Chipper's timing impeccable 'til the end

Photo by Jim Hendricks

Photo by Jim Hendricks

A few years ago -- more than I want to admit -- I was sitting in the stadium in Atlanta, catching a Braves game and listening to some folks talking in nearby seats.

The subject was the Braves and their inability to win another World Series.

Tom Glavine was on the mound that day. And I think the other pitcher was Randy Johnson, who my wife, Cheryl, said looked like a giant rooster. I'd never thought of that before she said it, but now I can't look at a picture of The Big Unit and not think about feathers and crowing.

But getting back to the game. Glavine was pitching. The Jones Boys -- Chipper and Andruw -- were in the field, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz were in the dugout. And the thought occurred to me: How many people at that game really appreciated what we were seeing on the field?

It wasn't a sure thing by any means, but I felt like I was looking at five hall-of-famers. Turns out I was 80 percent right. And No. 5 was actually on the bench, manager Bobby Cox. If Maddux, Smoltz, Glavine, Cox and Chipper don't get the call the first year they're each eligible, Cooperstown needs to just shut on down.

I've never felt that baseball players were heroes. I reserve that term for those who deserve it, the people who risk their life -- and too often lose it -- for others. But I do appreciate a blazing fastball, a crafty breaking pitch, a big-time hit and a guy who takes an extra base on pure guts and instinct.

As much as anybody, I hated it when the Braves got knocked out of the playoffs. I thought they'd pick up a couple more world titles during their magical run of division and National League pennants, but it always seemed there was another team that spent a little more, had a ball bounce just right. Atlanta always seemed to miss that one piece that would turn an exceptional team into a juggernaut ... a team of destiny.

Still, I sat through some long seasons as a Braves fan, times when managing to keep the season full of losses in the double digits was seen as a step foward, when a batter with a 3-2 count, bases empty and two outs qualified as a full-blown rally. Outside of Phil Niekro or Dale Murphy, those were pretty lean years.

And that's why, even when the Braves couldn't get over the hump, I didn't feel too bad. I'd gone from rooting for a team that was a perennial loser to one that had a legitimate shot at grabbing the gold.

But, as we all learn, time moves on. We all get slower. And sooner of later, the game passes us. Maddux, Smoltz and Glavine have all moved on. And, as of Friday night, so has Chipper Jones.

Chipper's a rarity -- a professional baseball player who stayed with a single team his entire career. It's a rare loyalty to a team and a city in a day when athletes routinely pick up and move across the country for bigger pots of gold. In the old days, baseball players had no choice; the team dictated where they played. In free agency, Chipper could have played for anyone if he had chosen to. Instead, he changed positions when the Braves needed him to and reworked his contracts so they could sign players. He was a class act all around.

At 40, he had lost a step, but he still had that air about him, the feeling of a winner. There were moments during the season -- a walk-off home run in one game comes to mind -- when he looked 25 again. Even as the Cardinals knocked the Braves out of the playoffs Friday night, I kept thinking there'd be a last hurrah for the guy who'd given me and other fans so many late-inning dramatics over the past two decades.

Instead, Chipper's error led to the loss and his final hit in his final at bat was, at the very least, some extremely charitable scoring. But when you're a retiring hall of famer, you've earned the benefit on a close play. Afterward, I saw a quote from Chipper. He said this was not the way he expected his last game to go.

None of us did. We were expecting a game-winning hit, a miracle bare-handed play at third -- something to remember. We wanted a flash of 1995, not just a glimmer.

But when ends come, they rarely involve a blaze of glory like a walk-off home run. Most times, it's just walk off.

That's true regardless of your field of endeavor. The game changes, seemingly getting faster and faster while you struggle to keep pace as it passes you by, your heart believing you can still do it, your legs knowing you can't and your mind wanting to believe what your heart tells it as long as it can.

Eventually, though, reality sets in. A shadow, a doubt at first, but a growing realization. And then comes the tricky part. Timing. Chipper still had it, batting near .300 most of the season, passing milestones as the season wore on, creaky knees and all. After his last appearance, fans stayed in the stands, trying to get him to come out for a final curtain call.

There are two ways a career ends. Either you leave them wanting more, or you overstay your welcome.

In the end, Chipper's timing, as it was during his long career, was impeccable. To paraphrase the great Bob Hope, Chipper, thanks for the memories.

Email Jim Hendricks at jim.hendricks@albanyherald.com.