NEW YORK – Before his last scheduled series in New York, Chipper Jones held court during a press conference, which was necessary due to number of interview requests that had preceded the retiring Braves third baseman’s arrival in the city where so many fans have loved to hate “LAIR-eee, LAIR-eee” over the years, but where he’s relished playing more than anywhere else outside Atlanta.
Since he was as candid and interesting as always, I figured I’d run the full transcript of Jones’ Friday presser as our main blog today. He discussed not just what it’s been like being the black-hatted opponent in New York, but also what kept him in Atlanta for his entire career. Oh, and he gave us an update on his son Shea, named after you know what.
Before we dive in, I thought you’d want to hear his response to a question about what it’s been like to surpass the expectations that most people had for him as a 40-year-old in his final season, and what drove him to excel this year beyond the usual desire to help his team get to the postseason and then make a run at the World Series.
“I didn’t want anybody to say this year, ‘You should have retired three years ago,’” said Chipper, who in his past 50 games before today has hit .302 with 15 doubles, eight homers, 31 RBIs and a .379 OBP and .516 slugging percentage. “When I broke into the big leagues, the only phrase I didn’t want to hear the entire ’95 season was, ‘Terry Pendleton would have made that play,’ or ‘Terry Pendleton would have got a hit right there.’ And it’s been much the same this year in that I didn’t want to have people saying, ‘It was sad to see Chipper play his last year, he was a shell of his former self.’ Which I’ll admit I am. Physically anyway.
“But when I look up on that Jumbotron and see a .300 average by my name and some run production and all that kind of stuff, I kind of smirk a little bit. It makes me feel good.”
Here’s the rest of what he said Friday, beginning with this opening statement before he fielded questions.
“It’s been a good ride. 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 sitting out here, on various occasions, sharing stories and just talking baseball. 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.
“But it’s been a good ride, and I want to thank each and every one of you for your patience over the years. I know at times I’ve been hard to get along with. Other times not so much. But it’s been fun interacting with you guys. Make no mistake, this is my last trip in. I’m in awe of the attention that this series is getting, but it is much appreciated.”
How’d you sleep this time? (he famously complained in past after missing games in New York in past, including last month, due to a stiff back from sleeping on beds at the team’s longtime hotel)
“I slept awesome. I slept at the Grand Hyatt. I think I got Obama’s suite. The Grand Hyatt, they really rolled out the red carpet this time. It’s the best night of sleep I’ve had in New York in 20 years.”
On Shea Stadium
“For me every major league ballpark is somewhat of a cathedral. But that one holds a special place for me. Playing on this [New York] stage is the most fun of anywhere you can play, it doesn’t matter if it’s Shea Stadium or Yankee Stadium. But [Shea] holds a special place. I’ve played in some epic games in that ballpark. Whether it’s my first home run, whether it’s the first game after 9/11, whether it’s the grand-slam single that [Robin] Ventura hit – I’m enough of a man to take a step back and realize when the other team does something special, that it affects me as well. A lot of the memories that I have of Shea Stadium aren’t necessarily good ones, but I respect the fact that some pretty amazing players did some pretty amazing things to our ballclub over the years.”
On playing in New York, how experience has evolved for him
“I’ve said it many times, I’m a small-town kid. I’m from a town of about 600 people, a blue-collar town, and it’s amazing enough that I’ve gotten to experience 23 years of professional baseball coming from where I came from. So to say that the first time I jumped off the plane at LaGuardia that I was a little intimidated would be an understatement.”
“For the first 10 years of my career … I never left my hotel [while in New York]. This was an intimidating place for me. Probably in the last five or six years have I ventured out and walked down the street, and signed autographs while I was walking down the street. And there are all kinds; it’s New York. You’re going to run into one bad apple every once in a while. But for the most part everybody’s been gracious, everybody’s been very nice. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, ‘Yo Chippuh,’ ‘Yo, Chippuh, quit beating up on my Mets,’ or ‘Good luck against the Yanks.’ It’s that kind of interaction that, quite frankly, 10 or 15 years ago I didn’t think was in my future.”
