Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Last Of His Kind

September 1993. I was about to begin life at university, and at the same point Chipper Jones was making his Braves debut. He's been part of the Major League club ever since, and a member of the organisation as a whole since June 1990. This autumn his playing career will come to an end.

22 years with one organisation doesn't come without some memories, even if they started in unusual fashion for me. Remember an age without the internet? Well somehow I managed to get through to the 1996 season without being aware of Chipper's place in the team, so while finishing off my final coursework at university in 1996 a late night game against Pittsburgh saw a graphic appear with "3B - C. Jones". Now there might be other reasons that I wasn't happy to see that then, but for the moment let's just say that Terry Pendleton was the third baseman I had always known to that point and be done with it.

(By the way, even though I picked one up, I obviously hadn't read the Sports Illustrated report into the Braves' 1995 World Series win by then. And it was a long time before the VHS tape of the series made it's way into my collection. To be honest I don't even know if the 1995 World Series was even shown on British TV.)

By the following year the newly formed Channel 5 was showing Baseball live twice a week, and I even started to have a few friends sending me links to game reports at something called ESPN.com. This was a new world, where games could be seen more easily and information about those games was more readily available to those of us on this side of the Atlantic.

(Possibly the start of the end for the beloved Sportspages bookshop off Charing Cross Road in London, but I digress.)

By the time 1999 came round I was in a new job where I frequently got Thursdays off. Those days off and being in my 20s meant I was frequently seeing whole games to the very end. Many of those were Braves games, and if there was one season which gripped me it was 1999. The Braves lost Andres Galarraga for the season to cancer, lost Javy Lopez to a knee injury, and effectively lost Brian Jordan's power after he broke his hand. What was so special about Chipper Jones? He only put the team on his back, culminating in a September series where he effectively beat the rival Mets on three straight nights almost single-handedly.

You talk about learning more about the player, it was there. One Sports Illustrated feature showed a candid man, willing to admit to personal mistakes and being open to be challenged by new coaches. Future press clippings would show a variety of answers: earthy, eloquent, pithy, mischievious. He's no saint, and he's not perfect, but as the star player on the team I loved it was hard to do anything than support him completely. His National League MVP year of 1999 wouldn't have a perfect ending though, as the Braves ended the year by losing the World Series to the Yankees. Chipper hit the only Braves home run of the series, and nearly tied the decisive game 4 up, but his powerful line drive went just the wrong side of the foul line against (the now legendary) Mariano Rivera.

When I finally managed to get to Atlanta the following year you couldn't help but seen Chipper's name being predominantly featured on the merchandise stands, and yet the Palace fan in me was all too well-aware of his impending contract expiration. I held off on buying anything significant with "JONES" and the number 10 on it, just in case. Looking back it seems odd to think that I thought that way. Besides the legacy he was building, the Braves offered him 90 million reasons to stay.

This year will be the last though. In recent years injuries have betrayed Chipper, and while he is no longer elite he has still continued to be professional and the face of the team, a quiet leader of men who's influence is shown in the team's record without him. He's been with the team since I was fifteen, and part of the Major League team for longer than I've known most of my best friends for (most of whom I met in my late teens).

It won't quite be the same without him. I suspect none of my teams will have someone who stays in one place the way he has again in my lifetime, I just hope he gets the fitting professional ending that his career has deserved.