[Installment #4 of My First Favorite Player comes to us from Mark Smith. You can follow him on Twitter at @Gandhi_and_Pie. Enjoy!]
On the podium was a 40-year old man who, despite his attempt to appear otherwise, looked beaten and worn. To his immediate right and left were Bobby Cox, John Schuerholz, and Frank Wren, each seeming uncertain but with a gleam of pride to be there. Farther to his left were about 15 or so of his teammates, also unsure but obviously there as a show of support. Gathered around in the rest of a not-very-big space were an assortment of front office personnel, cameramen, and reporters, all eager to see what he had to say. And Chipper Jones didn’t disappoint. In what can only be described as heartfelt and honest, Chipper delivered his retirement speech in tears and laughter, thanking his teammates and family, promising to be better to his kids, and pledging to give this last season all he had.
And Chipper did just that. Limping around the field and taking the slightly-more-than-occasional day off, Chipper hit .287/.377/.455 in almost 450 PA, launched two walk-off home runs against the Phillies in Turner Field, and belted two home runs on his bobblehead doll night. In some ways, it was a storybook ending to an amazing career, but that story finally came to a heart-breaking end in the first Wild Card play-in game as Chipper’s throwing error really got things going in the wrong direction.
It’s weird how people come across favorite players. 1995 was the first baseball season that I remember. While I liked Chipper, David Justice was the hot commodity in Favorite Players ‘R’ Us. But Hideo Nomo would change that for me. You see, Hideo Nomo would “edge out” Chipper Jones for the 1995 Rookie of the Year Award, and that was just not right. Chipper had spent the season hitting 23 blasts and knocking in 86 runs, and he shouldn’t have lost the award to the stupid whirling, baseball-delivering Nomo who had only won 13 games that season. After all, the Braves had won the World Series that year, not the Dodgers, and that proved right there that Chipper was better. I spent enough time arguing in Chipper’s favor that the additional emotional investment in him basically made him my favorite player.
Nomo winning the award, of course, would not ruin Chipper’s career. Over an 18-year career, he would hit .303/.401/.529, redirect 468 baseballs into bleachers, strike out more than 100 fewer times than he walked, make 8 All-Star Games, and win the 1999 NL MVP Award. What drew me to Chipper was that he could do just about everything. He could obviously hit and hit with power (seriously, he had a .300/.400/. 500 career line), and he did it from both sides of the plate. He had an amazing eye at the plate (how else do you walk more than strike out?). He could steal bases. He could defend his position and was the best at the charging bare-hand throw to first, though his overall defense was probably slightly below-average for his career. And he was a man who often said what he thought, even though it might net him a fine from the MLB. On the field, Chipper was what you wanted every player to be – awesome, well-rounded, and a good quote.
Off the field, however, Chipper’s actions have been the butt of more than a few jokes. In 1998 a report published that Chipper had an illegitimate child with a Hooter’s waitress, and early in 2012, Chipper’s second marriage ended in divorce. For a while I wondered whether if these were enough to force me to choose a different player (especially the first incident), but if there was something Chipper taught me, it was how to separate the player from the man. Chipper the Player was an amazing athlete than any organization would want. Chipper the Man was someone I didn’t know and couldn’t know through a media prism, but what I did know didn’t paint a very good picture. I couldn’t and still can’t defend Chipper’s past transgressions, but in my definition of “favorite player”, I’ve always been solely concerned with their play on the diamond.
We all choose favorite players for different reasons. Some people choose them because they’re the best player on their favorite team. Some choose them because they embody some sort of ideal – grittiness, leadership, charisma, grace, athleticism. Some choose them because of a personal connection – favorite of a relative, a moment in which the athlete signed something or did something for someone. And some choose them because they’re all-around good people and players.
Chipper Jones is my favorite player because he is/was what I couldn’t be – an awesome, well-rounded baseball player in the mold of what I wanted to be. I have other personal role models, but none of them could play the game of baseball like Chipper. And very few will ever do so again.