Chipper Jones’ first full season in the majors was 1995, which was also my first as a major league beat writer. I covered the Marlins for The Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel back then. So I saw plenty of the Braves’ Golden Boy, who made girls swoon and boys want to be him in every city in the National League. Damn kid had it all.
He was young, a switch-hitter with power and a sweet swing from both sides. Able to run fast, despite the major knee surgery that sidelined him the entire previous season.
I was young and able to run all night too, closing down bars in every city, staggering home or back to my hotel, waking the next day to crank out stories and do it again. That had at least as much to do with the fact that this was the pre-blog, pre-Twitter era for newspapers and still a few years before we started posting stories on our papers’ websites during daylight. A beat writer could sleep it off till 10-11 a.m. with impunity.
Chipper’s Braves won 90 games in that truncated 154-game season — it started late because of the strike — a pace that would’ve yielded 101 wins in 162 games. The Marlins? They won 67 games, finished fourth ahead of Montreal. After the strike ended they had signed a couple of aging veterans who would become two of my favorite players to cover, Andre Dawson and Terry Pendleton, the 1991 NL MVP and captain of the Brave’s worst-to-first ship, whose old third-base job in Atlanta now belonged to a rookie named Chipper. But I digress.
Things changed radically for us ink-stained wretches as years passed and the 24/7 news cycle came to newspapers. But things didn’t change much through the late ‘90s for the Braves and the kid who was becoming the most prominent Braves position player since Dale Murphy. Eventually he would be the best Brave since Hank Aaron and most accomplished Atlanta Brave, period. And the Braves would win the NL East title year after year.
What I remember most about young Chipper was that he was always in the lineup and did everything well. Hit, field, run. People tend to forget, because he was hurt so much during the second half of his career, but for a decade Chipper was one of the most durable players in the majors. And one of the most productive.
Eight consecutive 100-RBI seasons from 1996 through 2003. Fourteen consecutive seasons with more than 20 homers, including six with 30 or more. Eight seasons with at least 90 walks and eleven seasons with more walks than strikeouts, a rarity these days, particularly for power hitters.
He has a career average/OBP/slugging percentage slash line of .304/.401/.530, with 468 home runs and 1,622 RBIs — it’s likely that’d be good enough for first-ballot Hall of Fame selection even if he weren’t a switch-hitter and 1999 MVP.
In his first seven full seasons — not including the shortened ’95 season — he played 157 or more games six times. He played 156 in the other season in that seven-year stretch, a period in which he never finished lower than 11th in MVP balloting.
Chipper was a legit five-tool player and had an air about him that said, “I’m really good.” Watching from the other side, I admired it. That smirk. There’s something about the way great players carry themselves that separates them at first glance, whether it’s an arrogance or cockiness or in some cases detachment, as if they are operating on another plane.
With Chipper, it was the cockiness you noticed. That and enormous talent. For opponents, or opposing fans, he was a classic example of the guy you hated from a rival team, but would love to have on your team. Gary Sheffield was another player I covered who was like that, though for different reasons. Gary exuded sheer menace in the batter’s box, his bat twitching, sending a message that he intended to do harm.
Chipper also had a presence in the batter’s box. But quieter, not much movement. With him, it’s the eyes. He stares through a pitcher. The look says, “Gimme your best pitch, because you and I know there’s a real good chance I’m going to hit it real hard.”
There’s something else about Chipper that separates him. In 18 years of covering major league baseball and 25 years of covering big-time college or professional sports, he’s the best I’ve ever dealt with as a reporter. That’s saying plenty, because I’ve covered teams that had some great, quotable guys with senses of humor, like Dawson and Jeff Conine, Bobby Bonilla and Mark Kotsay, Mark DeRosa and Adam LaRoche, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, and the current team dotted with good dudes who make my job easier.
But from a reporter’s perspective, Chipper is the total package. Great player. Approachable. Always available to the media. And the most quotable star in the game today.
Not only does he have a wealth of experience and knowledge, he’s a savant when it comes to remembering pitch counts and situations from games a decade or more ago. And to go with gravitas, he answers questions with such honesty and candor that it’s sometimes shocking in a world of cliché-spewing superstars.
You’ve been lucky, Braves fans. He’s made your summers more fun and interesting for nearly two decades. But we in the media have been at least as fortunate. He’s the best baseball player I’ve ever covered and the best athlete I’ve dealt with as a reporter. I know there won’t be another like him for me, not while I’m still tapping these keys.
• Regarding attendance and payroll: Of the six teams with the majors’ best records today, three (Yankees, Rangers, Giants) rank second through fourth in the majors in attendance, behind Philadelphia. The other three teams (Nationals, Braves, Reds) occupy the exact middle of the majors in attendance, ranking 14th through 16th respectively.
