NEW YORK – He’s been cast as a villain against the Mets for nearly his entire career, and Chipper Jones absolutely thrived in the role. But that doesn’t mean he enjoys getting booed lustily by Mets fans.
“I don’t think I enjoyed it as much as [John] Rocker did,” Jones said before Friday’s series opener against the Mets at Citi Field, the last scheduled series in New York for the retiring third baseman. “I’m one of those guys that likes to be liked. I care what people think about me. I care what people’s image of me is.
“I think it’s that whole Civil War thing – North against the South, all that. We were the country boys that were brash and cocky, but very good. And coming up here and playing well, on a big stage. I think it was good for baseball. Because no matter where you go, you always got the Yankees and the Red Sox. Well now you’ve got a very, very good Mets team who has a big rival in a very, very good Braves team back in the day. And it made for good back-page banter, I’ll say that.”
Jones has been a thorn in the side of New York fans, who still routinely chant “LAR-ee, LAR-ee” when he bats – because they know that no one who likes him uses his given name Larry Wayne Jones Jr.
There was a mix of boos and cheers when a congratulatory message was played on the Citi Field video board minutes before Friday’s game, the first time Jones has been booed at any of his farewell-tour tributes this year.
The Mets presented him with an elaborate 3-D pop-art painting that highlighted Jones’ career at Shea. Unlike other teams, however, they had the presentation hours before the game and out of public view, during the press conference. Mets officials were concerned about how some of their fans might react to an on-field presentation honoring a player who’d done so much damage against them in games over the years.
Not to mention a player who, in September 1999, after doing all he could with his bat to wreck the Mets’ playoff chances, famously commented that he guessed it was time for Mets fans to go change into their Yankees garb.
There were nearly 50 reporters and TV cameramen at a new conference before Friday’s game, the first time he’s had a scheduled media event in any of his last visits to cities this season. It was necessary for the volume of interview requests.
Jones began Friday with .314 career average in 239 games against the Mets, with 46 doubles, four triples, 49 homers and 158 RBIs. Much of his success against them came at old Shea Stadium, where in 88 games he hit .313 with 40 extra-base hits (19 homers), 55 RBIs, a .407 on-base percentage and .557 slugging percentage (.964 OPS).
He had so many fond memories of that stadium that Jones named one of his sons Shea.
Jones made such an impression in New York over the yars that the owner of Foley’s Restaurant & Pub, a famous baseball-themed Irish bar in Manhattan, renamed it “Chipper’s” Friday through Sunday during the series.
“It’s been a good ride,” Jones said. “It’s been fun to come here and play in New York. I’ve loved the opportunity and I’ve enjoyed interacting with most of you [reporters]. Like I’ve said, the New York experience is one like no other. My father grew up a huge Mickey Mantle fan and I always had this preconceived notion of what playing in New York was like. And boy, was I in for a rude awakening when I finally did get here.”
Jones became the black-hatted Brave for Mets fans during that 1999 season, when the Braves and Mets battled for the division title and he pounded New York pitchers for seven homers and 14 RBIs in nine games after July 1, including seven Atlanta wins. He had four homers and seven RBIs in a crucial three-game series sweep Sept. 21-23 at Turner Field, all but settling the division race and securing the National League MVP award for Jones.
“I was in my fifth year in major league baseball and starting to take that next step upward and having a great season, getting some MVP talk,” he said. “ And then the Mets come in and we’ve got a one-game lead, and that series – I was just in a zone. There’s no other way to put it. They pitched me carefully, but there were a couple of situations in the series where they couldn’t avoid me, and I was just in one of those streaks where everything I hit went out of the ballpark.
“It kind of put me on the map, and I guess that’s the first time I started drawing the ire of Mets fans.”