Your time is running out to watch the greatest ever Atlanta Brave play the game. After he appears in his final All Star Game Tuesday in Kansas City, you’ll only have 38 more chances to schlep down to Turner Field and see Chipper Jones swing the bat.
And that’s assuming he plays in all of them, which he surely won’t, as he is a withered, sore old man at 40 by pro athlete standards.
I’m typically not in the business of recommending you spend time and cash to go sit in the heat and watch millionaire ballplayers. But you should go see Chipper play one more time.
We won't see another like him. He’s been an Atlanta Brave for his entire 19-year career, making him that rarest of ballplayers in our mercenary age. Aaron played many of his best years in Milwaukee. Niekro and Maddux and Smoltz and Glavine didn’t play every day, and Chipper has Dale Murphy beat on every statistic except gold gloves and MVPs.
Your kids can’t remember when number 10 wasn’t part of the squad. His at-bats and misadventures have been the stuff of sports pages and water cooler talk since Bill Clinton’s first term.
He was a rookie in Atlanta’s only World Series-winning season in 1995, and his glory years and now his years in athletic decline mirror Atlanta from the Go-Go Olympics-era 1990s to our post-bust recessionary twenty ‘teens. We're two of a kind, as our mortgages and resumes turn as black and blue and red as old Chipper’s perennially tender knee and ankle.
While Atlanta has suffered through the collapse of the housing market and the end of thousands of middle class paychecks, Chipper has slowed down too, suffering from so many injuries and trips to the disabled list that Braves fans hold their breath when he makes a play in the field or on the bases, hoping that nothing has been strained, chipped, or torn. We hold our breath as Jim Powell intones “let’s see if Chipper’s OK.”
He’s not the most lovable sports figure to pass through our town. His public persona is taciturn, sort of a grumpy good ole’ boy who would rather not be bothered when he’s not playing. Certainly early in his career he left a trail of disappointed fans who approached their hero for an autograph and left emotionally scarred by his curt refusals.
He famously ended one marriage in the middle of a Braves playoff run by fathering an out-of-wedlock child with a Hooters' waitress. But fans will forgive indiscretions like that if some people won’t. With Chipper, like Atlanta, you have to live with the glory and sometimes the scandal or hard times.
Popular culture is overhyped by design. Many of today’s big-time athletes end up known more for their Twitter Feeds and pending criminal charges than their on-field accomplishments.
In this case Chipper stands out as one of the greatest stone-cold professional hitters baseball has seen, the consummate professional between the lines. He’s been strolling up to the batter’s box and menacing opposing pitchers first at old Fulton County Stadium and then Turner Field since 1993, when he was called up at the end of the season.
In 19 years since, Chipper has hit a baseball as well as anyone this side of Ty Cobb or Stan Musial, Mickey Mantle or Pete Rose. He will retire as the only switch-hitter in baseball history with a batting average over .300 and over 400 home runs.
Hearing generations of Braves announcers describe his at bats is the soundtrack to my spring and summer nights as much as the cicadas and tree frogs or the hum of the neighbor’s air conditioning unit.
But time marches on, and Chipper Jones, like those fireflies in your back yard, shines bright upon the scene and goes just as quickly. Take the time to cheer him at bat one more time.