For the first time since the spring of 1987, there’s not a Glavine or a Smoltz on the Braves’ roster. And no matter what you think of the manner in which their departures were transacted, you must admit it feels weird to see no No. 47, no No. 29.
But there is one number to keep us anchored, to serve as a touchstone to the Decade of Excellence and to point the way into the Twenty-Teens. It’s No. 10, and the guy who wears it is still in place, still as splendid as he ever was, and that’s plenty splendid.
Chipper Jones finished second to Hideo Nomo in rookie-of-the-year voting when the Braves won their World Series, and he was the National League’s MVP when last they won a pennant. Last season, at a time when there was no other reason to watch a decrepit team en route to 90 losses, he won a batting title.
And here No. 10 stands at age 37, having been contused more in an average month than a stunt man in a career’s worth of Michael Bay movies, and he’s hitting .327 and slugging .552 and carrying a stellar on-base percentage of .443, and if you think you can find 10 better players in the big leagues … well, you’re just wrong.
As we know, Bobby Cox loves all his players. That said, he’s stingy about one particular word. That word is “great.” And of No. 10, the only big-league manager Jones has ever known says: “He’s a great ballplayer.”
Says No. 10, told of Cox’s assessment: “That’s what I’ve wanted to be since I was 4 years old.”
On those nights when we despair of Frenchy’s flailing, we need only watch No. 10 to remind ourselves that not every Braves at-bat is a lost cause. Watch the concentration, the patience, the discipline. Watch and file it away, because we’re not apt to see anybody as good come through here again anytime soon.
Watch and forget whatever garbage your idiot neighbor may have spewed about Chipper not caring, because he cares about his work in the way only a craftsman does. Yes, No. 10 can look dour, but that’s the way he looks. He measures out his smiles. He laughs hardly at all. Whatever the opposite of rah-rah is, he’s it. But if you know him even a little, you know he’s a proud and committed pro.
He fights an almost daily battle between nagging infirmity and the knowledge his team isn’t half as good without him, and those days when he can’t go it eats Chipper up. (On the inside. Never the outside.) He tries to pass along what he knows to younger guys — Jordan Schafer, for example — and what No. 10 knows came from the best of another era.
“There were great hitters here when I came up,” he says. “David Justice, [Fred] McGriff, [Marquis] Grissom, TP [Terry Pendleton]. My first hitting coach [in the minors] was Willie Stargell, and my second was Frank Howard.” Of Stargell, Chipper says: “He’s the reason I swing a heavy bat. [A 34-ouncer.] Take that ball I hit out right-handed the other night — that doesn’t go out with a 31-ounce bat.”
There are nights and weeks when it feels we’re witnessing the end of empire with these Braves, and at such times there’s always a sense of melancholy. But there’s one shining reason to keep watching, and that reason is No. 10. He was great back then. He’s great now. He’s great, period.