Hard-loss lessons of Chipper Jones

If there's one thing the Braves 3B knows how to do, it's recover from collapse

Updated: March 8, 2012, 4:13 PM ET
By Mark Winegardner | ESPN The Magazine

Chipper JonesChip LitherlandWith September's epic meltdown him, Jones prepares for yet another run at the World Series. He earned his only ring during his rookie season, already so long ago.

This story appears in the March 19, 2012 "Choke Issue" of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!

Inhabit the moment | Spring training 2012
Driving his truck down Victory Way, Chipper Jones arrives at the ballpark for his 22nd, and perhaps final, Atlanta Braves training camp. It's in the middle of Disney World, 20-some miles from another amusement park, now long gone, where Jones suffered the first soul-stomping defeat of his baseball career.

Moments from now, before he takes his first ground ball, he'll be fielding questions about the most recent one -- the Braves' 13-inning defeat in the final game of last season, the capstone of the worst September collapse in baseball history.

Jones will soon turn 40. He's reached base more than 4,000 times. He's made more than 6,000 outs. He's thrown out, forced out or tagged out more than 5,000 runners. He's ridden the roller coaster provoked by life and baseball, finding some truths lurking beneath the clichés. Few have had as much consistent success. Even fewer have been forced to learn harder lessons from losing.

Among active everyday players, only Derek Jeter has been on the field for more wins and losses than Jones. But Jeter -- the Chipper Jones of the North -- has never had to come to camp ready to talk about whether the end of the previous season had destroyed his team's psyche.

"I've dealt with more sky-high, momentum-changing wins and just gut-wrenching, crushing losses than anybody out there," Jones says. "You learn to put both in perspective."

"Learn" is the operative word. It's a process, Jones says.

In that final game, the Braves blew the lead, then the game and thus the season. They filed into the clubhouse, stunned. They slumped into their chairs. Most couldn't even bear to unbutton their jerseys. Many began talking about the season among themselves. More, including Chipper Jones, were silent.

"The last thing anyone wanted to hear was a we-gave-it-our-all speech," Jones says. "We needed to marinate in it." But those moments have passed. It's time to channel what happened into motivation.

"If you dwell on it, you get consumed by it," he says. "I used to do that."


Crazy things happen | May 12, 1990
In his final high school game, about 90 miles from the one-stoplight Florida crossroads where he grew up, Chipper Jones stood on the mound, staring in at the catcher. He had an air about him, even then. Jones had just turned 18, but his face seemed to be staring implacably back at you from a 1940s baseball card. A few weeks later, when Jones became the first overall pick in the 1990 draft, Braves manager Bobby Cox took one look and called it "that face."

Jones was his high school team's shortstop but also its best pitcher. He was up 2-1, runners on first and second, two outs away from winning a second consecutive state championship. Looming over the ballpark was an abandoned wooden roller coaster; on it was a faded sign that read, "The Florida Hurricane." Jones reared back and threw a fastball.

The batter hit a sharp ground ball right to the second baseman. In his mind, Jones could already see the double play unfold. But with his eyes, Jones instead saw the grounder scoot under the second baseman's glove, right through his legs.

Tie game.

Jones' teammates looked to their star. He was unfazed. Although who could have ignored that ghostly roller coaster?

Jones looked in for the sign. High school games were just seven innings long. He'd given up only two runs. He believed in his teammates. And he was due to bat in the eighth. Yes, he'd felt the momentum shift, but Jones still expected to emerge victorious.

He threw a good pitch. He got another shoulda-been double-play grounder. This time, though, the double play was easier to wish for than to imagine.

The shortstop threw to second. The second baseman dropped the ball. The runner scored and was mobbed at home plate.

Four months earlier, that roller coaster had completed its final ride. The customers went home, and the amusement park closed, permanently. Demolition loomed.

As Chipper Jones and his teammates piled into their bus and drove past that deserted amusement park, it seemed as if the wrecking ball had already come.


Once you get doubt in the clubhouse ... | April 26, 1995-Oct. 26, 1996
On Opening Day 1995, Bobby Cox installed Jones at third base and batted the rookie third in the lineup, where he remains to this day. The Braves won their division by 21 games. In the playoffs, Jones hit .364/.446/.618 (BA/OBP/SLG). In the World Series, Atlanta beat Cleveland in six. The Braves, in the hunt for a ring every year since 1991, had gotten over the hump. It was the Deep South's first championship in a major pro sport. Chipper Jones rode down Peachtree Street on a fire truck as tens of thousands of fans flanking the parade route did the tomahawk chop.

A couple of weeks later, an autographed baseball from a relative stranger arrived in the mail. "Now comes the hard part," it read. It was signed by Cal Ripken.

Intellectually, Jones understood. He'd joined a team brimming with veterans. Justice. Maddux. Glavine. Smoltz. Bobby Cox was becoming a father figure. All this for a kid who'd already been raised well. His father was a baseball coach who quit his job because he worried that his son was receiving preferential treatment. His mother was a champion equestrian, an intimidating competitor from whom, Jones says, he learned how to win.

