This was written by request of a Braves fan who liked my previous short stories, but wanted to see one about Chipper Jones. It took me a little while to think of an appropriate setting and theme. Once it hit me, I sat down and wrote for a few days, then tinkered and fixed for a few more.
The result is a story called "Beautiful Ride." Retirement is in the back of Larry's mind. During a rain delay, his memory drifts back to three seminal moments in his career.
I hope you enjoy it.The rain started around three in the afternoon. It was now 7:47 p.m. Eastern Time. By Chipper Jones' reckoning, that was almost five solid hours of rain. When he left the house that morning, slate-gray clouds floated low and ominous above downtown Atlanta. He didn't check the weather before he left, so he relied on hope to will away any potential showers as he sped through the Downtown Connector, racing the clouds to get to BP on time.
He should have known meteorology doesn't work that way.
The rain had fallen steadily, soaking everything in and around Turner Field. It wasn't a Biblical downpour, nor was it a light mist. The rainfall was just heavy enough to preclude any activity on the field. The game was set for 7:10, and as the minutes ticked toward the top of the hour, the sheets of rain continued to cascade down. The team milled around in the dugout, waiting for some word from the grounds crew. 7:10 came and went. The tarp still covered in the infield. Fredi Gonzalez emerged from the dugout tunnel at 7:25 and said the game was being held off until the rain quit. He didn't say when that would be.
Jones sighed and punched the cap wadded in his hands. His left leg bounced up-and-down as he scanned the skies for any breaks in the overcast. No dice. Derek Lowe and Freddie Freeman walked by. They were talking about the weather.
"I say yes."
"They're not gonna get the game in," the lanky first baseman said.
"Of course they are," Lowe replied, poking the kid in the chest. "Night's still young. Tell 'em, Chipper."
Jones nodded his agreement. "It's bound to clear up soon. We'll get our game."
Freeman shook his head. "I looked at the radar, and it showed--"
"A radar?" Jones scoffed. "Listen to the weatherman over here. Like you know how to read a fuckin' weather radar."
His rebuttal cracked Lowe up. "Hey, yeah!" he gasped. "And what's the seven-day outlook say?"
Chipper leaned back and smirked as the rookie's face turned deep red. Freeman's jaw clenched and he stomped back down the length of the dugout. Lowe caught his breath. "Aw, hell. We hurt his feelings. I'll go make nice." He winked at Jones and jogged off to find the first baseman.
There was hardly anyone else in the dugout. Chipper looked down toward the clubhouse tunnel and saw David Ross consulting with Fredi about something. They were both frowning and talking in low voices as Fredi gestured to a clipboard in his hands. Most of Jones' teammates abandoned the dugout when Fredi announced the delay. They were holed up back in the dry, cool clubhouse, probably fighting over that Wii or Theii or whatever it was that occupied so much of their time. Jones, fully clad in uniform and spikes, sat out in the sticky warmth of the August night. Like he always did.
Eighteen years he'd served in the majors. He lost count of the rain delays years ago.
"Eighteen years," he muttered to himself. "Been a long time."
September 14, 1993
Circles within circles. Fulton County Stadium wasn't much to look at from the outside or inside, but it held rich memories. Chipper was born two years before Hank Aaron's record-breaking 715th home run, so he had no direct memory of the event. But shortly after he was called up in mid-September, he asked Bobby Cox to show him where it had happened. Cox walked him out into left field. He gestured at a nondescript portion of the wall.
Jones felt the hair on his arms stand on end. This, he knew, was where he needed to be.
It was three years earlier, in June of 1990, that Jones got the call. He hadn't expected it. He was off on a weekend trip to the beach with some classmates. In an era before cell phones became ubiquitous, it took a while for his parents to track him down.
Chipper didn't expect to go in the first round. He barely expected to go in any round. Everyone was talking about Todd van Poppel, a high schooler out of northern Texas. He was widely expected to be the Braves' first choice in the draft. Paul Snyder, however, was not talking about van Poppel. The chief of the Braves' scouting division was looking south to a young switch-hitting utility player from the Bolles School in Jacksonville, Florida.
