(Updated: 11 p.m.)
The celebration Friday night wasn’t merely for a player and his career. It was for a player who in his final season had managed to will his team to one more postseason.
Imagine if the backdrop was similar to a year ago. Imagine if the Braves found themselves handing out gifts to a retiring legend before a game Friday night, mugging for cameras with forced smiles, knowing that when the ceremonies ended they would have to return to the reality of the standings, their fingers digging into the side of a cliff.
Imagine if Chipper Jones hadn’t ignited a city and a team on Sept. 2. He hit that walk-off, three-run homer against Philadelphia. It punctuating a five-run ninth inning that gave the Braves a miracle 8-7 win over the Phillies. It was like plugging a team into a light socket. The Braves had lost 10 of 14. They were on the verge of being swept at home by the Phillies. They seemed in danger of flat-lining before the postseason — again. But the win sent them into an altered state. They were on a 17-6 run before the first Jones tribute Friday night, and had already clinched a playoff berth.
“I don’t want to think about the last game he plays,” manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “I don’t want to soak it up for at least another three or four weeks. I want him to be in that uniform for a long time, if you know what I mean.”
“He’s the reason why we’re here,” pitcher Kris Medlen said. “It definitely would’ve been a different vibe [in the ceremonies] if we weren’t going to the playoffs.”
That’s what you celebrate. Not just a Hall of Fame career, but a career that will not end after game No. 162 this season — because of him, at the age of 40.
The Braves honored Jones prior to their game against the New York Mets (as if the Mets haven’t seen enough of the guy). There were several speeches during the half-hour ceremony. One came from Bobby Cox. One came from John Schuerholz. One came from Gov. Nathan Deal, who declared Sept. 28, 2012, “Chipper Jones Day” in Georgia. (Only one day? Give him the whole season. Hand him a document reading: “Chipper Jones Days: April 5 to Oct. ?” (Final day to be determined.)
There was a video tribute from the former owner, Ted Turner. (Nobody from the present owner, Liberty Media, made it to the stadium or in front of a camera. Maybe they didn’t get the memo.)
Catcher Brian McCann spoke on behalf of Jones’ teammates, who gave him a pool table and wore Chipper-esque turtlenecks under their jerseys. McCann cracked, “We appreciate you playing every single day, even though we have to wear these turtlenecks.”
Jones embraced every second of it. But it was all a little too much.
Early in his comments during the ceremonies, he said, “We’ve got some business to take care of tonight.” But by the time the game started, he later admitted, “I was an emotional wreck. I was overwhelmed. A little too overwhelmed.”
He said he couldn’t feel his arms. He couldn’t feel his legs. The last time he felt like this?
“Probably when I was rookie.”
He went hitless in four at-bats and didn’t get a ball out of the infield. He couldn’t provide any late-game drama, and neither could his teammates, as the Braves lost to the Mets 3-1, officially inching closer to a second-place finish in the National League East.
“I try to stay as even keeled as possible all the time,” Jones said. “That’s how I play the game the best. But tonight I was just overwhelmed, too emotional to go out there and play effectively. Every pitch they threw up there I wanted to hit 10 rows deep, and you cant do that. Hopefully, it’ll settle down in the next few days.”
Take comfort, Chipper: That’s it for official tributes between now and the playoffs.
There was a positive sign for the Braves: Tim Hudson had a second consecutive strong outing, save one pitch — a three-run homer by Lucas Duda in the seventh, the ninth pitch of the at-bat, that gave the Mets a 3-1 lead.
“It’s frustrating that one pitch put a damper on the evening,” Hudson said. “One pitch cost us the game.”
Regardless, the Braves are guaranteed game No. 163. Jones’ heroics in the ninth inning against the Phillies four weeks ago stopped the slide. Ironically, his homer followed these pre-game comments: “I’d be lying if I said two outs, bases loaded, bottom of the ninth inning, I don’t want anybody else up there but me,” he said. “And that’s never going to stop. I don’t care if I’m 40 or 60. But yeah, we have some guys in our lineup that get paid to hit and we’re not swinging the bats the way we’re capable of as a team …”
Jones took it from there, and his teammates followed. There was no such drama Friday, but pre-games should be less emotional from here on out.
By Jeff Schultz
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