Braves' third baseman Chipper Jones acknowledges the crowd after hitting the 400th home run of his career in the 6th inning of their game against the Florida Marlins at Turner Field June 5, 2008.
Photo: Jason Getz, jgetz@ajc.com
Photo: Jason Getz, jgetz@ajc.com

Jones masters the art of the last act

When Terri Elias first met the 1990s version of Chipper Jones, she wasn’t exactly sure what to think.

She knew him to be a great player, certainly, and the cornerstone of the team she adored. “But I thought he was kind of stand-offish,” she remembered.

Her view — as well as those of everyone in baseball, it seems — has warmed significantly. Elias and her husband Don, founder of an Atlanta software company, befriended Jones after they signed on as a sponsor for his charity golf tournament. This season, they made it a mission for one or both of them to travel to each ballpark on the Chipper Jones Farewell Tour. Along the way, they have witnessed shows of affection for the Braves retiring third baseman that have overwhelmed them.

“It has been a privilege to experience this road trip. I know I am watching a future Hall of Famer go out with class and on top, and that does not come around very often,” Terri said.

In a series of individual tableaus, the couple tells the story of how Jones ranks with the widely scattered community of Braves fans.

They met a couple from Idaho that drove 12 hours straight to see Jones play in Denver.

In Chicago, when Jones noticed a fan sitting near them holding a sign that read “I Drove All The Way From Chicago To See Chipper,” he gave her one of his bats for her trouble.

In Cincinnati, they spoke with a son who took his father to see Jones as repayment for all the games dad had sprung for in the past. In San Diego, there was a man who always bought a cheap outfield ticket because it was the best he could afford – until he saved up to sit for one day down low, near the visitors’ dugout, in order to see Jones up close.

It wasn’t long after she got to know Jones that Terri decided the aloofness she had first sensed “was just a wall that he had to build to protect himself.”

That wall has been thoroughly breached, with Jones and Braves fans enjoying a season-long encounter session that has been fulfilling and illuminating for both sides. The official ceremonies crested with a home field tribute to Jones Friday night during the Braves last home stand of the regular season.

“I’ve been relatively sheltered from social media until this year,” said Jones, who finally opened a Twitter account on the advice of his agent. He has been a Tweeting fool since.

“Getting to read all the [blog]posts and all the Tweets, I’m actually sorry I didn’t do it sooner. It has given me a new appreciation for the fans and what they go through just to come watch me play for one last time. Man, it’s overwhelming. I sit up until 2 in the morning and read all these comments and I want them to know I love ‘em and appreciate ‘em.”

Down the stretch, it would have been nice to keep his batting average over .300 and to appear not quite so creaky in the field. A couple of days when it didn’t feel like his knees were singing the complete score from Les Mis would have been nice, too.

Otherwise, Jones has orchestrated one of great final acts in this or any other sporting town.

Better than just a good goodbye, this one has approached the outskirts of great.

Consider that the finish can so easily tilt the other way.

Willie Mays stumbled around the Mets outfield, a husk of himself.

Philadelphia’s Mike Schmidt just up and quit two months into a season, hitting .203 at the time, leading the team in errors and convinced that tomorrow would only be worse.

It could have ended badly for Jones, too, when, in the midst of his least productive offensive season he suffered another knee injury in early August that cost him the balance of the 2010 season.

“He had some pretty dark moments the last couple of years when he was hurt or struggling or his body just wasn’t cooperating that he contemplated walking away. I told him I thought he’d be sorry if he did,” said his agent and friend from childhood, B.B. Abbott.

“Trust me I didn’t want people’s last impression of me to be limping off the field in Houston. I want their last impression to be me hitting a three-run game-winning homer off Jonathan Papelbon (Sept. 2 to beat the Phillies). Or two homers off Jason Marquis on bobblehead night (Aug. 16 against San Diego). I want their last impression to be of these 25 guys as the last team standing.”

It was about the time he hit the first of his two home runs on his own bobblehead night at Turner Field, as he was beginning his trot, that he thought, “You got to be kidding me.”

“All these things have happened here in the final chapter,” he said, sighing deeply. (Throw in his first five-hit game at home, in July, vs. the Cubs, just hours after being named to his eighth All Star team.)

“I thank God every day for giving me what he has given me, allowing me all the wonderful moments in the last year.”

Personally, there have been strains this year — Jones is in the midst of a second divorce. His fallibilities have often been public property. But, on the field, even at 40, he has served as one of his team’s most reliable hitters. He has found himself bathing in the requited love of the only home audience he has ever known.

Making a definitive retirement statement in the spring, Jones would have only one chance to create a last impression. Through those well-placed home runs and his own determination to interact fully with the romance of a last hurrah, Jones has manufactured a doozy.

Are you taking notes, boys?

“I may not even tell anyone I’m retiring,” said pitcher Tim Hudson, having been front row for the Jones show and knowing the difficulty in trying to duplicate it.

“Some people are just touched. Seems like the stars have been aligned for him since the day he put on a uniform,” the veteran Braves pitcher added.

From the younger end of the clubhouse: “Obviously you’d like to go out like that. But he’s Chipper and, well, there’s not many out there who can do that,” said first-baseman Freddie Freeman.

Jones has put himself out there for 18 seasons, taking all the risks that come with such long exposure to one fan base. In the case of both sports stars and in-laws, extended stays can turn irritable.

When Atlanta’s Braves won their only World Series in 1995, Jones was the 23-year-old rookie who hit two home runs in his first-ever postseason game. He batted .364 throughout the playoffs and Series, and was the harbinger of a golden age.

When other Braves teams failed to go as far — year after year after year — Jones was still there, a convenient collection point for the compost of disappointment. When it didn’t go well, Jones was seen by some eyes as too fragile, too stoic in the field, too free with the unvarnished opinion off it. He was identified with both the best and most bitter times.

But then comes Jones’ closing act, like a Key West sunset, a scene painted in contentment.

His career most properly will end with another appearance in the postseason, where the Braves have ventured but once since 2005.

“I want October more for the rest of the guys. I’ve got my battle scars. I’ve been through the wars, but a lot of these guys haven’t. I really want it for them this year,” he said.

“His heart is huge for this game and the fans and I think we see that in him,” said Don Elias, the well-travelled fan.

With his goodbye, Chipper Jones has accomplished everything a great showman desires. It has left ‘em wanting more.

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