Chipper Jones and me

A lot had to go right and wrong for me to get to this point: A 38-year-old part-time sportswriter standing in a baseball card store—a dinosaur shopping for a collectible that is hurtling towards extinction itself—marveling that I can buy a Chipper Jones rookie card for a mere six bucks.

There’s probably something to be said there about reliability being forever devalued and unappreciated, or perhaps an indictment to be made of the baseball card industry circa the early 1990s. Those pontifications are for another time. Right now, I am just relieved that my foray into file cabinets, basements and baseball card stores in search of reminders of Chipper’s expired youth—and mine—was so successfully inexpensive.

Chipper signed with the Atlanta Braves on June 4, 1990, the final month of my junior year of high school and a few days before or a few days after (or maybe even the exact day) I got my driver’s license. My Mom celebrated by letting me skip the rest of the school day—no small accomplishment since my Mom was a teacher—driving me to the mall and buying me Taylor Dayne’s “I’ll Be Your Shelter” on cassingle. I am embarrassed by none of this.

Jones’ career began before I even knew who he was, and while I knew things such as graduating high school, going to college, graduating college, moving into the real world, falling in love and getting married, losing a parent and having a child all would happen, I couldn’t conceptualize any of these things ACTUALLY happening.

Chipper was the background noise for all those life markers and many more, often providing a parallel path with which I could relate. More recently, he has provided a sense of familiarity and comfort in a world otherwise unrecognizable from the one in which I grew up, as well as an approach towards midlife changes that is worth emulating.

Now we are each traveling towards unknown destinations—Jones towards retirement, me towards fatherhood. My wife began her 34th week of pregnancy the day I stopped by that baseball card store in western Long Island on my way to Citi Field for an unexpected opportunity to interview Jones one last time and pen the story I’d been pondering for months: an appreciation of Jones by someone who has always felt a kinship with him despite our vastly different bank accounts and definitions of athleticism.

“I think of high school, I think bright-eyed, bushy-tailed. Got the whole world in front of me, got my whole life in front of me,” Chipper said as he gazed at two of those $6 rookie cards, one a Topps and one a Score. “Continuing to strive for what I’ve been working for since I was seven years old: to make it to ‘The Show.’ And those baseball cards right there are me in the first stages of realizing that dream.”

They don’t make baseball cards for aspiring sportswriters, just instantly regrettable blurbs in high school yearbooks. My “Ambition” on page 128 of the Torrington High School 1991 Classbook began: “To climb the journalist [sic] ladder and become editor of The National.

The National folded the week we got our yearbooks. Had I been any good at taking the hint, I would have been doing something else other than jostling for position amongst a scrum of reporters at Chipper’s locker inside the visitor’s clubhouse at Shea Stadium in September, 1999.

Instead, I thought I was closer than ever to my modified career goal. I had just begun a pair of dream jobs covering New York sports—including the Mets, my favorite team as a kid—for a pair of Internet startups.

I thought I was going to become a Mets beat writer and get my Baseball Writers Association of America card, all by reinventing the wheel and circumventing the newspaper route. Hey, anything seemed possible in the waning days of the 20th century, way back when the Internet bubble was full of venture capital and people were actually PAID to write on the Internet.

This would be my first interaction with Jones, who was having a pretty good 1999 himself—he had just clinched the National League MVP award by dominating the Mets during a sweep of a three-game series in Atlanta—and I was expecting to encounter the mouthy and arrogant guy I’d read about in newspapers and books.

After the Braves eliminated the Mets on the final day of the 1998 season, Chipper declared “We knocked ‘Top Step’ off the top step,” a dig at Mets manager Bobby Valentine, who was dubbed “Top Step” for his perceived propensity for standing where the television cameras were most likely to capture him.

Dave Rosenbaum, the author “If They Don’t Win It’s A Shame,” a chronicle of the Florida Marlins’ 1997 world championship season, declared Jones “had gained a reputation for having the biggest mouth in baseball” and notes an exchange between the Giants’ J.T. Snow and the Marlins’ Jeff Conine in which Snow tells Conine to “shove it up Chipper Jones’ ass” in the NLCS.

