By Steve Hummer
The relationship began on May 9, 1995 when a kid from the one-caution-light town of Pierson, Fla. — “Fern Capital of the World” — announced his intentions to cast his shadow over the great metropolis of New York.
The first of Chipper Jones’ thus-far 468 major league home runs came that day at Shea, an eighth-inning shot off Josias Manzanillo that took down the Mets 3-2. Hmmm, could it be that something special was afoot?
More than 17 years and a few thousand jeers later, this weekend will mark the end of one of baseball’s most personal rivalries when Jones makes his final pass through Flushing Meadows, Queens.
Of all the road stops along this season’s Farewell Chipper Tour, the three-day series that begins tonight at Citi Field figures to be the most emotionally confusing.
Before departing, Jones didn’t know quite what to expect from a crowd grown used to derisively chanting his given name – “LAR-reee, LAR-reee, LAR-reee” – while watching him dismantle the home team.
“Trust me, if I was a New York fan I don’t know how I’d feel,” he said. “There would be a certain part of me that would appreciate the realm of the career. But man, that’s a lot of heartache (through the years).”
It was Jones vs. the 8 million souls of New York, and often, they were overmatched. Jones hit for a higher career average against six other National League teams than he did against the Mets (.314). He has as many career home runs vs. Philadelphia (49) as against the Mets. And more RBIs (165 to 158) against the Florida Marlins than the Mets. Still, Jones is forever identified as the No. 1 Mets killer of this generation.
John Rocker absorbed some of the New Yorkers’ bile after his infamous rant against that city and all who lived there, but that was only temporary. Even as Jones aged and the damage he did lessened – his batting average at the four-year-old Citi Field is 100 points lower than at Shea – giving Jones the Bronx cheer in Queens has been something of a sacred tradition.
It all crystallized in 1999, Jones’ MVP season, when during one September sweep (in Atlanta), he hit four home runs, each one giving the Braves the lead at the time. After the Braves beat the Mets in a late-season game in New York, Jones issued the smirking suggestion that it was about time for all those fans to go home and change into their Yankees stuff. By the time the two teams met in the National League Championship Series that season, Mets fans had converted the No. 10 on Jones’ back into a bulls-eye.
Late Braves broadcaster Skip Caray, noting how the New York tabloids were exploiting the friction, fretted at the time: “If anything untoward happens to Jones, I would point the finger at the media up there more than anyone else.”
Yet, Jones did so love the vibe there that he named one of his four sons Shea. The tenor of the name just pleased his ear.
“A great name,” he said. “Hey, my dad named me Larry. C’mon, give a kid something to work with.”
Ah, yes, the Jones birth name. It was also in 1999 that Mets fans picked up on the clue that Chipper didn’t like to be called by his given handle. The Larry chants – accompanied by various posters depicting a Stooge by the same name – began in full-throated earnest then.
Today, when asked about his memories of playing the Mets in New York, Jones does not invoke any of the ugliness. In fact, he’ll even acknowledge and appreciate some of the times the Mets got him. As when Robin Ventura hit a grand slam single to beat the Braves in a ’99 NLCS game (mobbed during the 15th-inning, bases-loaded walkoff homer, Ventura never made it past first base). And, most vividly, when Mike Piazza’s home run beat the Braves in the first game back in New York after the 9-11 attacks.
On that day, Jones picked up a few of the shells that littered the field after the pregame 21-gun salute by a Marine Corps honor guard. He still has those keepsakes, along with the memory of being sternly questioned by airport security as to why he had spent ammo in his bag.
There is reason to suspect New Yorkers will be kind to Jones as they wish him goodbye, giving him at least a grudging respect, along with an as-yet unknown parting gift. Jones has sensed an easing in relations.
“For the first 10 years I was in the league, I never left my hotel room in New York,” he said. “I went from the room to the bus to the park to the bus and back.
“Now, I can walk down the street and everybody’s great. Those who recognize me, they’re great. I get messages on Twitter from Mets fans all over saying: ‘I admire what you’ve done;’ ‘You’ve been a great player for a long time;’ ‘You killed my Mets and I hate you for it, but I respect the player and the person that you’ve become.’ That for me is an ultimate compliment.”
It is with olive branch in hand that Jones makes his final appearance at the Mets home park.
He practically broke into a Sinatra song as he left for the Big Apple.
“There’s something about playing on that stage that appeals to me. I think if you can walk onto that stage and be able to tune out what you have to tune out on a nightly basis, playing those teams that were so good whether – whether the Mets or the Yankees – and be successful, you can be successful on any stage,” he said.
“I always held New York to a higher standard than anyplace else. I was usually pretty jacked up to play when I got there. That was a special, special place to play.”
Once he made it there, Jones was certain he could make it anywhere.
- Steve Hummer