Into the sunset.
Leading up to the final series of the year in New York, Talking Chop and the Mets blog Amazin' Avenue will be doing a series of simul-posts highlighting the relationship that Chipper Jones has had with the New York Mets and their fans. Amazin' Avenue kicks off the series with this gem written by Matthew Callan. It can also be found on AA, here. So sit back and enjoy the roots of why Mets fans dislike Larry.
Chipper Jones has been the scorn of Mets fans for so long I would not be surprised if there was a stone tablet buried underneath the Iron Triangle, carved with crude hieroglyphs of him hitting home runs from both sides of the plate. Other villains have come and gone, either retired (Roger Clemens) or diminished in capacity (Jimmy Rollins). Only Chipper remains. After Sunday, we shall not see him in Queens again, unless he decides to open a few Western Beef franchises in retirement.
You could divine a long, complicated mathematical proof to show that 1 + 1 = 2, but it seems pointless to objectively prove something we all know is true. So it is with Chipper Jones. To be a Mets fan is to hate him, to explain why needless. There's no way to display something when it's tattooed on your soul.
And yet, Chipper's tale of infamy is not without beginning, even if it appears to be without end. Looking back on it now, what amazes me is how long it took for him to be seen as a Met killer, how quickly that perception changed, and how Mets fans came to see the world through a distorted lens of his own design.
Chipper didn't waste any time in dominating the Mets, hitting significantly better against them than other teams In each of his first three full seasons in the majors (1995-1997). His overall OPS in 1996 was an impressive .923, but versus the Amazins it was astounding 1.145. In 1997, the difference was even more pronounced: 1.116 against the Mets, .823 against everyone else.
However, during these years, Mets pitching ranged from mediocre to dreadful. No one really thought he "owned" the Mets because it seemed like every opposing batter did. His output against them did not yet strike anyone as unusual, or personal. A search for "Chipper Jones" and "Mets" in the New York Times archives over this time period yields just 10 results, all of them incidental.
The first sign that perhaps something else was at work came in 1998. That season, Chipper's numbers when playing the Mets fell more in line with his overall stats (.951 overall OPS, .931 vs. New York), but he picked the exact right moment to break out against them. Or, from the Mets' perspective, the exact wrong moment.
When the Mets came to Atlanta for the last three games of the season, they were neck-and-neck-and-neck for the wild card berth with the Cubs and Giants. The Braves, meanwhile, had already won 103 games, sewn up the NL East ages ago, and had absolutely nothing to play for. So naturally, they swept the series and destroyed the Mets' playoff hopes. Much of this could be placed squarely on the Mets' shoulders; they committed a few mind-meltingly stupid errors (like rookie Jay Payton destroying a rally by getting thrown out at third with Mike Piazza on deck), while also failing to execute against raw September callups and ancient pitchers like Dennis Martinez.
In the middle of this brutal collapse, there was Chipper, going 5-for-11 with 3 RBIs and 3 runs scored. Chipper drove in the first run in the penultimate game of the year, an RBI single against Al Leiter that broke a scoreless tie and kickstarted a 4-0 Mets defeat. He added two more RBIs in the finale, helping to chase Armando Reynoso from the game, power the Braves to a 7-2 win and doom the Mets to a long, long winter.
The Mets missed out on the 1998 wild card by one game, a brutal outcome that inspired a huge spending spree in the offseason. The Mets loaded up on players like Robin Ventura, Armando Benitez, and Rickey Henderson, while inking Leiter and Piazza to huge mulit-year contracts. Both GM Steve Phillips and owner Fred Wilpon were very open about how much they expected from this team and its manager, and how they planned to give the Braves a run for their money.
The Mets' checkbook offensive coincided with the Braves hitting a roadblock for the first time in years. In 1999, umpires were directed to chart all of their pitches and submit reports to the league office. This new, stringent enforcement of the strike zone (spearheaded by Sandy Alderson, then working in the commissioner's office) adversely affected Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, two pitchers who thrived for years by getting strike calls off the plate. Atlanta's lineup received a blow when Andres Galaragga was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma and was forced to miss the season. For the first few months of the year, their pitching struggled and their offense remained streaky, giving the Mets hope that maybe the Braves were finally vulnerable.
