Chipper Jones of the Atlanta Braves acknowledges the crowd during a game against the New York Mets at Citi Field in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. Jones is retiring after this season and is playing his final series at Citifield (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
Chipper Jones has enjoyed a great deal of success against the Mets over the years, but management sure doesn't seem to hold it against him.
NEW YORK -- It was just after 4:30 p.m. on Friday afternoon when Larry Wayne Jones walked into the press conference room -- facing many of the same media members with whom he at times battled throughout his career -- and took a seat. Mets chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon, whose father owns the team Jones has continually crushed over the past 17 years, stood to the right of the 40-year-old third baseman. Were it not for the uniform Jones was wearing, it would have been easy to assume Wilpon's warm expression was for one of his own players.
Jones, of course, is not one of Wilpon's players. Nor will he ever be. After this season, his 18th, he is retiring as an Atlanta Brave. It's the only team he's ever known. The Braves won 3-0 on Friday and Jones went 0-for-4, but the numbers were an afterthought, of sorts, because Friday was Jones's day and for good reason: when he leaves New York on Sunday, it will be for the last time as a player in this city.
The city in which he hit his very first home run (a tie-breaking one in the ninth inning off Josias Manzanillo to win the game), the city in which he stepped off the plane at LaGuardia Airport a nervous 23-year-old, in the back of his mind praying he'd never screw up and let Braves fans tell him that Terry Pendleton would never make that mistake. The city in which he would be so scared for the first 10 years of his career, he'd go straight from hotel to ballpark to hotel. The city in which one of the lasting memories of his career happened when he and his Braves teammates played the first game after September 11; when Mike Piazza, a rival and player Jones didn't very much care for, hit that game-winning home run, lifting up a good portion of the people in this city and the country.
"You had a feeling that God, and even the baseball gods, were on New York's side that night," Jones said.
But back in 1995, Jones was a raw country boy from a small Florida town of 600 people, yet when he arrived at Shea Stadium in the most-populated city in this country, he found a home. He eventually made Shea his own little bandbox, hitting .313 with 19 homers and 55 RBI in 88 games there. It wasn't just at Shea, of course; Jones hit the second-most homers (49) of any opponent in Mets history while batting .314 against his National League East rivals. When asked if he were a Mets fan how he'd feel about himself, Jones said. "I'd respect the body of work, but I'd hate his guts."
The tie between Jones, this city, this team and its now-defunct field is for life; who else names their youngest son after a rival's ballpark? Jones did. Over the years, he's said that he chose the name Shea in part because of his success at the ballpark, but also because he and his wife really liked the name. It's far better than Larry, Jones would tell reporters. But on Friday, when asked whether his son is able to now have a true appreciation of what he was named after and why, Jones revealed just how deep the meaning runs when describing the inside of his son's bedroom.
To begin, the walls were painted orange and blue "from the very get-go," Jones said. Those orange-and-blue walls were adorned with murals of not only baseball players, but also of Shea Stadium. Replicas of the ballpark have been gifted from father to son myriad times over the years. When Shea Jones, now eight years old, gets ready for school in the morning, he sees Shea "stadium seats in his closet bolted to the floor." And anytime his son is watching TV and a ballpark flashes on, Shea Jones asks his famous father, "Is that my stadium, dad?"
So it was fitting when, after 30 minutes laced with reflection, nostalgia, humor and memories -- both good and bad -- were over with the media, Jones stood to one side of an easel with a Mets flag draped over it, as Wilpon stood on the other, and the COO revealed a 3-D pop-art painting of Shea Stadium, glittering with the famous big home run red apple, Jones' face on the jumbotron and too many details covering his remarkable career to ingest in one short viewing. One detail, though, caught Jones's eye immediately: a "Larrrrrrry" sign held by a fan in the painting. "Wow," he said and laughed while turning to Wilpon.
The press conference showcased Jones at his best: reflective, warm, analytical, self-aware, wry. He mimicked (quite perfectly) New Yorkers' accents when they approach him on the streets. He spoke eloquently about the impact of that 9/11 game and how "it will be etched into my memory forever." He described in detail his passion for playing in this city. He explained how special it was to play for only one team, and how, playing in the South, he was able to "influence an entire region of [kids in] the United States." He apologized to the media but also explained why he felt justified in his abrasiveness -- occasionally refusing to speak to some reporters altogether -- because his words were often blown out of proportion here; then he also thanked them for their coverage.
"Kind of weird for everybody to be out here for little ol' me," he said when he first sat down at the dais.
The painting was just one of the adornments lavished upon Jones in his last stand here. It started when he checked into his hotel on Thursday; the hotel staff, likely aware how the last time Jones was in New York he tweeted how subpar his room was, presented the Presidential suite upon his arrival. "They rolled out the red carpet this time," he said, smiling. "Best night of sleep I've had in New York in 20 years."
It wasn't just the hotel staff; a local baseball bar, Foley's, changed its name for the weekend to "Chipper's," where the staff donned No. 10 t-shirts and placed a temporary sign atop its awning. "It's just taken off," said "Chipper's" owner Shaun Clancy. Clancy was on the field before the game, watching the Braves' batting practice while holding a bat in his hand; Jones had signed the bat as a gift.
The interviews, autographs and goodbye tour continued until just before the first pitch, when the Mets aired a small clip of his press conference, acknowledging his great career. With the stands nearly empty -- and possibly filled with more Braves than Mets fans at that moment -- there seemed to be more cheers than boos. One chant of Laaa-rrrryyy could be heard from afar. Jones came out, tipped his cap and waved to the crowd. He went went hitless in the contest -- including a bases-loaded strikeout in the third inning -- and said afterward that he was happy the team won in spite of him doing his best "to stink up the joint." He also was glad the day was over.
"It was a fun night," he said, "I spent the entire night listening to everybody, good and bad. I'm very grateful to the Mets organization for everything they did today."
But on your night, Chipper, what were the fans saying to you?
"I don't think you can print that," he said.
Jones gave a smirk, the media laughed, then the session was over and the 40-year-old third baseman sat back in his leather chair. He has just two more games here, and unlike so many years earlier in his career when he'd go back and hide in his room, Chipper Jones will walk out to a city in which he now roams freely, embracing the banter and interactions with Mets fans, and knowing his legacy here, no matter the damage he inflicted, is built on respect. And, of course, some Laaa-rrrryyy chants along the way.