Underneath his black hooded cloak, the Grim Reaper wore a Braves jersey and moonlighted as Atlanta’s third baseman. At least it seemed that way. The Mets and their fans died many deaths at the hands of Larry Jones; better known as Chipper. The bitterest days of the Mets/Braves rivalry played out over ten years ago now. But for the die hard Mets fans, the wounds Chipper Jones inflicted upon us might never heal enough to forget him. I do know we respect him though. And now, after the 2012 season, he’ll take his final leave from wielding his scythe for a living, and go home a certain future Hall of Famer.
In a little side story, Chipper Jones was the first fantasy baseball player I ever drafted. What should have been his rookie year was missed due to a broken foot. But I carried him anyway and protected Chipper for the next season still not knowing if he’d ever pan out. As they say, the rest is history.
I don’t know about you, but I like competing against teams when they are at their best, and have all their stars available on the field. After thirty-plus years of going to Shea Stadium, it is my humble opinion that very few players commanded our attention like Larry did. And I’m not talking due to John Rocker idiot-like behavior either. It’s my experience Larry was respected here in New York close to the way Pete Rose was once, and Willie Stargell was. It’s an odd dynamic for sure. Chipper Jones wasn’t exactly demonized by the New York crowd. But make no mistake, we loved antagonizing the hell out of him, and making him feel unwelcome. There is a major difference. I think there are a great majority of Mets Fans who would freely admit, we respected the hell out of the guy because he played the game right and always carried himself correctly. Throughout his now nineteen year career, he always maintained and played with a profound respect for the game. And truth be told, I’ve seldom seen a smoother approach at the plate.
People like to reminisce how golden the 1950’s were. Well, for me in the late 1970’s, I was the pre-teen beneficiary of season tickets four rows behind the visiting dugout. Back then you didn’t have to be a Rockefeller offspring to have a chance at the really good seats. And if you were there, you know the years between 1977 and 1982 weren’t so golden at Shea Stadium. But at the time, historically low attendance probably lent itself to visiting players being a lot more amicable to little fans like me; at least more so than they are inclined to be today. Guys like Ozzie Smith, Darrell Evans, Dan Driessen, Steve Garvey, Ted Simmons, and even Bill Buckner, among others treated this little Mets fan very well.
Additionally, back then we didn’t boo our Mets quite as vociferously as we do today. If you weren’t part of that 1977-1980 era, you have no idea what losing is really like. But even on the team’s worst days and nights, we just kept rooting them on. I guess my point is, times have changed. Mets fans booed Johan Santana in his first ever start at Shea Stadium and I still find that ponderous. Back then, we took a lot more time out to pay respect for a visiting player if in fact the player was deserving. I’d say by 1983, that tradition started to fade. The raucous band of Mets of the mid-to-late 1980’s had a lot to do with that. And then, nothing was ever quite the way it was when I was younger.
In 1964, when Jim Bunning of the Phillies pitched a perfect game at Shea Stadium, by about the sixth inning or so, the whole Mets crowd was behind him. I wasn’t there for that. I wasn’t even born yet. But I was at a game in 1978, when Pete Rose extended his consecutive game hit streak to 38 games at Shea Stadium as he was making his way towards Willie Keeler’s National League mark of forty-four, and threatening Joe DiMaggio’s mark. We gave Rose a roaring, and lengthy standing ovation that night. And mind you, this came five short years after he and Buddy Harrelson brawled at second base during the 1973 National League Championship series.
During my experiences, Willie Stargell was another Met killer who made his plans for retirement known. On one occasion, I was at a game in which we didn’t celebrate an opposing player’s accomplishment or pursuit of glory as in Pete Rose’s situation. This time, I stood along with most people at Shea Stadium, and cheered with resounding appreciation for a great player and a fine ambassador of the game. Stargell was another guy who led his team into Shea Stadium with quiet, yet unyielding, overwhelming confidence, and routinely wrecked us. When Pops stepped to the plate for the last time one Sunday afternoon, Shea rained down cheers for the Pirate great. On his way back to the visiting dugout after making out, me and the surrounding sections gave him another standing ovation. He tipped his cap, and I could swear he pointed at me and winked. As if.
By then I was twelve years old. Today, it strikes me as being somewhat appropriate that was the the last season I sat in those particular seats. The Tony Gwynn; Wade Boggs; Cal Ripken Jr. era was starting. My childhood era of baseball was ending. And with it, an Old School way of viewing baseball players and the game itself.
I’m not being and old fuddy-duddy. We “hated” on teams and players, and booed, and jeered, back then too. And adults got drunk and cursed back then too. Hell, I grew up in a day when it was still “legal” to drive with a beer in your lap and not wear a seat belt. For my part, I always reserved my best efforts for the Cubs, and for when the Dodgers came to town, knowing they once played in Brooklyn. What Jose Reyes endured during this last series is akin to a back rub compared to what I used to do to the Dodgers when they came to Shea.
If it sounds like I’m comparing one era to the next, I’m not. And if it sounds like, in a round about way, I’m criticizing a younger crowd, I’m not. I assure you, I’m an in-the-moment kind of guy. But this is what I am saying….
I will not be attending the Mets/Braves series in September. However, I will be at the game Friday evening. And so, I’ll have to take the opportunity as it comes. At the appropriate time, I’m going to stand up and applaud a player who has done nothing but kill us for nearly two decades. But I’m also going to let him know, all those years he spent giving New York area fans our props and due respect have not gone unnoticed. There is something to be said for an enemy player buying two orange seats from the old stadium, and naming his son, Shea.
He knew the deal; Enemy Mine. But I still say Chipper was one of the good guys. In order to find out how good your team really is, you have to play the best. Chipper was the best third baseman of a generation. And the battles between the Mets and Braves staged a little over a decade ago, were classics. There would have been no classics without players like Chipper, and Mike Piazza, and Tom Glavine, and Edgardo Alfonzo. You get the picture.
So on his way out of New York, yeah, I’m going to let him know how much fun it was to watch him play against us, no matter how good or bad the outcome turned out. That’s what I remember doing as a kid. At the end of a career, we offered unbiased appreciation. That’s what my Dad taught me. I’m not going to say this kind of sentiment is lost on a newer generation of baseball fans. And I stress I am no body’s keeper. I only hope you’ll join me when I do get up, and cheer him…., for the one and only time.