The two teams didn't play each other in 1999 until June 25 in Atlanta. Despite Piazza sitting out as he dealt with concussion after-effects, the Mets pounded the Braves, 10-2, New York's first win at Turner Field in two years. As far as the Mets were concerned, this would be the high point of their meetings for quite some time.
The Braves clearly became annoyed by the idea that they would be toppled in 1999, and by the upstart Mets of all teams. Rickey Henderson threw fuel on the fire when he insisted that the Mets had the better team and called Atlanta "lucky"--even after the Braves won the last two games of the series. Taking this as a personal challenge, Atlanta went off on a tear they continued for the rest of the season. Glavine and Maddux adjusted to the new K zone, the lineup got hot, and the Braves stubbornly held on to the division lead that had been theirs all decade. And they made it their mission to torment the Mets and their fans.
Still, Chipper Jones was not yet public enemy number one in Queens, as he did relatively little in this series and even conceded of the Mets, "I don't see them going away; they have too many good players." That would have to wait until the next week, when the Braves came to Shea and took two of three from the Mets once again, including a 16-0 slaughtering in which pinch hitter Matt Franco was forced to take the mound. In the series, Chipper went 5-for-10 with 6 runs and 3 home runs. As damaging as it was, Chipper's performance blended into the overall pounding.
It turned out, he was just getting warmed up. The two teams didn't meet again until September 21 in Atlanta. Despite their struggles against the perpetual NL East winner, Mets had a torrid summer against everyone else and came to Turner Field one slim game out of first. They left with their tail between their legs, as the Braves swept the three-game series.
Chipper all but defeated the Mets singlehandedly, hitting 4 home runs and driving in 7 runs. Every single one of Chipper's homers gave the Braves the lead; two of them drove in the eventual winning run. The worst was a three-run bomb against Leiter in the series closer that turned an early 2-1 Mets lead into a 4-2 hole too big to crawl out of. "Like Dust, The Mets Are Swept Aside" said the Times, and it was Chipper who pushed the biggest broom.
The sweep in Atlanta sent the Mets into a tailspin. They staggered north toward Philadelphia to play a Phillies team whose best players were lost for the season, yet somehow get swept there, too. Then, another three-game set against the Braves at Shea that started with a 9-3 drubbing, their seventh loss in a row. The Mets returned the favor the next day by pounding Maddux and the Braves, 9-2, and even sent game three into extras on a dramatic homer from Edgardo Alfonzo. But they were undone in the 11th when Brian Jordan (another thorn in the Mets' side all season) hit a ball to right that Shawon Dunston misplayed into a triple. Jordan scored on a sac fly, and the Mets went quietly in their half.
The loss not only put the division completely out of the Mets' reach. It also dropped them two back in the wild card race with three to play, meaning it would take a miracle to get into the playoffs. It appeared the Braves had once again engineered a Mets collapse, and this time they were not shy about sharing their glee over this state of affairs. Several players bid the Mets good riddance after the game via comments to the beat writers. But it was Chipper who had the most incendiary message for Mets fans:
This is the next best thing to a World Series win....Now, all the Mets fans can go home and put their Yankees' stuff on. You know they're all going to convert. It's amazing how fast you hear Yankee talk around the dugout, yet, they're wearing Mets stuff.
In the span of a week, Chipper transformed himself from just one of many Braves who punished the Mets to Snidely Whiplash. He finished the regular season with a .400 batting average against New York, an OPS of 1.510, 7 home runs, and 16 RBIs. And what his bat started, his mouth finished. Other Braves had harsh words to share (John Rocker groused, "How many times you got to beat a team before the fans finally shut up?"), but their comments were mere hand grenades. Chipper had launched the verbal equivalent of a nuclear strike.
