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Chipper Jones and the Negative Spotlight

The news that Chipper Jones will retire at the end of the 2012 season brought me many emotions, and only a few of them were relief and rage. For one thing, someone his age hanging up his spikes--a player whose MLB debut I can remember--is another depressing sign of the inevitable march of time. (In other words, I'm old.) The end of Chipper's career seemed like it might never come, even if it maybe should have by now. I wrote a lengthy post on Chipper back in 2010, when a torn ACL ended his season and, everyone presumed, his career. He recovered from that injury somehow, and hung on long enough to allow my daughter to yell LAAAA-REEEE at him at CitiField.

I debated whether to write anything at all about Chipper's retirement, figuring this is really more of a Braves fan moment and that they're entitled to it. (Can't say I've read too many of those, though I thought Lang Whitaker had a good take on the announcement at The Classical.) However, as a Mets fan it seems almost inappropriate to not write about Chipper, since he and the Mets are forever intertwined, whether they like it or not. And in the final analysis, I suspect Chipper did like it.

If you look at Chipper's splits, you'll see that he killed the Mets early and often, going back to his first full MLB season in 1995. Of course, in those days the Mets were even more of a punching bag than they are now, so his domination of the team blurred in with everyone else's. It wasn't until the late 1990s, when the Mets began to compete again, that it seemed Chipper was always there to thwart them.

I don't think players can will themselves to perform better at certain times; if a player had that ability, why wouldn't he use it all the time and never make an out? Not to mention that Chipper was a pretty good player who hit well against a lot of teams. However, these numbers he put up against the Mets are at or near the top of his totals against any other team. Whether this was a coincidence or not is almost immaterial; the Mets still had to deal with it.

1995 .280 .895 4 12
1996 .408 1.145 2 6
1997 .370 1.116 4 14
1998 .356 .931 1 5
1999 .400 1.510 7 16
2000 .395 1.057 2 6
2001 .358 1.058 3 10

1999 was a particularly devastating year, as you can clearly see. But with Chipper, it was never simply that he killed he Mets--it was when and how he did it. In that 1999 season, the Mets and Braves matched up in a series at Turner Field in late September. The Mets entered the three game set just a game out of first place. They left with their tail between their legs, in large part due to Chipper. During that series, Chipper hit 4 home runs and knocked in 7 runs. Every single one of his longballs gave the Braves a lead; two were responsible for the plating the eventual game-winning run in their respective games.

The Turner Field debacle knocked for the Mets for a loop, as they went north and found themselves swept by a Phillies team whose best players (Scott Rolen, Curt Schilling) were done for the season, then dropped two of three to the Braves at Shea. Chipper was less destructive with his bat in that series, but he saved his biggest blow for his postgame comments. With the Mets' playoff hopes seemingly dead and buried, he instructed their fans to "go home and put their Yankees stuff on."

This could have been an outsider's misunderstanding of Mets fans' folkways. (As Greg Prince put it, "Mets fans own no Yankee stuff, save for the stray voodoo doll.") But the much more likely explanation is Chipper exhibited a perfect understanding of what would most anger Mets fans and crafted a line with maximum heel-move antagonism. From that point forward, he was Shea's public enemy number one.

Chipper touched a very deep, primal feeling at the bottom of a fan's soul. We often say we "hate" another team or an opposing team without really meaning it. With Chipper, we meant it.

Looking back on this time with a bit more detachment (though still with gritted teeth), a question occurs to me that never had before, a question I'm not sure anyone has answered definitively: Why did Chipper hate the Mets so much? Where did this hate come from?

Was it simply the north/south rivalry implied by New York vs. Atlanta? Presumably there was some of that element at play, though it seems too facile to be the only reason. Chipper was far from the only person on the Braves who didn't like the Mets. Read the "Yankees stuff" article linked above and you'll see quotes from many Atlanta players who were pleased at the thought of ending the Mets' season.

This could have been a reflection of Bobby Cox, who was said to despise then-Mets manager Bobby Valentine. (Cox never publicly admitted as much, but the press regularly hinted at his unspoken animosity.) At the end of the 1998 season, the Braves did everything in their power to sweep a series against the Mets, who were fighting to win the wild card, despite the fact that Atlanta had long since clinched their division. That could have stemmed by Cox's presumed feelings. Or it could have been the attitude of a Top Dog--which Atlanta was throughout the 1990s--not wanting to let an upstart team like the Mets get any ideas that they could be toppled.

Whatever Cox or other Braves personnel felt about the Mets, no one actively sought the full brunt of Mets fans' scorn like Chipper. (Even if he was briefly supplanted in this field by John Rocker, although Rocker's Hate-Star soon faded.) Why? Again, if you read that "Yankees stuff" story cited above, Chipper says that things Mets fans yelled at him were beyond the pale, but I have a hard time believing that would fuel him for a decade-plus worth of scorn, or that Mets fans were the only fans getting on his case to that extent. (I assume he played in Philadelphia at some point?)

Perhaps Chipper simply has something in his soul that craves animosity. He certainly has a knack for creating tension where there isn't any, whether it's complaining that David Wright didn't deserve a Gold Glove or telling Jason Heyward to suck it up and play through pain. But that still doesn't quite answer the question of, why the Mets?

This is why I've come to the conclusion that the reason the Mets became Chipper's target is because they offered him something he could not get in Atlanta: a spotlight all to himself.

As good and as popular as Chipper was, at the height of Atlanta's dynasty he took a backseat in most fans' minds to the Braves' historically great rotation of John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, and Greg Maddux (and Steve Avery, briefly). Apart from his MVP year of 1999, Chipper was never seen as the primary reason the Braves won, his year-in year-out consistency less noticeable than their pitching staff's dominance. There's also the fact that Braves themselves took a backseat in local fans' minds, their yearly clinching more expected than treasured. Even in 1999, when the Braves were playing their most hated rivals in the NLCS, they had a very hard time selling out Turner Field.

I think Chipper arrived at his dislike for the Mets and its fans organically. However, I also think that once he tasted the attention this brought him, once he realized how he could toy with the emotions of a jam-packed, screaming, swaying Shea Stadium, he found this offered him something he did not have in Atlanta. When he came to Queens, all eyes were on him in a way they weren't at Turner Field, even if all those eyes were staring daggers at him.

In an interview he did with the Star-Ledger in 2009, he all but admitted this:

I always liked playing on the biggest stage in baseball. The Mets have been the closest thing to a rivalry I've had. ... There was something about that atmosphere over there [at Shea]. It's hard to describe. It's like, playing at Fulton County Stadium, the atmosphere there the last couple years we played there was electric. Then you go across the street to the Ted, and it just didn't have the same electricity. It's a lot more laid back, because people wanted to experience the ballpark, and the game was actually secondary.

There's already been some debate about how Mets fans should greet Chipper's last at bat at CitiField, with applause or boos. If you want to honor his legacy, belt out the loudest LAAAA-RRRY your lungs can manage. It's all he ever wanted from us.