On final opening day at Turner Field, Chipper reflects on the first

Chipper Jones was in the dugout at Turner Field again Monday, back in uniform and looking out over the diamond as he had so many times before. Jones was wearing dark sunglasses so I couldn’t see his eyes but no doubt they were dancing as he talked about old times at the ballpark.

Jones admitted that it hadn’t really occurred to him that this was the last opening day at Turner Field. At least he didn’t think about it until someone asked him about it when he showed up for his official gig as a special instructor and the unofficial role as the forever fan favorite.

Jones noted that the building is barely 20 years old and usually it’s 30 or 40 years before they say goodbye to old ballparks while looking forward to a new one. But once the subject turned to the final opening day at The Ted, Jones starred reeling off memories from the first opening day in 1997 with the details of someone who’d thought about it many times before.

Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium was where Jones made his debut. Turner Field was the place where he became a legend. Later he would be joined by some of his old teammates from that year for a pregame parade of pickup trucks — naturally Chipper and Andruw Jones were in the same vehicle and got the loudest cheers.

“It’s going to be really cool to see a bunch of the guys I haven’t seen in a long time,” Jones said. “Just be able to reminisce about what was going on that year and what’s happened since.”

Times are changing for the Braves, and not just because they’ll play SunTrust Park in Cobb County next season. The new place is only about 15 miles away from the old one but, symbolically, it’s much further.

The team’s move has been a source of city-suburb friction, though it’s hard to separate anger about that from anger about the changing direction of the club under baseball boss John Hart and general manager John Coppolella.

For Jones, opening day always meant the start of another pennant run; for the past two Braves’ teams it’s meant rebuilding with the promise of something better. But Jones has been on board with Hart’s plan for a while.

“It’s an exciting time as well because it’s kind of a dawning of a new age of Braves baseball and to be able to correlate that with a move into the new stadium will be cool,” Jones said.

Until then, the Braves will bid a long goodbye to Tuner Field. There are celebrations planned for throughout the season. There’s a huge number on the left field wall counting down the home games remaining — naturally, Chipper and Andruw started things off by removing the “1” to reveal “80.”

Back to Game One at The Ted: April 4, 1997, vs. the Cubs. Chipper Jones said all of the Braves wanted to be among the “firsts” at the new ballpark so their names would go in the record books. That sounds silly in retrospect for a guy whose name is all over the club’s record books but, back then, Jones was a 24-year-old phenom beginning his third full season in the big leagues.

Braves starter Denny Neagle retired the side in order. Kenny Lofton flied out against Cubs starter Kevin Foster and Michael Tucker did the same. That brought up Jones, who smacked a line drive to left field for a single.

“When I got to first I was like, ‘Give me that baseball,’” he said. “That ball is still on my mantle.”

That was the first of 1,223 regular-season hits for Jones at Turner Field. His second hit came in the seventh inning of that game, after which he recorded the first stolen base in the new ballpark. His third hit, another single, scored two runs in the eighth to put the Braves ahead for good.

There would be plenty more big moments for Jones over 1,119 regular-season games at Turner Field. He book ended his first game when he hit a three-run homer to beat the Mets on Sept. 2, 2012, his final home run at The Ted.

“I can’t tell you how many times in four years since I’ve been retired I’ve gone through the archives and kind of relived that moment,” he said. “It was a spine-tingling moment.”

At Turner Field, nobody had more of them than Jones.