Monday, November 26, 2012

The Retirement of Chipper Jones


When Chipper Jones came on the scene in 1993, the Atlanta Braves were beginning one of the best runs in the history of Major League Baseball. The Braves had won the past 2 division titles, the first 2 of a storied run of 14-straight division titles. Chipper Jones was part of 12 of them. With the likes of Glavine, Smoltz, Maddux, McGriff, and Justice, Chipper joined a roster of some of the greatest Atlanta Braves as a baby-faced Septmeber call-up in 1993. As the first pick of the 1990 amateur draft, the expectations for Chipper were high. And in his 19-year career with the Atlanta Braves, he exceeded expectations and became not only the face of the franchise, but one of the most beloved players to ever wear an Atlanta uniform.

It's hard to imagine a time when Chipper Jones wasn't the player to watch, mostly because all eyes always seemed to be on him. Whether it was as a rookie recovering from a devastating knee injury after his lost 1994 season, as a guy in his prime contending for and winning the 1999 MVP, or in his final year as he was greeted in cities all across this country by fans who have appreciated his baseball career, Chipper was never under the radar. Like Derek Jeter, Chipper Jones was not only the face of his team, he became an ambassador for the game of baseball.


As Braves fans, we have had the pleasure of watching Chipper take the field each season. There were some who said he should have retired several years ago. There were some who tired of his many injuries. There were some who said his value as trade bait was far greater than his value on the actual roster. But then there were the rest of us. We waited out his injuries. We cheered for his batting title in 2008 and didn't give up on him the following year when he hit .264. We cringed in 2010 when Chipper came down on his leg after a spectacular defensive play and tore his ACL. As he was helped off the field, we worried that we would be left with that final image of Chipper Jones and would not see him on a big league field again. In the last several years as his power numbers and home runs dropped off, we delighted in his clutch hits and his many walks. And finally, as "Crazy Train" played on PA speakers in stadiums around the country during the 2012 season and Chipper stepped to the plate, we all took that moment to marvel at the third baseman's career and accept that those plate appearances were quickly running out.

Though Chipper's career came to an end on a strange night at Turner Field, a night that saw controversy and unprecedented fan reaction to a bad call, the beauty of a storied career is that even a bad night is just a blip on the timeline of greatness. Sure, Atlanta fans will be sore for some time over the infield fly call that ended a rally in a bizarre Wild Card playoff (or play-in) game, but their anger will soon fade and all they will remember is that was the night they saw the face of the franchise take the field one final time. Hopefully the fans that were at Turner Field participating in the melee will one day regret that they didn't give Chipper Jones the send off following the game that they gave long-time manager Bobby Cox after his final game. 


With Chipper Jones' retirement comes something else that he and Braves fans can be proud of: He never cheated the game or himself. Chipper Jones will enter the National Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot as an Atlanta Brave (perhaps one of the last single-team stars) and as a man who played in an era tainted by substances that he chose not to put in his body despite the possibility of them advancing his career. With time and as new generations of fans discover the game, the taint of the steroid era will no longer hang like a cloud over players of Chipper's generation and new generations of fans will appreciate the integrity of men like Chipper Jones.

When Hall of Fame voters look at Chipper's numbers, they will note that Jones is in elite company. Only Mickey Mantle and Eddie Murray have more switch-hit home runs in baseball history than Chipper. He trails only Murray in RBIs by a switch-hitter. And when career batting average, home runs, doubles, walks and on-base percentage and slugging percentage are compared to other players throughout baseball history, Chipper finds himself in the company of Stan Musial, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Lou Gehrig. Elite company is an understatement.

Where do the Braves go in a post-Chipper era? There will be much discussion about who fills the hole at third base and who can hit in the third spot in the lineup, a spot Chipper has more or less occupied his entire big league career. There will be much discussion about veteran leadership in the clubhouse and who the new face of the franchise is. Can Martin Prado play everyday at third base? Of course. There are few things Prado can't do and maybe all the position shuffling has simply been a tryout for him to take the position in Chipper's absence. Can Brian McCann step up in the clubhouse and lead the young club, including the pitching staff, to the kind of greatness Chipper saw with the teams of the 90s? He can once he returns from shoulder surgery and as long as he stays in Atlanta after becoming a free agent.

In all the post-Chipper discussion, what will become immediately apparent is there will never be another Chipper Jones for the Atlanta Braves. The shoes he has left to fill are simply never going to be filled by one man.


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