ATLANTA -- The perfectly scripted ending had confetti flying, not plastic bottles. And tears of joy falling, not hopes and dreams. At least there was one final serenade. One last chance for Braves fans to chant “Chip-per” which, on this insane night of baseball, was the only moment that made any sense.
He did not drift off into the sunset, partly because the game ended a few hours past dusk, partly because what drifted was his fourth-inning throw to second base, the error that helped ensure this would be his final game. Of course, that’s not how anyone will remember Chipper Jones. Or the Braves’ 6-3 loss to the Cardinals in the National League Wild Card, which was soiled by a silly infield fly ruling that went against Atlanta and the trashing of Turner Field that followed.
“In our eyes,” said teammate Dan Uggla, “he’s going out a champion, just by the way he played the game throughout his career. He’s going to be missed. Not just by everyone in this locker room, but all around baseball.”
From start to finish, this night belonged to Chipper, even though it wasn’t Chipper’s night. He went 1-for-5, spared a bagel on his final at-bat when Cards first baseman Allen Craig was pulled off base by a high throw. In his next-to-last at-bat, Chipper grounded out weakly, leaving two runners stranded in the seventh, killing a rally. Before that came his throwing error, the first of three by the Braves, who committed the fewest errors in the NL over the course of the season. This was a terrific, best-selling book with a final page full of typos and gibberish.
Sometimes it happens that way for those who deserve better. Not everyone bound for the Hall of Fame can go out like Michael Strahan, who had Super Bowl champagne on his jersey when he took it off for the final time. Or David Robinson, going home with the NBA championship trophy. Or Ray Bourque, skating around the ice hoisting the Stanley Cup. Chipper and the Braves had the misfortune of being caught in a winner-take-all play-in game, where anything can happen, and they chose the wrong time to be both sloppy and unlucky.
And yet, the biggest applause of the night came when Jones was introduced, then again just before his fifth at-bat, when a sellout crowd knew this was it. So did he. He removed his batting helmet and gave it a gentle wave, before reaching base on a broken-bat single. When it was officially over, Chipper chose to take the heat off his teammates and even the umpires for their infield fly rule on a ball that dropped in the outfield.
“A lot of guys [in the clubhouse] were trying to lay blame on that, and I just kind of kept my mouth shut because ultimately I feel I’m the one to blame,” he said. “That [throw] should’ve been a tailor-made double play, and they ended up scoring three runs and gaining momentum. Walking away from my last game, you certainly don’t want to go [1-for-5] and make an error that loses the season for your ballclub. That’s something I’ll have to deal with in the days to come.”
That’s what was always endearing about Chipper. He was stand-up until the very end, a player’s player, a leader and professional in every sense. That element isn’t easily replaced. Someone eventually will come along and match his production (through probably not as a switch-hitter). Someone else will become the face of the Braves. But who will bring the entire package that made Chipper the most popular Brave since Hank Aaron? He was the rare athlete who had good standing and credibility with fans, media, managers, teammates and opponents. As a productive player, great teammate and willing ambassador, Chipper hit for the Triple Crown his entire career.
Friday night wasn’t especially emotional for him, because the entire season and farewell tour had so many nostalgic stops. At age 40 Chipper hit .287 with 14 homers and 62 RBIs, and at times was the best player on a team that won 94 games. He wasn’t some museum piece, sitting in the dugout collecting cobwebs and handshakes. He was an All-Star and the reason fans came to the ballpark. That made the last game much better to deal with. Baseball didn’t come and go so abruptly, at least it seemed to him.
“I don’t think it will [sink in] for a few days, maybe a week,” he said. “As I told everyone today, I’m OK. I obviously wanted to come out here and play well. My heart is broken, not for me, [but] for my teammates and my coaching staff and all these fans that have been so great this year.
“I think when you walk out of here knowing that you brought it every day, it makes walking away on the final day a little bit easier.”
He now heads home. For good. He has three boys who are growing and missing their dad. He plans to spend his spare time teaching them the game or providing whatever else they need from a father who, for seven months a year through most of their lives, was rarely home. That, along with a rickety body, is why he’s done with baseball and has no regrets or desire to continue. Knowing that fatherhood awaits in his next life will allow Chipper to forget a night when his aim was faulty and his bat didn’t connect as well or as often as it did many times before.
“We all wish him the best, and we wish we could’ve done a lot more for him,” said Uggla. “He deserved better. It stinks it has to end like this.”
It was a sour way to finish a season made special by a player whose next stop is Cooperstown. But that also means Friday night in Atlanta wasn’t the last time Chipper Jones will be serenaded in a baseball setting. We’ll see him at the induction.
The best part about a Hall of Fame ceremony? When it’s over, he can only return home a winner.