In 1996, everything in his life seemed to trend upward. At 24, he was the best everyday player on the best team in the league. For the second straight year, he lit up the pitchers in the playoffs to propel Atlanta into the World Series, this time against the Yankees.

"We go up to New York and just beat the dog out of them," Jones says -- a fair assessment of 12-1 and 4-0 wins. "I'm thinking, What a way to start your career, you know? Two world championships your first two years.

"I was so counting my chickens before they hatched."

The Braves went back to Atlanta. In Game 3, David Cone pitched a gem. One of those things, Jones says. You let it go. In Game 4, the Braves went up 6-0. In the top of the sixth, the Yankees scored three fluke runs. No big deal, Jones thought. We're still up three. But boom, just like that: Jim Leyritz launched the three-run homer that's destined to be a dependent clause in the first sentence of his obit. The Braves lost 8-6 in 10 innings.

"Momentum is everything in the postseason," Jones says. "Once a team gets that ball rolling downhill, there's no stopping them. Once you get doubt in the other team's clubhouse, it's over."

In Game 5, Andy Pettitte pitched the game of his life and went into the ninth up 1-0. Jones led off and stroked a double. Atlanta hadn't lost three in a row at home since midsummer. "What if Fred McGriff hits a two-run homer?" Jones says. "Momentum shifts."

Instead, McGriff grounded to first.

What if the two-out rocket Luis Polonia hit to right-center didn't get run down by Paul O'Neill to end the game? But it did.

"We had to go back to New York and ..." Jones' voice trails off. It was the first of the Braves' 11 painful season-ending playoff losses in the Jones era -- and five times, the team that beat them went on to win the World Series. Every other time, Jones says, he feels as if they lost to a better team. But '96 was different.

"When my career is over, if I win only one championship, that's the one that ..." He winces. "We really messed up."


[+] EnlargeChipper Jones
Chip Litherland"It's been a long time since a big one has gone my way," says Jones. Whatever happens, he'll treat the wins and losses like hits and K's -- inevitable. "I just had to learn some things the hard way."

Making baseball your whole life will kill you | 1996-99
Whereupon -- as Chipper Jones is now quick to admit -- he really messed up.

Depressed by the Series loss, he tried to party the hurt away. "I was a 24-year-old country kid who didn't come from money," he says, shaking his head. "The amount of temptations that were at my fingertips was astounding."

Predictably, problems in his marriage kicked into overdrive. In '97, he found out that a woman he'd slept with was pregnant with his child. "I'm having to deal with my mistakes on the outside and trying to juggle a blossoming baseball career," he says. "I'm not a good juggler."

After the '98 season, the Joneses filed for divorce.

"I lived, ate, drank and breathed the game of baseball; it was my whole life," Jones says. "But if you do that, it's gonna kill you. My veteran players did their job mentoring me. I just had to learn some things the hard way."

In time, he had. By 1999, the game seemed to slow down, and he produced one of the finest seasons ever for a third baseman (.319/.441/.633, 45 HRs, 110 RBIs). In September, in a pennant race, he turned in one of the great sustained clutch performances, including a six-game beatdown of the second-place Mets that locked down Jones' only MVP award.

Yes, the Braves were swept by the Yankees in the World Series. And it stung. It was nothing Jones could get over, say, on the trip home from the ballpark. This time, though, he kept the temptations at bay. Slowly he put what happened in the proper perspective.

Time went on. He happily remarried. He had three more sons, including one named after Tris Speaker and one named Shea, after the stadium of so many triumphs. He held the Braves steady through seven more trips to the playoffs.

And -- like an exemplar in a scholarly article on mindfulness -- he learned where to direct his intensity and when to let it go. He learned, in high-stress moments, to focus his attention not on worry but on an acquired, ingrained feel for the simple mechanics of movement.

"During the course of a game, you have two or three plays on the field and four or five at-bats," he explains. "You need to be prepared for each and every one of those situations on a nightly basis. That's all you can control. I mean, you can want it more than the next guy during an at-bat in the seventh inning, but after that at-bat's over and you're standing on first or second or third or whatever, it's out of your hands. It's up to your teammates."

He holds up his hands in a serene gesture of surrender.


The baseball gods have spoken | Aug. 26, 2011-Sept. 19, 2011
Which brings us to the big league version of the Florida Hurricane.

This one was the real thing, a Category 3 badass named Irene. As it headed up the Atlantic coast, the Braves were on a surge of their own. Despite a plague of injuries, the team had nonetheless won 14 of its last 19 games. Jones was healthy and on a roll. Atlanta had the fourth-best record in baseball and a 10.5-game lead over St. Louis in the wild-card race.

Then the storm hit.

