Jayson Stark has a great story on Chipper Jones, who will be returning to the postseason for the first time since 2005 (he was injured when the Braves made it in 2010), here in his final season. What defines a player, a future Hall of Famer like Chipper? Sure, there's the stat line, but ultimately it's the memories and the moments. I'm not a Braves fan, so don't have the wealth of memories of those who live and die with the club, so I hope this short list does some justice.
5. The years in left field.
Remember those two seasons Chipper played left field so the Braves could play Vinny Castilla at third base? Me neither. Let's move on and pretend this never happened.
4. Chasing .400.
The Braves' dynasty of the Chipper-Glavine-Smoltz-Maddux era finally ended with that memorable 18-inning playoff loss to the Astros in 2005. Chipper kept hitting, but with the Braves out of the playoff races, we kind of forgot about him. Then in 2008 he had that amazing start and was hitting .400 as late as June 18. Suddenly, those outside Atlanta remembered how great he was and realized he'd be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Michael Bamberger in Sports Illustrated that June:
- It helps that he has some ridiculous gifts. He was in a visiting clubhouse a while back, reading the crawl on a cable channel from about 30 feet away. A teammate said, "You can read that?" Jones thought, You can't? He can remember hundreds, maybe thousands of at bats, what he hit off whom. One night last week, after a game in which he saw two dozen pitches, he could remember in detail all but two or three of them: count, pitch, location, result. He watches game tape like a detective, and if a pitcher tends to slightly open his glove before throwing a curve, Jones knows it.
Jones would finish at .364, winning his only batting title.
3. Two home runs in his first playoff game.
Here's the kind of confidence Bobby Cox had in his rookie third baseman back in 1995: Chipper was hitting third in the Braves' lineup. In that first game against the Rockies, Chipper hit a home run to right field off Kevin Ritz leading off the sixth inning, cutting Colorado's lead to 3-2. In the ninth, with the game now tied 4-4, he belted a two-out home run off Curtis Leskanic to give the Braves a 5-4 lead, raising both arms above his head when the ball cleared the fence.
"I don't even think I realized what I had done," Chipper said at the time. "It was like I was running with my feet two feet off the ground."
But those home runs weren't all. In the eighth inning, Andres Galarraga smashed a ball off pitcher Greg McMichael that Jones made a terrific bare-handed play on, getting a force play at second. The Rockies would score once that inning, but Jones' play helped prevent an even bigger rally.
"He saved the ballgame with that play," Cox said then. "Play of the night."
The Braves went on to win the World Series. He's still searching for a second ring.
2. Home runs to beat the Phillies, 2012.
OK, I'm cheating. These are two moments, both from 2012. The first one came on May 2, ending one of the craziest games of the year, a 15-13 Braves win in 11 innings. (The Braves had scored five runs in the eighth to take the lead, only to see the Phillies score one in the ninth to tie it.)
"I wish everyone could experience that feeling right there," Jones said on a postgame on-field TV interview, trying to catch his breath after enduring the mosh pit at home plate. "That game, without a doubt, takes the cake as far as my career goes."
Then on Sept. 2, came maybe the biggest win of the Braves' season. Trailing 7-3 in the bottom of the ninth, a Phillies error with two outs kept the inning going, bringing up Chipper with the score 7-5, two on, and Jonathan Papelbon on the hill. David Lee writes for the Capital Avenue Club blog. Here's what he sent me:
- I've been fortunate enough to watch his at-bats every day for nearly my entire life, and I've reached the point where I know his history against certain pitchers, what worked/didn't work against them, what pitches he's looking for in certain situations, identifying when he's looking for a certain pitch, etc. I've called countless Chipper hits and home runs over the past few years because of this. A perfect example is the Phillies home run. He got his fastball off Papelbon and just missed it, fouling it back. I knew if he got that pitch again, he wouldn't miss it. He got it one pitch later. My hands were in the air before he finished his swing.
David compiled a list of Chipper's "biggest" games via Win Probability Added. That game ranks No. 1 in his career.
1. September heroics in 1999 against the Mets.
In late September, the Braves and Mets were battling for the NL East title when they met for a three-game series in Atlanta. The Braves entered 1 game up. In the first game, Chipper hit solo home runs off Rick Reed in the first and Dennis Cook in the eighth. Braves win 2-1. The next night, the Braves win 5-2 as Chipper hits a two-run shot off Orel Hershiser in the first. In the third game, his three-run homer off Al Leiter gave the Braves a 4-2 lead.
Mark Bradley in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution after the third game:
- thought. Not this time. "You see him come up in that situation," Glavine said, "and you figure he can't do it again today."
Yes, Greg Maddux thought. "I figured he was. You grow up in Vegas, you learn to play the streaks."
Nobody expected it. Everybody expected it. Such is the majesty of Chipper Jones that he leaves you awaiting, having already done so much. ... Baseball is billed as a sport of failure. Chipper Jones has failed so seldom of late that he has ceased being a good player on a streak. He has become a great one at a pressurized time when greatness rises to the level of the legendary.
It was a series sweep, the division title wrapped up, the MVP Award eventually won. When the two clubs met again in the NLCS, needless to say Chipper didn't get a lot of pitches to hit. He walked nine times and the Braves won in six.
Which is why, as Chipper walks away in a few days or a few weeks, there is one group happy to see him head off into retirement: Mets fans.