Pirates give Chipper Jones one final send-off
A guaranteed Hall of Famer, Chipper Jones never really terrorized the Pirates during the last two decades. Others certainly did, but Jones hit a modest .298 (his career average is .303) and 17 home runs, fewer than against any NL non-expansion opponent.
So it was with appreciation, not relief, that the club bid adieu to the Braves' third baseman before Monday night's game. PNC Park was the last regular-season stop of the Jones farewell tour marking his imminent retirement after 19 mostly superb big league seasons with the Atlanta Braves.
He has been showered with presents. San Diego gave him a surfboard even though he never has surfed and has no plans to learn. The Cubs gave Jones the Braves flag that flew above Wrigley Field in the daily posting of the standings. Such gestures prompted Pirates manager Clint Hurdle to note the “creativity of the gifting.”
The Pirates, however, went the conventional route. Center fielder Andrew McCutchen handed Jones a “commemorative base,” an idea already executed by other teams. Second baseman Neil Walker, who said he modeled much of his game after Jones, suggested in the spirit of creative gifting that Jones get a year's supply of pierogis.
Jones, 40, earlier spoke warmly of Pittsburgh and of playing in Three Rivers Stadium because that was the home of his favorite team. His favorite NFL team, that is. It turns out that the pride of Jacksonville, Fla., was a die-hard Steelers fan. He and ex-coach Bill Cowher shared the same agent, Robert Fraley, who was killed in a 1999 plane crash.
“When I was growin' up, the Steel Curtain was it, man,” enthused Jones in his country-singer baritone. “I was 7, 8 years old and the first team I can remember watchin', the best team I can remember watchin', was the Steelers. I loved Terry Bradshaw and his game, I loved Franco Harris and his game. I was a frontrunner back then. I loved the best teams.”
A lot of kids likely started following Jones' team for the same reason. From 1991 through 2005 the Braves were the class of the National League, winning 14 straight division titles, four pennants and the 1995 World Series. The No. 1 pick overall in 1990, Larry Wayne Jones joined the Braves at the end of the '93 season, missed all of the next, strike-ruined year while injured and then set up residency at third base.
Jones remains a smooth fielder and one of the best switch-hitters ever, slugging 468 homers and batting .303 righty and .304 lefty. Only Frankie Frisch, who last played in 1937, hit .300 from both sides.
“There was no weakness in his game,” Pirates veteran catcher Rod Barajas said. “He had power from both sides of the plate. It was frustrating. You'd think you could make an adjustment and then he'd hit one 450 feet.”
Braves broadcaster Don Sutton, a Hall of Fame pitcher who won 324 games, said he was recently struck by observing Jones in the dugout zeroing in on action, undistracted. But mainly, Sutton said, watching Jones hit was like watching pitcher Greg Maddux, another 300-game winner.
“They seem to know something that we don't know that we should know,” Sutton said.
Jones played for no other team. Hurdle, who first saw Jones in 1990 while managing in the Florida Instructional League, said there is “beauty” in turning over a baseball card “and you see ‘Atlanta' from top to bottom.”
Brash and occasionally annoying early in his career, outspoken throughout, Jones was a big favorite. Although their team is in the playoffs with at least one more home game remaining, Braves fans came out in force last weekend to say goodbye.
Sutton, who pitched for 23 years, said, “I have never seen such an outpouring of affection, respect and love.”
Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7810.