Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Saying Goodbye to Chipper

Chipper Jones is done playing for the Atlanta Braves. The last link to the great Braves teams of the 90s is gone and the Braves have to find a new face of the franchise, leader, cleanup hitter, and third baseman.

I've been dreading writing this ever since Chipper announced that he would be retiring in March. Not only is he my favorite Brave but he's my favorite athlete ever. As a ten-year-old I had the prescient foresight to name my new cat Chipper, a lucky break considering that Andres "Big Cat" Galarraga played for the Braves at the time. (It turns out ten-year-old me wasn't the only genius to name his cat after the Braves all-time great). Amazingly, Chipper Jones, the human, survived his feline namesake and has continued to be a great baseball player. He is an anomaly in today's sports world, a thoughtful superstar who lived up to the hype of being the #1 overall pick, won a title, and did it all with one team. His only comparison is Derek Jeter and in a few years they will both have plaques up in Cooperstown (note me taking the high road and not making the joke that Jeter has been frozen while playing shortstop for years).

Chipper announcing his retirement in spring training

Before going into what Chipper's retirement means for me and the team, I'd like to commend the man for going out in style. Chipper announced, without any equivocation, in March that this would be his last season no matter what. Every opposing fan base has given him a justly deserved sendoff, even bitter Mets and Phillies fans who begrudgingly cheered for his career. This season has been replete with amazing moments: a home run on his first start, two walk-off homers to cap amazing comebacks against the Phillies, his first five-hit game, a hit in the All-Star game, and another post-season appearance. Chipper, despite being forty years old without any cartilage left in his knees, has played over 100 games and posted an OPS of .847, highest on the team. He isn't going out broken or washed up like so many other greats. I trust that he won't make an ill-fated comeback but walk off the field in Atlanta and spend time with his family like he promised.

The Braves came into prominence with Ted Turner, the tomahawk chop, and all of those great starting pitchers, but for the past 15 years, this has been Chipper's team. When the Braves walked off the field after their 6-3 loss to the Cardinals, my stomach just dropped. The Braves season was over and I was still in shock about the outfield fly and trash debacle that made the game controversial, but all my thoughts were focused on Chipper. He wasn't supposed to end his career in defeat, but realistically, it didn't matter short of a World Series victory. This Braves team, despite my hopeful prediction, wasn't a championship team and I don't really care. I care about not getting to watch #10 hobble out onto the field ever again. Different seasons will blur together at a certain point, but there will always be Chipper. His shitty last game wasn't the way anyone wanted him to go, but again, it doesn't matter. Chipper retiring is bigger than any single season, any single team, in a way that very few players can say for their team.

I had the chance to watch the Braves sweep the Mets in Citi Field earlier this month and between trash talking Mets fans, I  noticed a sea of Reyes and Beltran jerseys. The ephemeral nature of sports today means that there are dozens of Albert Pujols, Prince Fielders, and LeBron James, stars who break their fans' hearts by leaving in their primes. Chipper Jones stands for a different era, and not in the crusty old sportswriter 'things were better back in my day' style, but because he simply found himself in a good situation and stayed because he appreciated the city and organization. Chipper Jones is synonymous with the Braves and is undoubtedly the greatest Atlanta Brave of all time. He could easily get $10 million next year to DH for an AL team and would probably limp to 3,000 hits and 500 home runs if he so desired, but he's a Brave.

Bobby Cox, John Smoltz, Greg Maddux, and Tom Glavine will go into the Hall of Fame as Braves, but there is only one Chipper. I'm not ready, even with a season's notice, to say goodbye to Chipper. It's selfish and unfair, but that's what we are as sports fans. We don't want our heroes to leave but at the same time we don't want them to become a shell of their former selves. Chipper has navigated this middle ground perfectly. He did what Favre should have done with the Packers, or Jordan with the Bulls. He's the perfect entertainer because he's left us wanting just a little more. Plus, he joined Twitter and is really fucking funny.

Sports has the unique ability to frame my life and my memories, like news events or relationships might for other people. Chipper Jones and the Braves frame my entire life. In second grade, my teacher took exception to my trash talking her Yankees with the Braves up 2-0 and made sure I remembered who came back (thanks to copious, copious amounts of steroids from Jim Leyritz, Chuck Knoblauch, and the rest of the Yankees). In 1999, I gleefully chanted Larry-Larry-Larry to mock Mets fans as the Braves made the World Series. In 2010, I watched in horror as Chipper tore his ACL and I feared that he would end his career on the left field grass of Minute Maid Park. Thankfully he didn't. Instead, I'll remember screaming out loud as I sneakily watched Chipper cap a 15-13 win over the Phillies with a walk-off home run on my iPhone. I can remember every Braves postseason with Chipper better than I can remember my teachers or my own sports teams. The Braves have been at the center of my life since 1996, a bridge from childhood to becoming an adult and I'll always be grateful for Chipper's role in thousands of happy memories.

Beast mode.
When I think back to his game, I'll remember those sneaky at-bats, where Chipper would look foolish before working the count with his incredible eyes, (literally, Chipper has 20:15 vision and is known for reading the scores on the bottom of the screen from the other side of the clubhouse), and lashing a single up the middle. I'll think of Skip, and later Chip, Caray gleefully saying chopper to Chipper whenever they possibly could. I'll think of Chipper's magical 2008 season when he found every hole and won a batting title at 36. Chipper voluntarily moved to left field to accommodate Vinny Castilla (I know it was weird), he never made as much money as he could, and he's leaving millions on the table by not exercising his option for next season. Chipper walked more than he struck out, he has a career .400 on-base percentage and a career .500 slugging percentage. He has hit over .300 from each side of the plate with power. Injuries sapped him of 500 home runs and 3000 hits, but he has still amassed amazing career numbers.

Night in and night out, the Braves would be there on TBS or MLB TV and hitting third with the high socks would be Chipper. Baseball's soothing routine may be mocked by some as boring or slow, but to the real fans, it's our pulse. For me and millions of Braves fans, baseball is Chipper Jones. Nobody will ever wear #10 for the Braves again, but reality will strike sooner than anyone wants, and Chipper will be gone. The Braves will replace Chipper with Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, and Brian McCann, but it won't be the same. He is a top five third basemen of all time and no matter what happened against the Cardinals this was a perfect way to go out.

So this is goodbye to Chipper. Thanks for the memories. Thanks for sticking with the Braves. Thanks for making me love baseball.

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