Days before the 1990 draft began, Jones sat on a hot beach near Daytona, watching some of his friends from the baseball team horse around in the the warm Atlantic. He wanted to join in, but his right hand was still entombed in a cast, a souvenir from a fight he'd gotten into a few weeks prior. Eventually, his buddies climbed out of the ocean and joined him up on the beach. They talked about what lay ahead. Some of his classmates were headed to college, but Chipper knew higher education wasn't in his future. He thought he might go in one of the later rounds of the draft, if at all. He didn't spend too much time thinking about it. Late in the afternoon, the group packed it in and headed back for the rented beach house they shared. The sun was beginning to set, and Chipper opted to stay outside a little longer, lingering on the porch. He sat down in a sagging lawn chair and cracked open a beer.
One of Jones' buddies appeared at the sliding glass door. "Dude, your dad's on the phone. He's been tryin' to get you for more than an hour."
Thinking it was an emergency, Jones leapt out of his chair and ran inside. He picked the phone reciever up from the counter and took a deep breath. "Hello?"
Larry Senior's baritone growled through the phone line. "We need you to come back home."
Chipper's heart raced. "Is there something wrong?"
"Oh, no. Nothing like that. The Braves want to talk to you."
The sentence didn't make sense.
"The Whats want to do what?"
"The Atlanta Braves want to talk about signing you. And they can't do it until you get home."
Chipper was stunned. He stood motionless, phone pressed to his ear.
"Son, you okay?"
"I'll be there as soon as I can."
Twelve hours later, he signed with the team whose exploits he'd grown up following. Two weeks after that, he was playing rookie ball in the Braves farm system. Chipper Jones was going to play baseball for a living. It took him months to get used to that notion.
His phone rang again on September 11, 1993. This time, it was to usher him from the minor leagues to the big show. Jones threw as much as he could into a bag and boarded the first flight for San Diego. There, he met up with his team. Smoltz was on the mound that night, and the team put on a hell of a show. The Braves trounced the Padres 13 to 1 that night. Jones watched with wonder as Ron Gant and Fred McGriff hit three-run homers in consecutive innings. Smoltz fanned eight batters, and the three men that relieved him gave up only two hits.
In the middle of the ninth, Cox walked over to the railing where Chipper stood and gave him the news he'd waited to hear. "You're going in for Blauser."
Jones was beside himself. Sure, it meant no plate appearance and he was only a defensive replacement in the last ten minutes of a blowout game, but it might as well have been the seventh game of the World Series. He was ready. He went out there and shortstopped like no one had ever shortstopped before.
Okay, so maybe he took himself too seriously. The ball didn't even come near him. But he was 21 and had a lot to prove. The game ended and he joined his teammates in celebration in the clubhouse. Chipper called his folks as soon as he got back to the hotel, excitedly relaying the night's events. He didn't even think to convert for the time difference, meaning he was talking to his half-asleep father at 2:00 a.m. Eastern Time.
He remained with the team when they returned to Atlanta later in the week. The Reds came to town, and the evening of September 14 found Jones hanging on the dugout railing, chewing on a mouthful of sunflower seeds. He looked around in awe. Nearly 49,000 people filled the Fulton County Stadium. The field was lush and green, the infield dirt glowing a deep red under the lights. Fulton County's concentric seats surrounded the field and soared high into the Georgia sky. He felt like he was standing on center stage in a play written just for him.
Coming into the bottom of the seventh, Cox again sent him in for Blauser, but this time as a pinch-hitter. Stepping into the batter's box, he adjusted his helmet and looked toward the mound, where Reds reliever Kevin Wickander stood. Jones sent a ground ball past Cincinnati's third baseman and took off for first. He caught his breath and smiled as his first base coach pat him on the back. It was his first major league hit.
He got caught in a double play a few minutes later, ending the inning. Jones went back out to short for the remainder of the game, but didn't get to bat again. When he got back to the clubhouse after the game, Glavine put an arm around him and shoved a beer into his hand. Ron Gant came over and slapped Chipper on the back so hard he thought a few teeth might have flown out of his mouth. Cox simply walked by and said, "Good game, kid."