As it turned out, Jones wasn’t mouthy or arrogant, just a kid in his early-to-mid 20s. I should have understood: shile stringing for my local newspaper one summer during college, I stalked through the newsroom declaring the bean counters knew nothing about journalism and were ruining us (a dumb thing to say, even if it was true). I also was fired briefly from my first job in the New York area because I refused to request a press pass for one of the publisher’s friends (a dumb thing to do, even if I was right).

“I think whatever portrayal people had of me was of my own doing,” Jones said. “When I was younger, I wore my emotions on my sleeve. I still do. If something gets under my saddle good enough, I’m gonna say something.

“It’s just a young kid kind of not knowing when to shut up in front of the media and [to] choose his words more wisely,” Jones said. “I can’t blame anybody but myself. All I can do is just go out and try and get better as a person, you know?”

1999 got better for both of us. The Braves made the World Series after surviving a historic comeback attempt by the Mets, who, after falling behind three games to none in the NLCS, won Games Four and Five and blew leads in the eighth and ninth innings of a Game Six loss.

Some writers spend an entire career without getting to cover something like Game Five, which lasted 15 innings and a then-record five hours and 46 minutes and ended when Robin Ventura hit his “Grand Slam Single” into a driving rain to give the Mets a 4-3 win.

Chipper was 27, I was 26, and we both figured life would always be this perfect. “I got spoiled early, with the amount of talent that we had in this clubhouse, the promise that I had personally,” Chipper said.

But my dream jobs disappeared in the summer of 2000 when both start-ups stopped within a span of a few weeks, and I spent the next handful of years piecing together a living as a freelance writer with an emphasis on the Mets.

During that time, I always found an excuse to talk to Chipper during the Braves’ visits to Shea, and pretty soon I was declaring him my favorite player, even though I was working in an profession in which we weren’t supposed to have favorite players.

I liked Chipper more for his humanity than the numbers he put up. In an era of managed media availabilities and superstars who took a passive-aggressive pride in saying a lot without saying anything at all, I appreciated his approachability and how he filled up a notebook and left me wondering what good stuff I’d have to leave out.

His openness revealed the imperfections most superstars, and their handlers, went to great lengths to conceal. Jones admitted, in detail both stunning and candid, to fathering a child out of wedlock in 1998.

I grew up with parents who espoused dual loyalty and comfort over chasing a bigger paycheck—Mom taught 19 years in the same school district and Dad worked 27 years for the same brokerage firm—so I respected Chipper for doing things that other superstars might have seen as beneath them.

Jones signed with the Braves for $275,000, a record sum for a No. 1 pick in 1990 that was rendered couch change the very next year, when Brien Taylor signed with the Yankees for $1.55 million. More than a decade later, Jones played his age-30 and age-31 seasons in left field so the Braves could put Vinny Castilla at third base. No, really, that actually happened.

I also liked that he stayed with the Braves on deals that certainly were lucrative but also far less than he could have gotten had he reached free agency. I like that he’ll spend his entire working life with one employer, an incredibly rare feat in any profession.

“Well, especially this one,” Chipper said. “But the Braves and I have had a good marriage. It’s been some give and take on both ends and, fortunately, they’ve had my back for a long time and have wanted me here. And obviously, for me, Atlanta’s the perfect spot. I’m a laid-back country kid. It’s a laid-back kind of town, and it’s just where I felt the most comfortable. Not that I couldn’t play anywhere else. Just seemed like home from day one.”

As we both moved into our mid-30s, and I immersed myself in a job covering the Red Sox, I found myself identifying with Chipper’s increasing vulnerability and impressed by how eloquently he accepted the reality that he was no longer impenetrable.

“Quite frankly, I’m probably on the down side of my career as far as the amount of years that I’m going to play,” Jones said in 2005, during the 11th of his 18 big league seasons.

The last time I saw Chipper as a full-time sportswriter was in May of 2007, when we spoke about the end of the Braves’ record run of 14 straight division championships. While the Braves were no longer dynastic, I thought I was producing my best work ever. I was in my fourth year of writing and editing a monthly magazine about the Red Sox as well as writing extensively about the organization’s minor leaguers for the magazine’s accompanying website, on which I was required to post two stories a day.

I also knew that no matter how well I was performing, or how much work I was doing, the end was near. I was one of the few people being PAID to write on the Internet by a multi-billion dollar corporation that was otherwise relying on the unpaid labor of morons who thought writing about the minor leagues for free would eventually get them into a major league press box.