Not coincidentally, the top four teams in MLB attendance also ranked among the top eight in USA Today’s Opening Day payroll rankings, led by the Yankees ($198 million) and Phillies ($174 million) with the two highest payrolls and two highest home-attendance averages, the Phillies at 44,021 and Yankees at 43,691.
The Rangers were sixth in payroll at $120 million and are third in attendance at 42,548, and the Giants were eighth in Opening Day payroll at $118 million and are fourth in attendance at 41,695, which is 99.5 percent of capacity at their ballpark, third in the majors behind the Red Sox (101.4 percent of capacity) and Phillies (100.8 percent).
Meanwhile, the Braves were 18th in Opening Day payroll at about $83 million, although they moved up two spots with Derek Lowe $10 million payout added to the total. The Reds were 17th at roughly $82 million, and the Nationals 20th at about $81 million.
And the home attendance of those three NL teams? Washington is 14th with an average of 29,799, Atlanta is 15th at 29,093, and Cincinnati 16th at 28,978. The 17th and 18th spots are occupied by the Mets (28,035) and Marlins (27,347).
In terms of percentage of capacity at their ballpark, the Braves’ attendance ranks 22nd at 58.5 percent, while 11 teams are at 83 percent or higher.
Braves attendance will get a bump this weekend from huge crowds for Chipper’s last regular-season series. But even if 50,000 showed up for all three games, it would still leave attendance below 30,000 for the year and right around Washington’s average in the middle of the pack.
I’m never one to tell people they should spend their money on this or that, and I’ll be the first to say I can’t stand Atlanta’s gridlock traffic (thanks again for turning down the MARTA spur when the ballpark was built so you could reap parking fees, you astute leaders with such grand vision).
But those who moan about the size of the Braves’ middle-of-the-pack payroll, keep in mind, not only are the Braves locked into a poorly conceived long-term TV contract that will soon be far below the average value of deals other major league teams have signed or will in the next several years, they also rake in lower ticket revenues than almost every team with a payroll as large or larger than theirs.
Can’t just expect a sugar daddy like Ted Turner to buy the team again and bankroll a disproportionately sized payroll simply because he likes to win (damn the profits or losses) and/or fill airtime on a cable TV station. Those cats don’t come along very often in all of sports, much less twice in one town.
• What time will the Wild Card game start? I’d be lying if I said we’ve been asked 100 times in the past week what time the Oct. 5 Wild Card game will start. It’s been at least 250 times.
And the answer is the same: We have no idea. I talked to a TBS official yesterday, and he said off the record he couldn’t even tell me if the two Wild Card games (NL and AL) would begin at 1 and 4, or 1 and 8ish, or 4ish and 7, or 4 and 9 … nothing. The reason being, there are so many variables still potentially at play here.
For instance, if one or more of the potential wild-card teams has to play a tiebreaker the day after the regular season ends, to determine a division title winner (and perhaps a wild-card winner). And what if that game is on the West Coast? Then it wouldn’t be fair to ask that team to play at 1 or 4 the next day a couple or three time zones away.
Or bringing it closer to home, what if the Braves tied the Nats and had to play them in a tiebreaker on Oct. 4 at Washington? Then what if the Braves lost that game and became the wild card team? Wouldn’t be fair to ask them to play the Wild Card game in Atlanta the next day at 1 p.m., would it?
And we all know that if the Yankees are an AL wild-card team, TBS is going to put the Yankees in prime time on Oct. 5, unless it’s impossible due to the NL teams’ scheduling, travel, etc.
This is all an unfortunate byproduct of trying to schedule two Wild Card games with the advent of the new format that added another wild-card team to each league. Most years, it’s probably going to be like this and they won’t be able to set the times until a few days or so before the games.
So fans have to buy tickets not knowing whether they’ll need to take off a half-day of work, or really closer to a whole day if the game were in the early afternoon. Again, this is where I don’t envy fans. It’ll be a terrific time at the ballpark, likely in beautiful early-fall weather. But having to make arrangements is easier for some folks than others, particularly those driving in from outside of town or those who have important matters at work that day, or kids to pick up from school, or whatever.
TV/money runs most of these decisions, and has for a long time. But in this particular case, there are also several other factors, as noted above.
The good news is, by Monday or Tuesday we could have a lot better idea of who’s in the games and what time they’re likely to start.
Until then, here’s what I can tell you about the Wild Card games: They will be shown on TBS and the broadcast team carrying the NL Wild Card game will have a Braves flavor. That’s because veteran Braves analyst Joe Simpson has been assigned to one of the three-man teams, and former Braves pitcher John Smoltz will be an analyst alongside Cal Ripken and play-by-play man Ernie Johnson in the other.
• Chipper’s last series: Seems fitting that the last regular-season home series of Chipper’s career would be against the Mets.
