Chipper's swan song far more bitter than sweet
Third baseman's career ends in frustrating fashion, along with Braves' season
ATLANTA -- It wasn't supposed to end this way. Not for the surging Atlanta Braves during the second half of the season, and certainly not for the people's choice.
This was a cruel finish for Chipper Jones.
More than an hour after the Braves' 6-3 loss Friday night at Turner Field to the Cardinals in the National League Wild Card game, hundreds of Atlanta fans kept yelling, "We want Chipper, we want Chipper, we want Chipper!" from behind the home dugout. They alternated their pleas for Jones with chopping and chanting.
He never came. He was somewhere trying to forget the nightmarish ending to his 19-year baseball career, and many of his demons for the evening were self-inflicted.
There was Jones' throwing error at third base in the fourth inning that helped the Braves go from a 2-0 lead to a 3-2 deficit. There also were his underwhelming moments at the plate. Jones finished with a couple of groundouts to second, a popout to second and a strikeout before he spent his last plate appearance breaking his bat for an infield single.
Not inspiring stuff.
Neither was the scene in the bottom of the eighth, when an avalanche of debris was fired from those part of the stuffed house of 52,631 fans for nearly 20 minutes. Braves fans were peeved over the umpires calling the infield fly rule on a play that resembled something more like the outfield fly rule, which doesn't exist, by the way.
The disputed play happened in the middle of left field.
With the call stifling a potential rally, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez protested, but it was denied.
As for the Braves' postgame clubhouse ...
"Lots of shock. People that were talking were obviously talking about the call," Jones said. "You know, they're disappointed. There's a lot of guys in there trying to lay blame, and I kind of kept my mouth shut, because ultimately, I feel like I'm the one to blame."
Jones thought about the fourth inning, when the Cardinals had a runner on first with nobody out. Matt Holliday ripped a sizzling grounder toward the third baseman, and after a nice grab, Jones threw several miles over the head of Braves second baseman Dan Uggla into right field.
Said Jones, with a sigh, "That play should have been a tailor-made double play, and they ended up scoring three runs, gaining momentum. It seems like that play right there turned everything."
Then Jones sighed again, adding, "Walking away from your last game, you certainly don't want to go 0-for-5 and making an error that loses the season for your ballclub."
Well, Jones went 1-for-5, not 0-for-5, and the timing of his error wasn't the best, but it didn't ruin the Braves' season. They did win 94 games to secure the NL's top Wild Card spot and home-field advantage in Friday's game. Not only that, Jones' fingerprints were all over that stretch from his rookie year in 1995 through 2005, when the Braves won their division every season, three pennants and a World Series championship.
Jones won the NL MVP Award in 1999. Nine years later, he won the league's batting title. There were his two Silver Slugger Award, and he played on eight All-Star teams.
Now it's over. And if you believe Jones, sentimentality is for song writers, brides on wedding days -- anybody but a 40-year-old future Hall of Famer who said he isn't into such a thing in the short run.
"Reflection is more for when it's all over [in the long run]," Jones said, when asked about his legacy earlier on Friday. "I'm one of those guys who likes to look out of the front windshield, not the rear-view mirror. I'm not going to get mushy. My sentiment is here and to concentrate on the task at hand. ... Nobody cares about what I did in 1995 or what I did in 1999. It's about what you do on Oct. 5, 2012."
When the subject is Larry "Chipper" Jones Jr., folks care about all of that, especially baseball folks. Even so, the people's choice shrugged, and he recalled his (ahem) non-sentimental drive to Turner Field. After a slew of such drives for other home playoff games for the Braves, Jones knew this could be the last one. He was joined by his parents, Larry Sr. and Lynne Jones.
"I turned around [in the car], and I just told my dad, like, 'This is why I know I'm ready to go. I'm not even nervous,'" Jones said. "I don't know if that's just being prepared and being confident, but usually, for the first game of the playoffs, I'm nervous in the workout the day before."
He was ready to go, all right, because he was at peace with his decision to walk away -- or in his case, to limp away, given the slew of surgeries on his knees through the decades.
So this was inevitable: During the early part of Spring Training at the Braves' camp in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., Larry Sr. and Lynne stayed in a hotel room across the hall from their son. They greeted Jones one morning, and they couldn't hide the shock looks across their faces.
"When Chipper got out of bed, it hurt me just to watch him," Larry Sr. said, shaking his head. Said Lynne, "Getting down those stairs. The first thing in the morning."
She shook her head, too.
Added Larry Sr., "We were sitting there, and Chipper said he was going to announce his retirement, and I said, 'Are you sure? He said, 'Yeah. I gave the game everything I've got.'"
And Jones did, even this season, when he finished with a .287 batting average, 14 home runs and 62 RBIs.
Most of those numbers were clutch.
Then it ended with a thud Friday night for Jones. Despite his disappointment, he didn't cry -- not like Joe Morgan when he realized after his Big Red Machine lost in the 1979 NL Championship Series to the "We are family" Pirates that he would never wear a Cincinnati Reds uniform again.
Said Jones, dressed in a long-sleeve T-shirt and blue jeans during his farewell news conference, "I don't think it will sink in for two days, maybe a week. As I told everybody today, I'm OK."
Will Jones break down at some point?
Both parents nodded. After easing into a smile, Larry Sr., said softly, "He will on the way home. He will."
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.