It was the best praise he'd ever received.
He couldn't remember if he still had the ball or not. That hit seemed like a lifetime ago.
Chipper opened his eyes as he felt the dugout bench warp slightly to his right. He turned his head and saw Brian McCann sitting there.
"How you holdin' up?" the catcher asked, lightly punching Chipper in the shoulder.
"I'd be better if you weren't tryin' to scare the livin' daylights outta me."
"Sorry. I didn't know you were asleep until I'd already sat down."
"I wasn't asleep. I was thinkin'."
"Lemme ask you something," Jones said.
"It ever occur to you that kids born the same year I was drafted are in college now?"
McCann, unsure what Jones was driving at, looked down at his feet and made some noise Chipper couldn't decipher.
"Or how 'bout this: Heyward's 22. And he grew up with my poster on his bedroom wall."
Brian raised his head, but avoided making eye contact with Chipper. "What are you trying to say?"
The third baseman shrugged. "Don't know. Maybe that I'm not getting any younger. And my wife isn't. And my kids aren't. I've had my time. One of these days, I'm going to have to get out of this racket."
McCann laughed uncomfortably and squirmed slightly on the bench. "You don't mean that."
"Maybe I do." Jones stretched his legs and yawned. "I'm gonna get a cup of water. You want one?"
"Me? No. I'm heading back inside. Looks like this rain is here to stay."
"Naw," Chipper said, standing up. "Give it a few minutes. We'll be out there in no time."
McCann tossed up a little wave as he stood and padded back down the wet concrete floor toward the tunnel. Fredi and Ross weren't standing there anymore, but Nate McLouth had come out to crane his neck upward. He scowled at the sky, blinking against the stray raindrops that bounced off the camera well railing and into the dugout.
Walking down to the water cooler, Chipper stole a glance at the LED clock on the right field wall. 8:32 p.m. He glanced around the stands and saw only a few people, most of them shrouded by ponchos and umbrellas. A few more fans milled around in the concourses, waiting for the storm to abate. Chipper guessed maybe three hundred people were at Turner Field. He shook his head and kept walking.
October 28, 1995
The eight games Chipper played in '93 only whet his appetite. He was planning on a big season in 1994. Ron Gant pulled some dumbass stunt on a dirt bike and busted his leg in the offseason, and Chipper was being talked about his replacement in left field. Cox told the Associated Press he was impressed with Jones' performance in Triple-A and said he could play anywhere on the field. Chipper entered spring training all but confirmed as the starting left fielder for opening day.
It didn't last long. In a spring training game on Friday, March 18, Chipper tried to avoid a tag and felt something in his left knee give way. A searing pain shot through his leg and he fell to the ground. An MRI the next day revealed a torn ACL, and by Sunday, the newspaper reports had him all but written off for the whole year. 1994 slipped from his grasp.
Chipper had to watch from home as the Braves climbed to second in the NL East. And he watched negotiations between players and managers break down, bringing all of Major League Baseball to a grinding halt.
The fall turned to winter. Chipper was healthy enough to come back for spring training. Gant was gone entirely, having been cut loose shortly after his bike accident. Jones started at third base, and split some time early in the season over in left field. At the plate he went on a tear, putting up numbers as if he were trying to make up for the lost year in a single season.
By the time Chipper returned, the stadium was destined for the scrap heap. Already, the skeleton of a new ballpark was taking shape just across the street. The front office guys told him Fulton County Stadium would be turned into a parking lot.
"Ain't that a hell of a note," he said.
They assured him the new stadium, called Turner Field, would be a much better place to play. They promised upgraded clubhouses, newer training and practice equipment and a state-of-the-art video room. Besides, they said, the old stadium was a relic. The new place would be designed just for baseball. The Falcons had jumped ship to the Georgia Dome three years earlier. And now the Braves would have their own home, a place where the team's past, present and future could exist undisturbed.
