One of the great things about baseball is that even the best hitters fail far more often than they succeed. If a player can bang out just three hits in every ten at-bats, he’ll be treated as a hero. If he can get on base just four times for every ten plate appearances, he’s a god. Think about that. The best players make an out every six or seven times for every ten times they step up to the plate. Failure is a part of baseball. It’s a part of life.
Chipper Jones is a sure fire, first ballot, Hall of Fame baseball player. He’s an MVP and a batting champion. He deserved the 1995 Rookie of the Year award. He’s played on teams that have won three National League pennants. He wears the ring signifying the Braves 1995 World Championship. Throughout his final season in the big leagues, he has been celebrated at every turn. Fans that have lustily booed him over the years have given him standing ovations. Teams that he terrorized with his bat over the years have showered him with gifts. The crowds in Atlanta have gotten near rabid as the season draws down. Chipper Jones is one of the best players of his generation.
Still, seven times for every ten at-bats, he was out. Six times for every ten plate appearances, he didn’t get on base. Plate appearance after plate appearance, Chipper Jones failed. He failed to drive the ball over the wall. He failed to find that hole in the infield. He failed to take ball four. Maybe in one of those at-bats he drove one in the gap, but a speedy outfielder ran it down. He might have hit a screaming line drive, but it was right at the shortstop. Results matter. Each plate appearance was a failure.
Of course, that’s the paradox of baseball. Maybe Chipper hit a line drive right at the first baseman in his first at-bat. Maybe he hit a deep fly to center where only a leaping grab by a gold glove outfielder prevented a double. In his third at-bat, maybe Chipper swings at ball four and hits a weak grounder to second. Then, in his fourth at-bat, the hard throwing closer of his opponent jams him hard inside. Improbably, Chipper gets a little wood on the ball, just above the hands. The bat shatters. The baseball seems to float through the air, as if guided by some magical force. It lands just outside the reach of the second baseman and just in front of the charging right fielder. Three failures and one success. All it takes is three successes for every seven failures, and no one will remember the failures.
In the 2003 National League Division Series, the Atlanta Braves faced the Chicago Cubs. After being swept by the Yankees in the 1999 World Series, the Braves hadn’t had much post-season success. The Cardinals swept the Braves in the 2000 NLDS. In 2001, after sweeping the Astros in the NLDS, the Diamondbacks would crush the braves four games to one in the NLCS. The 2002 NLDS would find the Braves battling the Giants in a back and forth series that would end in the Giants favor. The 2003 Atlanta Braves were a great baseball team. They won a hundred and one games, which was thirteen more than the Chicago Cubs.
By any objective measurement, Chipper Jones did not have a great series. In the first game, Chipper was zero for four, including two strike outs at the hand of Kerry Wood. He did drive in a run with a groundout, as he would do again in the Braves victory in game two. He would also single to center, but that was his only hit. The Braves entire offense was anemic in game three, including Chipper who went zero for three with a walk. In the series final game, where the Braves were eliminated, Kerry Wood struck Chipper out twice and got him to ground into an inning ending double play. It was another zero for four performance. In those four games, Chipper had a single hit and a walk. The two RBI did more to prove the uselessness of the statistic than it did to help the Braves. None of that is what the Braves fans remember about Chipper’s performance in the 2003 Division Series.
Down two games to one, the Braves were facing elimination at Chicago’s Wrigley Field. Braves fans were desperate for a post-season success story of any kind. Big bat Gary Sheffield was out, and with Darren Bragg starting, it didn’t look like a night for big offense. In the top of the fifth, the game was tied one to one. Rafael Furcal hit a perfectly placed ground ball into right field to start the inning. Marcus Giles hit a ground ball to short to force out Furcal at second. In 2003, Chipper was established as one of best players in the sport, so I think it’s safe to say he wasn’t worried about his poor performance over the first three games. After taking the first pitch, Chipper launched a fly ball into the bleachers to give the Braves the lead. He wasn’t done. In the top of the eighth, the Braves maintained a two run lead with the score now four to two. With two outs, Giles drew a walk and advanced to second on a wild pitch. Chipper worked the count full on Cubs pitcher Mark Guthrie. Chipper deposited the payoff pitch over the ivy icing the game for the Braves. For Braves fans, hope was alive again, even if only briefly.
If you amass enough success, if you get those three hits in every ten at-bats, and if you get on base four times every ten times you step up to the plate, people don’t remember the failures. Chipper isn’t the guy who hit .167 in the 2003 Division Series, he’s the guy who won game four and sent the series back to Atlanta giving the Braves a chance to move on. Failure will always outnumber success in baseball, but the gift of those three hits, of those four times on base, is the memories.
What are those memories? Chipper Jones is the guy who hit two home runs in his first post-season game, including the game winning shot in the eighth to beat the Colorado Rockies. He’s the guy who destroyed the National League in the second half of the 1999 season putting up a 1.241 OPS on his way to the MVP. He’s the guy who intimidated the Mets so much that season that he was walked nine times in the NLCS. He’s the guy who was still hitting .400 on June 18 during the 2008 season. I could go on and on. In this season alone, he’s the guy who walked the Braves off against the Phillies, twice. He’s the guy who banged out five hits against the Cubs. He’s the guy who smacked two home runs on the night the Braves gave away his bobble-head. There could be more to come, after all, the season isn’t even over.
If you are an Atlanta Braves fan, here’s what I want you to do every time you hold a Chipper Jones baseball card in your hand. I want you to flip it over. I want you to read the stats. I want you to think, and to ponder, and to consider the ramifications of three hits in every ten at-bats, four times on base for every ten plate appearances. I want you to consider just how rare and how great that is. I want you to appreciate how fortunate we all were to watch it unfold.
(Thanks to Mark Fujimoto and Steve Drennen for the pictures of the Chipper Jones cards.)