Favorite memory of playing in New York?
“It’s hard to compete with the first. So many good memories that I have of Shea Stadium are from that very first series, whether it was the 2-0 fastball that I got fom Josias Manzanillo in the top of the ninth to help us win 3-2 [his first home run]. Whether it was the home run I hit off Pete Harnish the very next day, into their bullpen.
“But above even those, I think, 9/11 was my fondest memory. That’ll be a game that’ll be etched in memory forever. You’re talking about two heated rivals; we didn’t necessarily like each other much back then. And we got together before the game, we came together, grown men shaking hands, giving hugs. I think we all as Braves knew that night that we were in trouble, because we were not only playing a very good baseball team, but you just had a feeling that God and every baseball god was on New York’s side that night. And the matinee idol, Mike Piazza, ends up hitting the storybook homer that sent everybody home feeling great, feeling wonderful. We’d done our jobs as baseball players to entertain people, but we had gone, I feel, above the beyond just a normal day’s work in that we owed it to the city of New York and the northeastern United States to help heal a little bit, to help take people’s minds off of a terrible tragedy for a couple of hours. And it was a riveting game from start to finish. You had 50 guys out there that were going at it pretty hard, and ultimately Piazza won it….
“I guess when you hear Bobby Cox’s reaction after the game, and knowing Bobby the way I do and as intense as he was and how he wanted to win every single inning, every single pitch of a game, even he admitted after the game it was as it should be. As long as we came out and beat them the next day, it’s OK they won [that first game].”
On son Shea, when did he understand the origin of his name?
“It wasn’t very hard for him, because his room has been blue and orange from the very get-go. He has murals on the walls of baseball players and Shea Stadium. I’ve given him replicas of Shea Stadium throughout the years. He has two stadium seats in his closet, bolted to the floor so he can sit on them and get dressed every day for school. Whenever a stadium flashes up on TV, he goes, ‘Is that my stadium, dad?’
“He just turned 8, and he’s a pretty good athlete. He was hitting a pitched ball before he was 3 years old. So his hand-eye coordination is there. He’s one of the best football players on his team.”
Is he right-handed or left-handed?
“He’s a right-hander.”
Not a switch-hitter?
“Not yet. That’s one of my bucket-list retirement things. The switch-hitting is something that’s going to probably come later. But he’s a very good athlete. He’s one of the best football players on his team He’s paid me back for a lot of the bad things I’ve done in my life – he’s my one that I have to go get out of the principal’s office a time or two. But he’s a great kid.”
On Craig Biggio, their conversation early this season about retirement, when Biggio gave him cowboy hat in Houston send-off
“I played in his last game [before Biggio retired]. He hit the ball to me in his last at-bat, and I lobbed it to first base to give him every opportunity to beat it out. I went up to him and I said, you know that I threw that off-balance on purpose to give you an opportunity to beat that out? He said, ‘Yeah, 10 years ago I would have.’”
What else is on your bucket list?
“Hunting, fishing in Mexico, go to England to play some golf. Go to a Ryder Cup. A lot things. I live so close to Augusta that I’ve got to play it a couple of times, but I want to go over there Augusta weekend and watch the best in the world tackle that, figure out what I did wrong the first couple of times I went through there. Just some things like that.”
Ever wonder what it might’ve been like to play here in New York?
“Yeah, you always dream about whether the grass is greener on the other side, or how you would be thought of or revered differently had you played in a huge major market such as this one. That being said, I wouldn’t trade my experience in Atlanta for anything. I’ve gotten a chance to influence an entire region of the United States. And you know what’s cool for me? When you one of those Little League teams from Georgia make it to the Little League World Series? And nine out of 10 of them say you’re their favorite player, when they’re on TV. They do the same things up here, don’t get me wrong. But I’m not sure I would have been the same person, the same player, in a market like this.
