Mark Wiedmer: Jones honored for loyalty, but Braves fall 3-1

Mark Wiedmer: Jones honored for loyalty, but Braves fall 3-1

September 29th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Atlanta Braves Hall of Famer Hank Aaron,right, presents Chipper Jones,left, with third base during his tribute night at Turner Field in Atlanta on Friday, Sept. 28, 2012.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

ATLANTA - In the end, Chipper Jones Tribute Night was just too much for the guest of honor, even if he'll soon retire as the greatest clutch hitter in Atlanta Braves history.

"I think I had a tear plastered in the corner of my eye all night," the 40-year-old third baseman said after going 0-for-4 in a 3-1 loss to the New York Mets at Turner Field on Friday.

"That was probably the most nervous I've been on a baseball field ... probably since my first at-bat in the majors. I was just too overwhelmed. I wanted to hit every pitch 10 rows deep into the stands. I was just a little too emotional."

Attempting to please 51,910 Braves fans -- the largest crowd of the season, the seventh largest in Turner history -- can do that to a guy, even someone who's delivered the most game-winning RBIs of any active major leaguer through the past 18 seasons.

"It was exciting; it was fun; it was a playoff-type atmosphere," losing pitcher Tim Hudson said late Friday. "Just sorry we couldn't deliver Chipper the ending he deserved."

Maybe it didn't end the way the Braves wanted, but it certainly began the way anyone would want to be feted, starting with former Braves manager Bobby Cox, who perfectly framed the purpose of the event when he told the crowd: "In the era of free agency, Chipper chose to stay loyal to our organization and you the fans."

Loyalty cuts both ways, of course. A player can't afford to remain loyal to a team that doesn't return the favor.

Maybe famous former Braves pitchers Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz shouldn't have left for New York, Chicago and Boston, respectively. Then again, maybe the Braves should have increased their salaries enough to keep them in the city where they'd won a world championship with more than a little help from Chipper.

But regardless of what could have been or should have been, they left and Jones stayed, and Friday evening the appreciation and adoration for that decision were easy to see and feel, especially with more than half the crowd appeared to be wearing replicas of Jones' No. 10 jersey.

"I have thoroughly enjoyed spending three hours here every night for the last 20 years trying to entertain you whether you were here, listening to the radio or watching at home," the guest of honor said.

"My goal every night was to do something to get you out of your [stadium] seat, off your sofa or out of your love seat. We are all out here to play this game for each and every one of you."

The native of Pierson, Fla., didn't stop there after receiving everything from a family vacation in Hawaii and a promise from the organization to refurbish 10 local ballfields -- "Ten for No. 10," team president John Schuerholz called it -- for Jones playing all 19 of his big-league seasons in the Big Peach.

He praised his mom Lynne and father Larry, who've been married 42 years. He praised his teammates, whom he described as "like my little brothers" (Chipper is an only child) and who he said "make me feel like a proud father" for having reached the playoffs after last season's disappointing finish.

He also spoke of trainer Jim Lovell, whose tireless therapy work has so often soothed Jones' aching knees this season, as well as "helping me complete the USA Today crossword puzzle every day."

Jones even poked a bit of fun at the navy blue turtlenecks he likes to wear under his uniform jerseys, explaining that his teammates call them "nerd-lenecks."

His touching and humorous talk was almost as perfect as his switch-hitting averages, which will see him retire with a .304 average from the left side and .305 from the right.

To explain the importance of that stat, a taped message from baseball commissioner Bud Selig ended: "It's obvious where you're headed. The next time we see you will be in Cooperstown, N.Y. [site of the Hall of Fame]."

Added Schuerholz, who didn't draft Jones but kept agreeing to contracts that kept him in the Big Peach: "We will never forget your everlasting impact to the Atlanta Braves. You lit up Atlanta and our organization with your greatness."

Yet that greatness never turned to arrogance or aloofness.

Said current Braves skipper Fredi Gonzalez, who replaced Cox in 2011: "To me, Chipper's the same guy he's always been. He's a simple guy. He's not complex. He likes his pickup trucks, his hunting and fishing, his family. I mean, he's got all the money in the world, and I've never seen him drive anything but a pickup truck."

Perhaps that's why former Rhea County star and current Braves reliever Cory Gearrin -- whose family gobbled up all six of his tickets for Friday -- said, "You look over at Chipper, and he'll have that smile on his face like, 'It's OK. You're fine. Let's get these guys out and win this thing.'"

They haven't won the whole thing since 1995.

But as Cox ended his turn at the microphone, he turned to Jones and urged him to "keep that rope in your mouth and keep pulling Fredi and the troops to 12 [playoff] wins and another World Series."

That wouldn't just get the entire Braves Nation out of its stadium seats, sofas and loveseats. It would be a perfect 10 of an ending for the best No. 10 in franchise history.