Jones thought that sounded like a pretty good deal. He was even happier to learn the wall where Aaron's 715th landed would be preserved, even if people were dodging it looking for a good parking space.
The Braves lost the last three games of the season to the Mets, but they still finished 22 games ahead in the NL East. They beat the Colorado Rockies in four games in the NLDS, and swept the Reds in the Championship Series. In his rookie season, Chipper was going to the World Series.
The Series opened on a mild Saturday night in October. The dugout was filled with a tension the 23-year-old third baseman had never seen. Even the normally-unflappable Greg Maddux was a bit preoccupied. Chipper noticed he'd bitten his fingernails down to nearly nothing. The Braves won that first game, but there was little time for Chipper or anyone else to rejoice. The team rolled on into Game Two, which they won by a run. They hustled to Cleveland, where they dropped Game Three in extras. The Braves seized Game Four. A repeat of the Maddux/Hershieser matchup for Game Five had the opposite result, as the Braves went down 5 to 4.
Saturday, October 28, found Glavine back on the mound for Game Six in Atlanta. A couple of hours before game time, Chipper took some warmup swings in the batting cage. He saw Lemke talking with McGriff over by the first base coach's box. Javy Lopez was waiting on Chipper to finish up so he could get in some practice. That's when Jones noticed who was missing: Tom Glavine. He wasn't talking with Smoltz or Maddux, nor was he warming up in the bullpen. A crucial part of the team was AWOL right before one of the most crucial games of his career.
Jones spotted Ned Yost walking by. "Hey!" he called out. "You seen Glav?"
Yost shook his head and kept walking. Months would pass before Chipper, Ned Yost and most of the organization learned that at that moment, it wasn't clear that one of the team's three great starters would even be able to throw a ball. For weeks, the lefty's finger had rubbed against his thumb as he released the ball. The contact eventually broke the skin and set up a painful infection. Trainers weren't sure he'd be able to pitch at all.
Like hell, Tom told them. He was going to pitch. Against his better judgment, a trainer tightly wrapped Glavine's thumb in tape and the pitcher trotted out to the field a few minutes later, giving not a single clue of what had just happened.
He faced a lineup containing Cleveland's best: Albert Belle. Jim Thome. Manny Ramirez. Even in pain, Glavine threw eight innings and gave up only one hit. Dennis Martinez held his own, keeping the Braves scoreless through six.
As the game wore on, Lemke kept pacing up-and-down the dugout.
Marquis Grissom shot him an annoyed glare. "Would you just sit the hell down? You're making me nervous."
Lemke sat on the bench, but his nervous energy continued to rise. He used his knuckles to rap out rhythms on the pitted, warped wooden slats of the bench. Grissom looked over at him with a lethal expression.
"Sorry," Lemke said. "But dude, you can't tell me you're not pumped up about this. We gotts get somethin' going tonight. Tommy's been doing great out there, and we gotta get him some runs."
"You think I don't know that? Let's ask the rook. Jones! You think we need to score runs to win this game?"
Chipper laughed and sat down next to the two men. "I think it's a pretty good way to win the game, yeah."
"See? Even the kid knows we gotta get some runs. So shut up about it, will ya?"
"I'm just nervous, is all."
Grissom snorted. "Hell, we all are. 'Cept for this guy. You nervous, Jones?"
Chipper put up a nonchalant face. "Not a bit."
The moment hung in the air as the two veterans scrutinized him.
"Bull. Shit," said Lemke, sending all three into peals of laughter.
Jim Poole came in to relieve Martinez in the bottom of the sixth. David Justice was the second batter he faced. He hauled off and smacked one of Poole's pitches hard toward right field. Justice dropped the bat began running. The ball kept carrying, out past the infield and arcing high over the outfield.
"Holy shit!" Smoltz screamed. "Look at that thing GO!"
Glavine remained silent, watching with wide eyes as the ball sailed deep over right field and into the stands. The place nearly exploded as Justice rounded the bases. Glavine pumped his fist and shouted "YEAH!" but then reined himself back in and nodded. "I mean, that's good."
