To An Athlete Dying Old

Maybe it is because he’s lean, mean, and lets his weapon do the talking. Or maybe it is because TBS used to play all the Western movies on repeat. But whatever it is, I’ve always thought of Chipper Jones as the Clint Eastwood of baseball.

Clint Eastwood said goodbye to the West in the Oscar-winning “Unforgiven”. His skin is leathered over after years under the searing Western sun. His morals shot after decades of gunfights (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XoAPKt7kbD0) . The Man With No Name is just another weathered cowboy. “I’m just a fella now,” he reflects. “I ain’t no different than anyone else no more.”

Major league baseball is nearly as cruel. A breaking-down Chipper Jones is bidding a wistful farewell to the game. Chipper confessed after 16 years wrangling pitchers and the New York Mets, “we all know where I’m leaning.” But Chipper doesn’t want your pity. He doesn’t want to be a distraction, and the last thing he wants is a farewell tour.

The son of the South is an old 38 now. He was never a perfect man, but now the battle-scars are really showing. His mythical bat speed ain’t what it used to be. His creaky hip aches chronically. His feet, leaden. Chipper doesn’t crush home runs anymore. He takes his walks or sprays Texas leaguers just over the second baseman’s head.

But just when you think he’s done. Just when you think Chipper’s gone to the well one too many times, he laces a two-run gapper to left-field. Chipper trots into second, un-Velcroes his batting gloves, and cracks that crooked grin of his. And fathers across the South look over at their sons and say, there goes the greatest third basemen who ever lived.

*****

This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. — The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Chipper Jones was always MY ATHLETE. His bat helped fuel the Atlanta Braves to an unprecedented 14 straight division titles, or Kindergarten through my Sophomore year of college. He’s the one younger, chubbier me used to muddy my Nikes imitating in the backyard Georgia clay. The scowl. The gnashing bubble gum. The signature toe-tap. The swing of beauty. (Warning: Results may vary.)

Younger Chipper Jones copy-catted the 1970s Los Angeles Dodgers’ swings in his Florida backyard.: Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, then he’d switch to the other side of the plate for the left-handed hitters. And that’s the other thing. Chipper Jones is a switch hitter. Third baseman Mike Schmidt hit more homeruns. George Brett had the higher batting average (and pine tar). But Chipper Jones is the best switch hitter in the history of the game after a fella named Mickey Mantle.

Now, it’s true. Chicks dig the long ball:

But you’d fall in love with Chipper Jones’ game. He’s never mashed Ruthian home run blasts. Instead, he is a rare blend of discipline and power. A career .300 batting average/.400 OBP/.500 slugging kind of guy. In translation, ladies, he has great eyes, power, and knows a thing or two about getting to first. The sexiest part about the back of his baseball card isn’t the World Series title, the MVP trophy, or the string of .300, 30 home run, 100 RBI seasons. It’s that he’s spent his entire career with the Atlanta Braves.

In the age of free agency and $300 million contracts, Chipper’s loyalty is an anachronism. He could have bailed when the going got tough in Atlanta. But he just reworked his contract so the team could afford more payroll flexibility. Now, in the twilight of his sparkling Hall of Fame career, Chipper’s ready to renegotiate his deal to give millions BACK to the Braves so the small-market team can have more cash in the war chest to win, even if it’s without him.

Maybe the greatest accolade of all is Chipper Jones is the anti-ARod. Alex Rodriguez couldn’t win a ring with the hand he has dealt. So he jumped ship to the Rangers and took steroids for three years. He couldn’t win there either so he switched teams and even his fielding position. He finally won his ring (albeit, in Derek Jeter’s shadow), but he’ll always be a juicer nomad who chased the money out of town. His records will always end with an Asterisk.

In the age of steroids, perhaps the greatest compliment is Chipper aged the way stars are supposed to age. 38 year olds don’t crush titanic blasts deep into the seats (see: Bonds, Barry). They don’t whip crackling 96 MPH fastballs down the pike (Clemens, Roger). They lose a step. They fall asleep in the clubhouse during games (Griffey Jr., Ken).

With the exception of Evander Holyfield, we can never tell champions of the game when to hang them up. For every Brett Favre career year at age 40, there are a dozen more cautionary tales. In the 1970s, Willie Mays looked pitiful stumbling around Shea’s outfield. In the 2000s, Michael Jordan looked strange and human balling in a Wizards jersey. Nowadays, twenty-something nobodies are dusting Lance Armstrong in Texas road-races. Yet, we can’t say anything. They earned the right to play as long as they wanted. And there’s a certain ephemeral beauty in it. These all-time greats reigned over the game for so long finally get their comeuppances at the hands of Father Time.

Chipper, on the other hand, is leaving on his own time. Sure, he could squeeze out 3-4 more seasons for an outside shot at 500 HRs, but he’s got too much pride. His bust in Cooperstown is already measured.

*****

Clint Eastwood is arguably an even better director than actor. Likewise, Jones may be an even craftier marketer. His real name is Larry, but he renamed himself Chipper because he figured a guy named Larry Jones could never be famous. Chipper named one of his sons Shea in honor of the favorite demolition derby—the Mets’ old stadium. Now this whole season when he should be ticking off his lasts—last walk-off home run, Wrigley Field trip, and (hopefully) playoffs—he’s thinking about all the firsts he’s missing with his four youngsters back home.

And maybe, just maybe, one of them will grow into a Braves jersey and make Mets fans groan: not again.

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