I never thought my employer and I had a relationship anywhere close to the one Chipper had with the Braves, but I was still stunned when I was fired by email the morning of Feb. 27, 2008. Within months, three of my best friends from Boston were covering the Red Sox for websites affiliated with the biggest radio station and cable sports network in the area.

There were no guarantees I would have gotten any of those dream jobs. Nonetheless, I was miserable and certain that losing my Red Sox gig was the worst thing that ever happened to me.

I didn’t know that 2008 would be to bad years what 1999 was to good years. Ten months and two days after I got fired by email, doctors informed my Mom that her so-called treatable cancer had actually spread to her backside, her spine and some other terrible places. She was gone 75 days later.

My former life seemed as if it had been lived by someone else. The business moved on without me, and friends from the business lost my phone number or forgot how to work the redial button. I joined my Dad and my sister in trying to navigate the world without the person who always knew exactly where to go.

But Chipper was one of the few elements of that former life I could rely upon during a transitional period I wouldn’t wish on anyone. No matter what, I could click on a Braves box score and know Chipper was still playing, even if his own increasing vulnerability made him a less regular presence in the lineup.

“You have to make that transition from one of THE guys to just one of the guys, you know?” Chipper said.

One word, making all the difference, I say.

“Right, and how you emphasize that word,” Chipper said. “You become a role player, whereas you were looked to for so long for so much of the offensive output, so much of the leadership and all those kinds of things.

“Now my role on the ballclub is to hit fourth, but it’s still a good role. And I still feel like I can go out there and produce. Just can’t do it at the level that I used to.”

From 1995 through 2003, Jones missed just 41 of the Braves’ 1,438 regular season games. But he missed an average of 39 games per season from 2004 through 2011 and 50 games this year.

“There were many times where I’d see a look in a fellow player’s eye, or a manager’s eye, and you could tell they were a little frustrated with my inability to play or my injuries or what have you,” Jones said. “And that’s a sick feeling, you know? You start to lose the confidence of the people who are closest to you. I think that’s really when it kind of sinks in, that maybe the end might be nearing.”

While Chipper’s career wound down, I began adjusting to a new normal. I got my sportswriting fix by writing a blog about sports at my alma mater, Hofstra. (The irony of becoming the writer who cost me my job has been duly noted.) I began working for an Internet marketing firm as a copy writer. It didn’t provide the euphoria of sportswriting—no job would ever replace that—but my battered pride and psyche began to heal a little as I learned my skills translated someplace other than a press box.

My wife and I began planning a family. I was morphing into something other than a former sportswriter, and with each passing year I remained out of the business, the ache grew a little less raw.

But I never stopped missing sportswriting or hoping to find my way back in. I was thrilled when a friend who always had my phone number helped me land a freelance gig last fall covering Jets games for a wire service, which in turn led to a reconnection with another good friend who said there’d be an opportunity there to cover some baseball games this season.

The Orioles-Yankees game at Yankee Stadium May 1 was my first baseball assignment in 1,649 days, but who was counting? I began coming up with story ideas, a few of which were accepted and most of which were turned down by publications and websites. Neither acceptance nor rejection ever felt so good.

Even after it was rejected, this Chipper idea continued to linger, and the news I’d been assigned the entire Mets-Braves series Aug. 10-12 provided me a jolt of excitement that Internet marketing could never match.

My final interactions with Chipper as an active player provided an appropriate bookend to our introduction almost 13 years earlier. We were now two old guys, trying to be better and more composed than we were in our mid-20s and not always succeeding. Chipper blasted Jamie Moyer in May after Moyer accused him of stealing signs. I may or may not have been scolded recently by my boss for always trying to get in the last word during work-related disputes.

We were nostalgic yet more appreciative of what we have now than we ever were back then. We compared the weekend feats of Braves pitcher Paul Maholm and first baseman Freddie Freeman to those of long-gone Mets Rick Reed and Mo Vaughn. We pored over the “Grand Slam Single” scorecard I’d dug out from a bookcase the night before.

As usual, he left me wondering what good stuff to leave out.

All the scorecards from the games I’ve covered this year are far easier to access—they’re on the desk next to me in a folder. Chipper’s mementos from this season are a little less tangible but no less savored.

