Appreciating the understated brilliance of Chipper and the Braves
There's something beautifully well-rounded about Chipper's .300/.400/.500 line
In this way, Chipper is a lot like his Atlanta Braves
Atlanta's late surge has been great because it's like seeing an old television star
There is a very short list of players in baseball history who over long careers hit .300, own an on-base percentage of .400 and slug .500. There are more complete ways to judge a player's hitting talents, of course, but there's something beautifully well-rounded about the .300/.400/.500 hitter. He hits. He walks. He pounds the ball.
Some of the greatest in baseball history couldn't quite pull it off. Mickey Mantle and Al Kaline did not quite hit .300. Willie Mays and Hank Aaron didn't have .400 on-base percentages. Roberto Clemente and George Brett, playing their careers in sluggish hitters eras, did not slug .500. This does not detract from their greatness, but it just goes to show you how hard it is to pull off those round numbers: .300/.400/.500.
How hard? Only 14 men in baseball history have played 2,000 games and pulled it off.
These include many of the usual suspects -- Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Stan Musial, Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Tris Speaker, Mel Ott. Harry Heilmann is on the list. From more recent times, you have Frank Thomas and Manny Ramirez and, you may be surprised to know, Edgar Martinez, who is one of the more underrated hitters in baseball history.
And then there's one more. To prove a point, I asked a friend -- one of the most knowledgeable baseball fans I know -- to name that 14th player. I gave him a huge hint. I said he was a switch-hitter. That sort of hint would normally make it too easy. But not in this case. My friend knew that Mantle didn't hit .300, so he immediately set him aside. He guessed Eddie Murray (who, great as he was, actually did not achieve any of the three thresholds over his career). After briefly considering Pete Rose, he guessed Bernie Williams and then Carlos Beltran and then Reggie Smith and then Ken Singleton.
And only then did it hit him: Chipper Jones.
Are you surprised to see Chipper on this list? I was. For some odd reason, whenever I think of the great players of this generation, I always seem to forget about Chipper Jones. I mean, yes, I know how great he is. I know he's a first-ballot Hall of Famer. But other players just come more easily to mind.
Maybe it's because in this age of huge power numbers, Chipper Jones' numbers seem classically understated. He is like a superstar from a different age, Musial in a minor key. He has played his whole career with one team (and not just any team -- the Atlanta Braves, a team that made the playoffs every one of his first ELEVEN seasons). He has never hit more than 45 homers and never fewer than the 18 he has this year. He has never struck out 100 times in a season. He has hit more doubles than homers, walked more times than he has struck out, and scored more runs than he has driven in.
There's just a beautiful balance in his numbers. And maybe that is what makes him so easy to miss.
In this way, Chipper is a lot like his Atlanta Braves. For years and years, the Braves did they same thing every year. They made the playoffs. And then, they lost. Sometimes they lost in the first round of the playoffs, sometimes they lost in the championship series, sometimes they lost in the World Series. But every year from 1991 to 2005, with the exception of the strike year and the Braves' World Series victory over Cleveland in '95, the story was precisely the same.
When a story just gets repeated over and over and over -- no matter how good a story it may be -- it begins to feel dull. Even in Atlanta, people started to grow tired of it all. The Braves never missed the playoffs, but attendance dropped every year from 2000 to 2004 and only went up a tick in 2005. How excited could you get about a team that always made the playoffs and always lost? If people in Atlanta grew sick of the story, well, obviously people outside of Atlanta were beyond sick of it.
And maybe Chipper Jones' day-to-day excellence got lost a bit. Maybe manager Bobby Cox's remarkable ability to get his teams to win year after year was obscured.* Maybe the Braves consistency simply wore everybody down.
*Here's something about Bobby Cox that I find amazing: In the Braves' 14-season playoff run, 1991-2005, the Braves had nine different pitchers who had 15 or more saves in a season. They had six pitchers BESIDES the Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz trio who won 15 or more games in a season. They had 17 players who hit 20 or more homers, and 10 players who stole 20 or more bases and 13 players who hit .300 or better in a full season.
I think this only begins to tell you just how good a manager Bobby Cox has been. The Braves always SEEMED the same, but they never really were the same. They had seven different Opening Day catchers in the playoff run, nine different first basemen, seven different second basemen, four different shortstops, and so on. The Braves even had five different Opening Day third basemen, even with Chipper Jones (you will remember he moved to the outfield for a while).
Looking back it seems clear: The Braves' apparent consistency was an optical illusion, a magic trick, pulled off by three great pitchers and a manager who, perhaps better than anyone in baseball history, understood the rhythms and quirks of a long baseball season.
And all that is why it is fun to have the Braves suddenly and quite surprisingly back in the playoff race now. Yes, it's going to be tough for them to win now --they trail Colorado by three games with only five games remaining. The Rockies' dramatic 11th-inning victory on Tuesday night (and is there any other kind of 11th-inning victory but a dramatic one?) might be the final blow, though the Rockies do finish with three against the Dodgers while Atlanta has four against Washington.
But even if it is too late, the Braves' late surge has been great because it's like seeing an old television star you had not thought about in a while. Maddux and Glavine are retired, Smoltz is desperately trying to hang on, longtime G.M. John Schuerholz is not around much, Bobby Cox has said that next year will be his last.
And yet, here is a whole new Braves team making a run. And the only familiar face out there is ... well, Chipper Jones, of course. It has been a rough year for him -- rough enough that he talks about retiring -- but as the Braves have played better these last couple of weeks, he has looked energized again. He has talked hopefully and openly about the Braves catching the Rockies.
And the last two weeks, with the Braves trying to pull off the miracle comeback, Chipper Jones has hit .311, his on-base percentage is .436, he has slugged .511. The story may not end with a Braves' miracle. But it does seem like old times.
MLB Truth & Rumors