It was the only run the Braves scored, and it would have to be enough. When Glavine asked to sit out in the middle of the eighth, Cox sent Mark Wohlers out to finish the job in the ninth. Kenny Lofton and Paul Sorrento fell quickly, leaving any hope for the Indians up to second baseman Carlos Baerga. Almost the whole roster stood at the dugout railing. Chipper could feel an electricity in the air, thrumming through his body. It pervaded the whole stadium as the crowd rose to its feet.
Baerga knocked a fly ball out to left center, but Grissom caught it easily. The Atlanta Braves won the World Series. Chipper ran out of the dugout and onto the field, where his teammates mobbed Wohlers and each other. The clubhouse was awash in champagne and beer long into the night. In the mass of bodies, bottles and goggles, Jones found Lopez.
"We did it!" Chipper yelled.
"You bet your ass we did!" Lopez responded.
"I can't believe it! I feel like I could go out there and do it all over again."
Lopez shook his head. "You're crazy. I feel like I could go to sleep for a year."
Chipper arched an eyebrow. "But after the parade, right?"
"Ha ha! Damn right!"
The ticker tape rained down from above two days later as the team rode down Peachtree in fire trucks, waving to the crowds that filled the streets to see them.
At the press conference afterward, a reporter asked Jones if he was ready to meet Clinton.
"Who?" the baffled rookie replied.
"Bill Clinton? The president? You guys have been invited to the White House."
Chipper's mouth went dry.
"Yeah," he rasped. He swallowed hard. "I think I'm gonna have to buy me a new suit first."
The reporters laughed, and the camera crews knew they had a soundbite for the six o'clock news. In that moment, Chipper felt invincible. He climbed baseball's highest mountain and conquered its summit. He did what he'd set out to do. And the beauty of it was, he had many more year to do it again and again. The future seemed boundless.
Chipper jumped slightly when he felt someone tapping on his shoulder. It was Dan Uggla.
"You okay?" Uggla asked.
"Uh, yeah. Caught me off guard," Jones said.
Dan pushed a glove into Chipper's chest. "You're gonna need this. We're getting started."
Jones looked out onto the field. The grounds crew was out on tractors and on foot, pulling back the huge white tarps and checking the infield dirt underneath.
The third baseman smiled. "I knew we'd get it in."
Uggla laughed. "Hope you drank some Red Bull, big guy. At this rate, we're gonna be here past midnight."
The two men stepped out of the dugout and jogged onto the field to the tepid applause of the diehards who stuck around through the lengthy delay. The scoreboard clock now read 9:17. Chipper's cleats squished in the soaked grass, and water still pooled in parts of the outfield. Guys with big white squeegees attached to rods were out there trying to slosh it off.
"Feels good to be back out here," Uggla said, tossing a ball to Jones.
Chipper fired it back to Dan. "Sure does. You know the funniest thing about it?"
"I can't tell you how many times I've come out onto the field before a game, and it always feels the same. Not boring, y'know. More like...comfortable."
"Yeah," Dan replied, throwing the ball back toward third base. "I know what you mean."
Dan's throw was off, and the ball sailed past Chipper and rolled onto the warning track behind him.
Uggla winced. "Sorry!"
Chipper put his hands on his hips and smirked. "You gotta knock that shit off. I'm gettin' too old to chase these things down."
August 10, 2010
When he took the field at Minute Maid Park, Jones was still thinking about a conversation he'd had with Bobby at his home before spring training began. The old man was stepping down.
Chipper had a hard time believing his ears. "You're WHAT?"
"Retiring," Cox said. "This is going to be my last season."
Chipper sat back in his chair, contemplating this news. "I can't believe it."
Cox chuckled. "You knew it had to come sometime. I can't do this forever."
"You tryin' to tell me something, Skip?"
Bobby shook his head. "Nope."
Jones scratched his goatee. "I have thought about hangin' them up."
"I know. But I think you got a few more years in you."
"That makes one of us."