He needs one homer against the Mets to give him 50 and break his personal-best tie for homers against one team. He has 49 homers in 242 games (848 at-bats) against the Mets, and 49 homers in 245 games (846 at-bats) against the Phillies.
By the way, Battle Axe has given the home fans plenty to remember this season, including the two walk-off homers against Philly, a two-homer game on his bobblehead night, and a 5-for-5 game against the Cubs on the day he was named to the All-Star team. And if it seems like Chipper’s been particularly good at home this season, it’s because he has been.
In 56 home games this season, he’s hit .320 with 10 homers, 37 RBIs, a .405 OBP and .557 slugging percentage. His career slash line in home games is .314/.414/.559, compared to a .293/.389/.501 career slash line in road games.
He talked about some great memories from his career and named his top five moments this season in this interview with Carroll Rogers.
• Tonight’s matchup: On Chipper Jones Night at Turner Field, Tim Hudson will face Mets lefty Jonathon Niese.
Niese is 4-3 with a 2.51 ERA in his past seven starts, all quality starts of six innings or more and three earned runs or fewer. He’s 5-3 with a 3.15 ERA in 11 career starts against the Braves, including 4-1 in his past six and 1-1 with a 1.29 ERA and .216 opponents’ average in two starts against the Bravos in the past two months.
Against Niese, Jason Heyward is 7-for-17 with two homers and eight RBIs; David Ross is 6-for-15 with a homer and eight RBIs; Freddie Freeman is 5-for-16 with a homer; Reed Johnson and Jeff Baker are each 6-for-12, and Michael Bourn is 6-for-16. And by the way, it seemed like, from talking to Bourn yesterday, that he might get one more day off today to rest his sore left thumb.
Chipper is 4-for-20 with a homer against Niese, and Brian McCann is 1-for-10. Fredi sounded yesterday as if he’d already decided that Ross would start today against Niese, giving McCann consecutive days to rest his sore knee and shoulder. Given the stats of the two hitters against Niese, that would make sense.
Hudson is 5-2 with a 3.22 ERA in his past eight starts, with 23 strikeouts and 13 walks in 50-1/3 innings. Against the Mets, he’s 15-9 with a 3.59 ERA in 26 starts, including 2-3 with a 4.32 ERA in six during the past two seasons. He got no decision in his only start against the Mets this season, allowing eight hits and four runs in four innings of a July 13 Braves win at Turner Field.
Against Hudson, Ruben Tejada is 8-for-14, Jason Bay is 7-for-23 with a homer, and David Wright is 15-for-65 (.231) with two homers.
The Braves are 10-5 vs. Mets entering this series. After losing their first four games against them this season, the Braves are 10-1 with a a 3.18 ERA, .290 batting average, 79 runs and 16 homers in their past 11 against the Metropolitans….
Martin Prado has hit .305 with 23 extra-base hits, 27 RBIs, a .356 OBP and .812 OPS in his past 59 games, including .403 (25-for-62) with a .448 OBP and .980 OPS in his past 16 games.
The Mets hit .213 while losing 11 of 12 games through Sept. 20, but they are 6-1 with a .267 average and 11 homers (and a 3.43 ERA) in their past seven games.
• Let’s close with one of the saddest, most beautiful songs recorded by one of the finest bands there ever lived, the mighty Replacements, from the album “Tim.” You can hear the song by clicking here. Please do. I think there’ll be some folks feeling this way watching Braves games in bars across the South this weekend as No. 10 winds it down. Raise one for the old switch-hitter.
“HERE COMES A REGULAR” by The Replacements
Well a person can work up a mean mean thirst
after a hard day of nothin’ much at all
Summer’s passed, it’s too late to cut the grass
There ain’t much to rake anyway in the fall
And sometimes I just ain’t in the mood
to take my place in back with the loudmouths
You’re like a picture on the fridge that’s never stocked with food
I used to live at home, now I stay at the house
And everybody wants to be special here
They call your name out loud and clear
Here comes a regular
Call out your name
Here comes a regular
Am I the only one here today?
Well a drinkin’ buddy that’s bound to another town
Once the police made you go away
And even if you’re in the arms of someone’s baby now
I’ll take a great big whiskey to ya anyway
Everybody wants to be someone’s here
Someone’s gonna show up, never fear
’cause here comes a regular
Call out your name
Here comes a regular
Am I the only one who feels ashamed?
Kneeling alongside old Sad Eyes
He says opportunity knocks once then the door slams shut
All I know is I’m sick of everything that my money can buy
The fool who wastes his life, God rest his guts
First the lights, then the collar goes up, and the wind begins to blow
Turn your back on a pay-you-back, last call
First the glass, then the leaves that pass, then comes the snow
Ain’t much to rake anyway in the fall
– David O’Brien, Braves/MIB blog