more so than most, and this wouldn't be the first knee injury of his career. On Thursday, after the Braves sent him for an MRI, it was announced that, like his missed 1994 season, Chipper suffered a torn ACL. His season is over and this could be the end of the thirty-eight year old's career.

While Braves fans are praying Chipper gets through surgery and recovery in one piece, fans aren't blind to the fact that the chances of coming back from this injury at his age are slim. We might hope he'll be back come spring training, we're well aware that this truly could be the end of an era in Atlanta.

One of the stats that reflects a type of player that is no longer a major part of the game in the 21st century is the distinction of having the most home runs to begin a career playing under one manager, that manager being Bobby Cox. Back when there was speculation about Chipper retiring at the end of the season, back before the injury and before he turned his season around, conventional wisdom was that he would retire rather than play for a new manager. Now that he's hurt, that conventional wisdom has reared its head once again. It is, of course, the end of an era in Atlanta simply with the retirement of long-time manager Bobby Cox, but it becomes a much greater eventuality should Chipper Jones go with Cox.

Just recently the Atlanta Braves retired the number of Tommy Glavine. Just last year they retired the number of Greg Maddux and we can assume that the number of John Smoltz will be close behind. The glory days of the Atlanta Braves are long over, despite their lead in the NL East this season. We may never again see the caliber of talent on one roster that we did when guys like Jones, Smoltz, Glavine, Maddux, Andruw Jones, Javy Lopez, Eddie Perez (who came up through Idaho Falls), Jordan, Andres Gallaraga, Rafael Furcal, and Jason Marquis. Never again.

If the most difficult thing I've had to swallow as a Braves fan is the trade that sent David Justice to the Yankees, I am much better off a Braves fan than I ever would have been a Barry Bonds-loving Giants fan. And I have guys like Chipper Jones to thank for that.


N. Speth said...

Chipper Jones has always struck me as one of the classy ones. A one-team guy is rare these days too. Whatever comes next for him, I wish hi well.

Tara A. Rowe said...

One-team guys are definitely worthy of some serious respect in this day and age. I can't remember who it was, but somebody recently traded is on his 11th team. That's ridiculous! It's nice to see loyalty in a player, rather than the constant greed that often takes a guy from team to team. It's something I admire about Chipper and others like Cal Ripken, Jr., Tony Gwynn, Edgar Martinez and Kirby Puckett. It's what makes trades of guys like Lance Berkman to the Yankees this season a real blow. And has a lot to do with why I hate the Yankees so much. Just a small part, mind you... ;)

Marc Johnson said...

Excellent piece, Tara. I've always liked the guy, too, and always been partial to the Braves. But...Bonds withstanding, I also love the Giants and since I'm much older than you - my love affair dates to Mays and McCovey, Cepeda and Marichal.

I went to a Tacoma Rainers game several years ago and it was a night to commemorate the 1960 Rainers. Juan Marichal threw out the first pitch - high leg kick and all.

I love your blog. Thanks. Marc.

Tara A. Rowe said...

Thank you, Marc.

If I had grown up watching Marichal pitch, Covey hit, and Mays step to the plate and make amazing plays in the outfield, I would *still* be a Giants fan.

The problem is my generation grew up watching Barry Bonds, idolized him and then we found out he was cheating the game and subsequently us. It's why I can't stand the Cardinals now that they brought Mark McGwire on to be hitting coach.

As for Cepeda, I know his reputation took a hit in the late 70s, but I tend to look at him the way I do former presidents. He's become an ambassador for the game and I really admire that about him. It's a good thing they finally got around to inducting the man into Cooperstown. He deserves it.