I've only been a baseball fan for about 9 or 10 years. Sure, I played when I was a kid, both in backyards and school grounds, and even a little high school ball before I realized I couldn't cut it. It was my first year of college before I became indoctrinated into baseball. I use that word because that's how it happened. I was laying in bed in my fraternity house room, watching something mindless on the TV. I had no plans for the day, maybe some beers, maybe I stroll through campus just to see who I could find. A friend and fraternity brother of mine barges in and asks what I was doing. I give him that same short, gruff answer you normally get from kids at that age, "nothing." He knows that I like most sports, and he knows that I also don't include baseball in the list of ones that I will watch. He is on a mission. He snatches the remote from my bed, parks himself in my recliner, and turns on the Braves game. Before I could even think of a protest against it, he tells me that he's tired of me not watching "the game" and that I don't get to leave my room until I am at the very least a baseball fan. So I stay, I watch, I learn. Even before the game was up, I knew what I needed to know. I was hooked. Not because of the hard hits, or the constant suspense, or the flashy moves of the players. I was hooked because of the relaxed simplicity of it all. I was able to be drawn in to a sport that moves at a snails pace, that allows you to forget how many cold brews you have polished off while still holding your attention and reminding you that when this game is on, almost everything else melts away into a nostalgic remembrance of childhood. Not only was a baseball fan made in a day, but I was a Braves fan. This realization was because of one man, one player who made the game look so easy, even though what he was doing out there was technically so difficult. I was on the edge of my seat whenever he was up to bat, just knowing that the odds of him doing something magical were always in his favor. Chipper Jones made me a Braves fan and re-introduced me to the game in the course of an afternoon, and now its all but over.
In an age where baseball is doing everything it can to re-kindle interest in America's pastime, whether it be huge attention drawing contracts, or the intentional over hyping of players who have yet to step foot on the grass, there stands Chipper Jones. In my humble opinion, one of the last throwbacks to the way The Game used to be played. He represents a time when you didn't so much care about how much you were making, or how much exposure you were getting. You played because you loved the game, because you couldn't bear to think of the day when you would have to hang up your cleats and store your glove. You played for your team, and if they didn't want to trade you, you rewarded them by not demanding anything more than the most modest of pay raises. If they handed you a large contract because they thought you deserved it, then great. You didn't demand more money, you didn't have your agent pimp you out to other teams in an attempt to incite a bidding war for your services. You laced up your shoes, oiled your glove, and took the field, the same way you did every day before that. He always has had a lighthearted yet serious approach to the game. Never one to shy away from cracking a joke, whether the subject be himself or others, but always careful to point out your mistakes and quickly follow them up with pointers that have come from a combination of a natural gift and years of experience. For 19 years he has been a picture of consistency, even though the way he chooses to hit from both sides of the plate is one of the more difficult things to do, let alone do it well for so long. He has quietly been one of the best third basemen to ever play the game, never drawing a lot of attention to himself unless he is watching another ball sail over the fence, or ignoring cat calls of "Laaaarrryyyy" from Mets fans and the like. He comes to the plate, does his job, and then goes back out to third and gives it his all, every play, no matter the cost to his body. After 19 years, that last part is finally catching up to him. It seems he has to have his knee drained of fluid weekly just to be able to play 2 out of 3 games. After missing 90 games total the last two seasons, he has already missed 8 this season. It's his farewell tour, and while you have a feeling that he might not make it all the way through, you can count on one thing: he is going to play as hard as he possibly can for as long as he can. The season started under fairly dark circumstances. He tore his meniscus an hour before his press conference to announce his retirement. He started the year on the DL, and was forced to miss his final opening day. He had to watch his team struggle to an 0-4 start before getting the chance to play again. If you ever doubted what one player could mean to a team, take a look at the Braves now compared to where they were before. Since Chipper's first game back, they have gone 11-3, and he has 3 home runs and 9 RBI's in 10 games. While he may not end up having the type of statistical year that he is accustomed to, what he brings to the team just by his presence on the field cannot be measured on a score sheet. He will play, he will give his all, and along the way, he will be given gifts, shown short "thank you" videos on opposing team's scoreboards, and will have the chance throughout the season to look back on all he has done. Hopefully he will do the latter and just smile, knowing that it's time, and no matter how much your heart and soul want to keep going, when the body starts sending as strong a message as his is, you have no choice but to listen.
Watching Bobby Cox call it quits was an extremely hard thing for Braves fans to endure, and his departure left a gigantic hole on the steps of the dugout. That day is coming for Chipper. It may be the last game of the year, or it might be a day during the season when it has been forced upon him. Either way, somehow, I feel like that day will be so much harder than watching Bobby leave.
Thank you, Chipper Jones, for playing baseball as it should be played, and for doing it for the Braves.