After three days off, the Braves were never the same. The next three weeks they went 8-12. Their lead shrunk to 2.5 games. On Sept. 19, in the first of three games in Florida against the Marlins, Atlanta took a one-run lead into the ninth. Craig Kimbrel, the Braves' nearly unhittable rookie closer, mowed down the first two batters and was one strike away from an out that, in retrospect, could have sent the Braves to the playoffs.

Instead, Emilio Bonifacio hit a high chop to third: an easy out anywhere but Sun Life Stadium, where the lights were set up for football, where Jones lost sight of the ball.

Kimbrel had blown only one save since June 8 -- and it was only 10 days earlier, against the Cardinals. The Braves hadn't lost a game on a two-out walk-off homer since 1999.

Up next was light-hitting former Brave Omar Infante. On the first pitch, Kimbrel brushed him back. On the next, Infante went yard.

"I stood there and I was like, There's some divine intervention going on here," Jones says. The rest of the season was the most helpless Jones had ever felt on a baseball field.

"I made sure we were ready to play," he says. "But you just felt like there's nothing you can do. We go out and play good for eight innings and have something crazy happen in the ninth."

"Things ..." he says. "Things just snowballed."


The best-laid plans ... | Sept. 28, 2011 In the dugout, just before the final game, when a win over the Phillies might have fended off disaster, Chipper Jones called his team together. He didn't ask them to huddle up, but they did.

Nearly all had been in grade school when Jones debuted; some hadn't yet started kindergarten. Several grew up as Braves fans. As a boy, Kimbrel would stop whatever he was doing anytime the TV was on and Jones came to bat. When Jonny Venters was in A-ball in Rome, Ga., and Jones, there on a rehab assignment, tossed the ball to him, it was all he could do not to squeal, Oh my god, it's Chipper Jones! When Jason Heyward had his first big league at-bat, the sight of Jones in the on-deck circle had been "surreal, like my favorite baseball card was staring at me," he says.

Jones had no speech in mind. Certainly no rah-rah crap. "I just wanted to look in everyone's eyes and see if they were ready," he says. "And I wanted them to look in mine and see that I was."

Jones told them: "Guys, relax. This game's not played any different than it was two months ago. Huddie [veteran starting pitcher Tim Hudson] is going to pitch a great game, and we're going to get some timely hits, and it'll all take care of itself."

All of these things happened.

Jones knocked in a run in the first. In the third, Dan Uggla hit a timely two-run homer. With one out in the seventh, Hudson -- up 3-1, runners on first and third -- got a double-play ball to end the inning.

Except that shortstop Jack Wilson booted it, and the runner scored from third. Two innings later, Kimbrel, mind racing, blew the save.

In the 10th, Jones hit a drive to center. It would have won the game if it had dropped. It didn't. Philadelphia scored in the 13th. The Braves couldn't respond. Jones whiffed. Uggla walked. Freddie Freeman hit into a double play, slammed down his helmet, then squatted and bowed his head in disbelief. Uggla crawled away from the base, too anguished to stand.

Things had, alas, taken care of themselves.


Readiness is all | Spring Training 2012
Over the winter, Jones says, he calibrated his teammates and went out of his way to hang out with a couple of kids he thought could be down. He made it clear to them that he was hurting too.

With his teammates and now the reporters making Jones relive what happened, he acknowledges how tough it was to put aside.

"Let's just say you can't get rid of that on a 30-minute ride home," he says. Worse, you couldn't console yourself by thinking, Let's go get 'em tomorrow. "Here we are five months later," he says, "and finally it's tomorrow."

Yet despite the despair of September, the franchise, like the star who's become its face, was a model of serene stability all winter.

Venters says he watched the turmoil in Boston in the wake of the parallel collapse by the Red Sox and, like many of his teammates, worried that a similar shake-up was coming. "But then I heard Chipper say that we didn't need to make any big moves," Venters says. "I thought about it and you know, he's right. We don't. Our team is good."

It's not the Braves' way, Jones says, to make knee-jerk moves. "Our GM [Frank Wren] believes the same as I do that we're the team from the first five months, not the last one."

Manager Fredi Gonzalez agrees. He points out that the Braves stand to return 23 of the 25 players from last year's roster -- an opportunity, he says, to make what happened a positive. Nobody's looking to any newly arrived mercenaries to save this team. Redemption will have to come from within.

Jones says that Atlanta's pitching is as deep as any team's in baseball, with more great young arms on the horizon. "And if the guys who struggled offensively last year come back and have even normal seasons -- not great seasons, normal seasons -- this offense will take care of itself."

He looks around the clubhouse. He likes what he sees. "For as many momentum shifts as I've had in my career," he says, "it's been a long time since a big one has gone my way. Nobody's feeling sorry for me, but ..." His face flashes that smile, one of the greatest the game has known. "You know what I'm saying, right?"

Then he finishes his workout and gets back into his truck and drives off down Victory Way -- which is, in fact, a circle.

Mark Winegardener is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine. Follow The Mag on Twitter, @ESPNmag, and like us on Facebook.