That was in February, and Chipper was still thinking about it. Ignoring the daily aches and pains was getting tougher and tougher to pull off. There were mornings Jones considered it a minor victory just to get out of bed. The Braves were making a valiant push to claim the division and get Bobby to the postseason one last time. Everything was tinged with a bittersweet veneer, and Chipper wondered if the end of the season might also be the time to declare his own departure from the game.
His numbers were sagging. His average plunged to .230 in June. Reporters kept asking him if that summer would be his last wearing a Braves uniform. He was more frank in his answers than they'd expected. He talked about his kids growing up and his professional life winding down. But he always came around to the same point.
"This isn't my season. It's Bobby's. I'm not going to let a possible decision on my future be a distraction for this team."
Thoughts of retirement and whatever might follow had been pushed into the back of his mind that muggy Tuesday in Houston. The Braves were leading the division when they took the field on August 10. Chipper had something of a mixed night, hitting a double off J.A. Happ in the fourth but then booting a ball hit to him in the fifth. The runner reached base on his error.
In the bottom of the sixth, Hunter Pence hit a ground ball right to third base. An easy play. Chipper scooped up the ball and jumped into the air to deliver the sphere to first. When he landed he heard something pop, and simultaneously felt something in his knee give way. Time slowed down as a fiery, searing pain radiated out from the joint. His whole leg burned and Jones went down. He crumpled onto the hard infield dirt, grimacing and balling his hands into fists.
God, what now? he thought.
One of the trainers rushed to his side, followed in short order by Cox and Brian McCann.
"My knee," he said, unprompted. "Somethin' in my knee hurts like hell. I felt it pop."
The trainer frowned. "Can you get up?"
Chipper shook his head. "No."
He heard McCann mutter "fuck" under his breath.
Jones lay on the grass for several minutes, staring up at the ceiling of Minute Maid and the concerned faces of his catcher, his manager and his trainer. He able to get up eventually, and he hobbled off the field with only a little support from the trainer. Chipper knew the sharp pain with each step originated in the same knee he injured in '94. He bit his lip and hoped it wasn't his ACL. A test the following morning would tell for sure.
"It's your ACL," the doctor said.
Chipper's stomach clenched.
"The MRI shows a partial tear...here." he used his pen to point out a black area on the computer monitor. "And some serious stretching of the ligament...right here and here."
The doctor looked right into Jones' eyes, and immediately the infielder knew his season was over.
"You won't be able to play again without surgery," the doc said, taking off his glasses and rubbing the bridge of his nose.
Jones called Smoltz later that day. He relayed the news about his ACL. "This might be it," he said.
"Naw," Smoltz replied. "You'll get the surgery and come back in 2011."
"I don't know about that. I don't even know if I want to."
"You do. I've been reading what you've said in the papers. But I've known you for more than fifteen years. They're gonna haul your ass off the field in a body bag thirty years from now."
Chipper smiled for the first time since the injury. He opened his mouth to speak, but Smoltz beat him to it.
"And listen. I know you've been thinkin' about it. And if you really do decide that's what you want to do, I'm right there behind you. But if the doc is telling you you'll be back if you get the surgery, I'd put a thousand bucks on you getting the surgery. That's just who you are. You're not going to give up on anything."
Chipper went under the knife three days later.
As he was wheeled into the operating room, the nurse asked him how he was feeling.
"Pissed," he replied. "I think I owe John Smoltz a grand."
Big, round raindrops struck Chipper's forearm. He snapped out of his reverie and turned to Dan Uggla, who had already abandoned second base and was trotting toward the dugout. "What's going on?"
"They're rollin' out the tarp!" Uggla shouted. "There's another batch of rain comin' in. I think they're gonna postpone!"
"Shit." Chipper took his glove off and prepared to throw it down onto the red dirt at his feet, but he thought better of it.
"Nope," he said. "Gonna need it tomorrow."
He sighed and began to walk off the field as more drops fell, splashing on the wet grass. It went from drizzle to downpour in seconds. Chipper didn't pick up his gait. He pulled the bill of his cap low over his eyes and walked back to the dugout in the pouring rain.