After the Saturday night game, Chipper bantered with players, some barely half his age, over how he tends to lose interest in fantasy football when his team is struggling. The next afternoon, he relished being the target of barbs from teammates who were kidding him over his new-found presence on Twitter and wondering if he’d Tweet a photo of a bowel movement.

As natural a fit as he is in a big league clubhouse, I also saw a guy at ease with the opportunity to pen his own ending, even if it is, like Chipper himself, imperfect.

Chipper goes out as something less than a full-time player, someone who is in pain most of the day. Before games, he puts his uniform on in careful and methodical fashion, as if he could get hurt by moving any faster. After games, Chipper slowly walks through the locker room with a grimace on his face and his hands automatically reaching to some sore part of his body.

Chipper’s hopes of bookending his career with a second World Series ring to go along with the one he won as a rookie in 1995 ended when the Braves lost a bizarre Wild Card game to the Cardinals on Friday night. Jones, who committed a throwing error that cost the Braves three runs four innings before a potential Braves rally was snuffed out by an infield fly rule called on a ball that landed 50 feet beyond shortstop, spoke with eerie prescience eight weeks earlier about the pitfalls of the one-game playoff.

“I think it should be, if you want to add another team, let’s make it best two-out-of-three,” Chipper said Aug. 12. “We’re used to playing three-game series and trying to win series. And that seems to me to be the fairest way to do it, so that some team doesn’t get unlucky with a bad break or a bad call or, you know, whatever.”

Chipper ended his career with a lot of October “whatevers.” He reached the World Series three times in his first five years, but after winning the 1999 NLCS, the Braves went 12-27 in the playoffs the rest of his career and advanced as far as the NLCS just once. They were 0-4 in winner-takes-all elimination games.

While Chipper’s last season and his final game in particular were not vintage, he still produced some unforgettable moments that further cemented his legacy. Even in his diminished state, Chipper had perhaps the best season ever for a 40-year-old (.287, 14 homers, 62 RBI).

His second “walk-off” homer against the Phillies on Sept. 2 capped a five-run ninth inning comeback by the Braves and provided one of the most powerful and poignant sights of the season: Chipper rounding the bases while moving only slightly faster than Kirk Gibson in the 1988 World Series, an intersection of what he was and what he is now.

“My biggest fear is hearing somebody say, ‘You should have retired three years ago,’” Chipper said. “Looking up at the scoreboard and seeing the numbers behind my name, I haven’t heard too much of this year. And that’s what you shoot for.”

Humans pursue the happy ending we all think we deserve, believing that we are all entitled to our John Elway moment, that we can all massage the passage of time to fit our narrative. Most of the time, all we can do is hope to get out before we’re told to get out, find a little satisfaction in the method in which we exit, and hope to exercise a modicum of control in how we begin a new chapter in our lives.

Someone else in sports will provide the background noise and parallel path as I move on to the next phase of my life and my wife and I raise our daughter, who was born the night of Sept. 17 (Chipper sat out the Braves’ 7-5 win over the Marlins). Whomever he is, he won’t be as compelling as Chipper, and his retirement won’t leave me as melancholy.

The last inning I see Chipper play in person the night of Aug. 12 is an appropriate one, in which time keeps ticking without providing him a chance to turn back the clock. Chipper drew a four-pitch walk to begin a four-run ninth by the Braves and was on deck when Jason Heyward struck out on a dropped foul tip. Chipper stayed there, watching Michael Bourn cross the plate with the potential tying run, as Heyward was thrown out by a step at first base.

“Well, I needed it to skip away a little farther,” Chipper said a few minutes later.

Chipper fielded a handful more questions before the sparse crowd of reporters moved on. I hung back, thanked him for his time and said something about how this was just another Mets-Braves classic. Chipper laughed.

“Never a dull moment,” Chipper said.

No, there wasn’t. Thanks, Chipper.

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Comments

  1. bucdaddy said...

    Age 40 Willie Mays was still pretty damn good.

    Nice piece anyway. Enjoyed reading. Best wishes to your wife and daughter. Little girls are the best. Start practicing your invisible-tea-party moves now.

  2. gdc said...

    Funny I had never thought of the title backwards and you might be too young to have sung
    “Me and Chipper Jones, Chipper Jones, Chipper Jones…we got a thiiiiiing goin’ on”

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