By all accounts, Chipper Jones has a photographic memory when it comes to baseball. He can recall sequences from pitchers he’s faced years ago, pulling a 1-0 fastball here or a 2-2 slider there from the library in his head of more than 10,000 plate appearances during his 19-year career with the Braves.
He’s going to need those mythical memory skills to retain all that took place in his honor Friday night during the Braves tribute to their future Hall of Fame third baseman.
The scope of it might even have been a little much for the clutch-est of hitters, who has thrived on the ninth inning like no other Atlanta hitter.
“I was an emotional wreck all night,” Jones said. “It’s so overwhelming. And the support and the love in the ballpark tonight was just something that it’s hard to prepare yourself for.”
Jones took each and every swing with a sold-out crowd of 51,910 – the seventh largest in Turner Field history – on their feet, chanting “let’s go, Chipper.” Flashbulbs popped off like he was Mark McGwire in the 1998 home run chase. Every third fan seemed to be wearing a “Jones” No. 10 jersey or T-shirt, or holding a sign.
One read “Thank you Todd Van Poppel,” with a nod to the hard-throwing pitcher from Texas the Braves might have chosen first overall in the 1990 draft if he hadn’t rejected them in pursuit of a bigger signing bonus.
“I sold my house in Canada to come to your retirement party,” another sign read. “My Dad named me Chipper,” one said. “This math teacher loves Chipper’s stats” was another. And “Chipper for President.”
Between every inning the Braves played video messages on the jumbotron from everyone from Hank Aaron saying he “Hope your plaque is next to mind” to other former Braves like Dale Murphy, Javy Lopez, Ryan Klesko, Otis Nixon, Sid Bream, and Andruw Jones.
“I think I had a tear planted in the corner of my eye basically all night,” said Jones, who went 0-for-4 with four groundouts to prove it. “It’s pretty tough to hit when you’re misty like that. It doesn’t bode well for picking up rotation real well.”
Fans came from 1,500 miles away like brothers Leon and Chevy Teague from New Mexico or four blocks away from Turner Field, like Atlanta’s own Tedd Dunn who lives on Pullian Street.
Dunn remembers the first time he ever saw Jones in the winter after the Braves completed their run from worst-to-first to go to the 1991 World Series. Dunn was trying to collect autographs from all of the 1991 players, a pursuit which took him to a card show at the old Castlegate Hotel.
Braves star outfielder Ron Gant was signing there, with a line of 300 or 400 people waiting for him. Jones, who had just completed his first full season in the Braves organization with the Macon Braves, was sitting at a table with his girlfriend all but twiddling his thumbs.
“Chipper was some young buck that people had never heard of,” said Dunn, who still has a photograph with Jones from that day. “Well the people who were real Braves fans had heard of him.”
Let’s just say, a few have caught on along the way. As Jones was resting up about 4 p.m. Friday afternoon, taking in the Ryder Cup on a TV in the privacy of the Braves player lounge, fans were lined up across Georgia Avenue just to get into the gates at Turner Field.
Chevy Teague, 21, is from a town of 16,000 people in Deming, New Mexico, about an hour away from anywhere. He wore Jones’ No. 10 jersey from the time he was a first baseman on his T-ball team to his high school days when he played third base too.
“Chipper’s been the man ever since we were little,” said Chevy, who skipped a government class at New Mexico State to hop a flight with his brother and parents. “I wore No. 10 my whole life because I wanted to be like Chipper.”
Jones has said throughout his farewell tour that he didn’t think he would get teary-eyed toward the end, like he did the day in spring training when he announced his retirement after 23 years in the Braves organization.
Jones was all smiles on the infield stage before Friday’s game, when he was told he was being given a pool table by his 2012 Braves teammates, whom Brian McCann declared the “coolest” team Jones has ever played with. Jones joked that the mock turtleneck undershirts they all wore in his honor Friday were called “nerd-lenecks” behind his back.
“That’s awesome” he mouthed, when Braves president John Schuerholz announced that in addition to giving Jones a trip to Hawaii, and refurbishing 10 youth league fields in Atlanta in honor of his “10” jersey, the Braves would be sending his actual locker from Turner Field home with him.
But Jones got choked up after taking the podium to his familiar “Crazy Train” walk-up song. He blew out a long breath as he soaked up the ovation, took his hat off and settled it back down on his head, needing a moment to collect himself.
After thanking everybody from his parents Lynne and Larry, to his sons, his best friend and agent and the Braves players, staff and personnel, he stopped to address the fans.
“To all you fans out there in Braves country,” said Jones, leaning into podium, drumming the fingers on his left hand. “To the people listening on radio to the people watching on TV, I have thoroughly enjoyed the last 20 years for three hours every night trying to entertain you guys….
“I thank you from the bottom of my heart,” he said. “You will never be forgotten.”