Braves fans, brass give Chipper Jones a fine sendoff

Jay Busbee
Big League Stew

Since very few of us will ever retire as international superstars, we have to guess at the emotions which those who are must feel. And while getting celebrated for your accomplishments is nice, at some point you've got to feel overwhelmed by all the attention. After all, there are only so many surfboards a guy can get.

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But then comes the hometown celebration, and for Chipper Jones, making his final circuit of major league baseball right now, this one was special. Jones has spent his entire 19-year career in Atlanta, and an on-field ceremony before Friday night's game against the Mets firmly enshrined Jones in the pantheon of great Braves.

Longtime Braves announcer Pete Van Wieren stepped out of retirement to emcee the evening's ceremonies, and he set the tone for the evening by calling Jones "one of the two greatest hitters in Atlanta Braves history, along with Hank Aaron." He noted that Jones hit over .300 both righty and lefty, and never struck out more than 100 times in a season. Also in attendance on the podium: former Braves manager Bobby Cox, team president John Schuerholz, and Aaron himself. Georgia's governor, Nathan Deal, declared it "Chipper Jones Day" in Georgia, and commissioner Bud Selig, appearing via video, didn't embarrass himself, pointing out that "the next time we all see you, you'll be going into Cooperstown."

Brian McCann, representing the current team, noted that "anybody who came through this organization and didn't take advantage of what Chipper could teach them was missing out." But he couldn't resist ribbing Jones; the entire team was wearing mock turtlenecks ("They call them 'Nerdlenecks,'" Jones later laughed) in his honor.

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Jones received the rare opportunity to thank everyone who'd been instrumental in his development, from his parents to his childhood best friend (now his agent) to his high school coach to his professional mentors and teammates. He ran long -- hey, it's his show, he's allowed -- and when he was done, he received a heartfelt standing O.

Throughout the game, the Braves ran video tributes from players and colleagues that both delighted (Ryan Klesko! Sid Bream! Javy Lopez! Otis Nixon!) and perplexed (Michael Jordan? Mark Texeira?) the crowd. And fans got off a few zingers of their own in signs, the most notable of which was "Thanks, Todd Van Poppel!" (Van Poppel was the 1990 phenom who threatened to go to college if he was drafted by the then-woeful Braves; Atlanta picked Jones instead.)

Jones has long been a fan favorite, and on this night, 51,910 fans, seventh-largest crowd in Turner Field history, turned out to honor him. They cheered maniacally for every Braves break, right up until a Lucas Duda seventh-inning homer quieted them. (Jones, generally a big-moment kind of guy, was uncharacteristically tepid at the plate, going 0-for-4 without getting the ball out of the infield in an  underwhelming 3-1 loss.) But while the fans won't have Jones to cheer for much longer, reminders of him will be everywhere at Turner Field.

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"When I come back here next year, I expect to see No. 10 up there," Van Wieren said, pointing at the row of retired Braves numbers hanging just past Turner Field's left-field foul pole. The roster already includes the numbers of Cox and teammates John Smoltz, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. Soon enough, No. 10 will hang there as well.

After the game, Jones was in a thankful mood. "The support and love in this ballpark tonight ... it's hard to prepare yourself for," he said. But he did laugh a bit: "I told Timmy [Hudson] that I was an emotional wreck, and to keep the ball away from me for a couple innings. First batter, ball comes right to me." He added that he didn't think he'd been this nervous in a ballgame since his major league debut. "I had a tear in the corner of my eye all night. It's tough to pick up the rotation of the ball with that," he said with a smile.

"The innings and the games are dwindling," Jones added. "It's starting to become a reality now."

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