“I wear my emotions on my sleeve, and sometimes I’m going to say stuff that people didn’t like. And up here stuff tends to get blown out of proportion a little bit. As some of you know me – I’ve been years without talking to some of you guys for stuff that’s been printed in the paper up here, because I just don’t feel like it was printed in the correct context.
“I’ll never forget the time I had to call Alex Rodriguez to smooth things over with him, and he assured me that nothing was up. And I meant no ill will by it, it was just one of those classic instances where stuff kind of got blown out of proportion here. That stuff doesn’t happen in Atlanta.”
On his 1999 MVP season, when he dashed Mets division-title hopes
“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. 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. [He hit four homers in critical three-game September series sweep at Atlanta.] 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 when 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.”
On whether he liked the villain role in New York
“I don’t think I enjoyed it as much as [John] Rocker did. 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.”
On reception he thought he’d get in last visit to New York
“I’d like to think it will be somewhat mixed. I know there are going to be a lot of Braves fans here, who wouldn’t miss this opportunity — ever. Somebody asked me the question yesterday or the day before, ‘If I were a Mets fan, how would I feel about me?’ I would respect the body of work, but I would hate his guts.”
On the importance of playing with one team for his entire career, and how a player like the Mets’ David Wright should weigh that when thinking about re-signing with New York .
“It was very important for me. I can honestly say this is one reason why the Atlanta Braves and I have had such a good marriage, is because the Braves have never allowed me to go to free agency. They never allowed me to even get close to free agency. I’ve never got to a free-agent year without having a long-term deal signed before spring training. That’s huge. When your employer impresses upon you that they won’t you there, and they don’t want you going anywhere, they don’t even want you sniffing the other side of the fence. That’s big.
“And I’m a Southern kid. I grew up in the South. I was born into the Braves organization, I grew up in the Braves organization, I reaped the benefits of the professional life at the big-league level in Atlanta. And I got to play for arguably the greatest manager of all time in Bobby Cox. So for me, it really didn’t seem like the grass was all that greener. I mean, because I got spoiled by the success the Atlanta Braves had early in my career. Bobby was there. Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz were there. It was a lead-pipe cinch where I wanted to play and stay.
“And once it got to the point where those guys kind of left the game and left the Brave organization, I just felt it was my duty to stay through thick and then. Cal Ripken, Tony Gwynn, Biggio, Bagwell, all those guys. They set a good example for me. Not tucking tail and running when things got tough. When people think of me I want them to think of that big A on my hat and have that be the first thing that comes to mind.”
• OK, that’s it. Hope you enjoyed that. I want to get this posted before gametime, so I’ll have to skip some other stuff I had. I’ll try to squeeze that into today’s notebook in a bit.
Today’s blog-ending tune might seem a bit too obvious, but it’s also appropriate and I couldn’t resist. You can hear Hoboken, N.J. native Frank Sinatra sing it by clicking here. Or see and hear Sid Vicious do it quite a bit differently by clicking here.
“MY WAY” by R. Fair, S. Ridel, M. Modesto, A. Sheth
And now, the end is here
And so I face the final curtain
My friend, I’ll say it clear
I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain
I’ve lived a life that’s full
I traveled each and ev’ry highway
And more, much more than this, I did it my way
Regrets, I’ve had a few
But then again, too few to mention
I did what I had to do and saw it through without exemption
I planned each charted course, each careful step along the byway
And more, much more than this, I did it my way
Yes, there were times, I’m sure you knew
When I bit off more than I could chew
But through it all, when there was doubt
I ate it up and spit it out
I faced it all and I stood tall and did it my way
I’ve loved, I’ve laughed and cried
I’ve had my fill, my share of losing
And now, as tears subside, I find it all so amusing
To think I did all that
And may I say, not in a shy way,
“Oh, no, oh, no, not me, I did it my way”
For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught
To say the things he truly feels and not the words of one who kneels
The record shows I took the blows and did it my way!
Yes, it was my way
by David O’Brien, Braves/MIB blog