He could not have picked a better/worse comment for maximum fan antagonism, which was undoubtedly his goal. (Chipper admitted the abuse heaped on him from the Shea seats was the primary motivation behind his tirade.) Mets fans were already stung by what looked like another collapse and the continued dominance of their crosstown rivals. Chipper's crack jabbed a sore spot in their collective psyche. It was an echo of the unanswerable query often lobbed by the clueless: Why don't you just be a Yankees fan? Chipper hadn't just asked this of Mets fans; he'd suggested that Mets fans actually did it.
Chipper made his remarks assuming he would not see the Mets again until 2000. As fate would have it, the Mets fought their way into a play-in game against the Reds and won it, then went on to defeat the Diamondbacks in a four-game division series to set up an NLCS against the Braves. To a man, the Mets took Chipper's words personally. "We were supposed to be dead, right?" Bobby Valentine said. "Our fans were supposed to change gear. They’re supposed to be watching football."
During a postgame Mets Extra segment with Ed Coleman at the conclusion of the division series, Orel Hershiser shared this tantalizing piece of information: Chipper hated to be addressed by his given name, Larry. Mike Piazza had already taken to calling him "Larry" during their encounters at home plate, saying he refused to call a grown man "Chipper." Coleman suggested that maybe Mets fans might want to use this piece of information to their advantage. They took the suggestion.
Confronted by the ghost of a team he'd declared dead, Chipper tried to play dead himself. Prior to game one, NBC reported that Chipper--normally a media magnet--refused all interview requests. Throughout the series, he kept his comments to the press to an absolute bare minimum.
If the idea was to lower his profile, it didn't help. Once the NLCS moved to Shea, Mets fans tortured Chipper with chants of LAAAARY, employing a volume and synchronicity worthy of a European soccer match. To drive the point home even further, Shea's stands were filled with signs featuring a certain Stooge who shared his name. During game four, Chipper tossed a foul ball casually into the field level stands, and soon heard an entire stadium chant angrily at the ball's recipient to THROW IT BACK. Anything Chipper touched was now unclean in Queens.
What is amazing to contemplate now is that this tactic seemed to work. The player whose bat and mouth taunted the Mets a few weeks earlier, who was said to thrive on the hatred of others, now looked uneasy, even unnerved. Take a look at this clip from game four of the NLCS to see just how uncomfortable Chipper looks. And keep in mind that the Braves were up 3-0 in the series at the time. If you didn't know any better, based on the crowd and Chipper's demeanor, you'd think the situation was reversed. (This video also serves as a healthy reminder of just how insanely loud Shea could get for games like this.)
Chipper went on to win the National League MVP in 1999, but he looked like anything but an MVP during the NLCS. Though the Mets and Braves played an amazing six-game series, including two epic extra inning classics, Chipper was a virtual nonfactor, as he drove in just one run, hit no homers, and managed just five hits in 29 plate appearances, three of which were singles. I won't blame Mets fans for looking this up, because even I can scarcely believe it myself.
The stats tell us that Chipper never again damaged the Mets on the level achieved in 1999, mostly because the historic beating he administered that year would have been impossible for anyone to duplicate. After 2001, Chipper's numbers against the Mets stabilized and fell in lockstep with his overall marks. Impressive, future Hall of Fame numbers to be sure, but not pronouncedly better than against any other team.
Our psychic wounds want to tell us otherwise. It certainly seemed like Chipper was there to thwart the Mets at every turn, that it was always him putting the bow on top of another meltdown. And if he went too long without sticking a dagger in our hearts, he managed to pull off another crushing hit. When he couldn't manage that, he went for heel moves, like griping that David Wright didn't deserve a Gold Glove or naming his kid Shea.
But if we do the math and count up the post-1999 blows, they wouldn't add up to as many as we think. There's no way they could. That's because what Chipper did in those few weeks in September 1999 was like a black hole of Hate. The impact was so concentrated that just a teaspoon of it weighed more than a thousand suns. You can't actually see a black hole; you can only find it by observing the it warps the landscape around it. That is the magnitude of what Chipper did. He distorted everything that came after with his gravity.
Our idea of Chipper was frozen at the event horizon, forever going deep against Rick Reed and Dennis Cook, forever telling us to put on our non-existent Yankee gear. In our minds, he will stay there even as he marches off into the sunset, taking the last and densest of baseball hatreds along with him.