For more than 50 years, I have had a favorite baseball player. I’m not sure I was that adamant about it when I first became a fan in the late ’50s — maybe Mickey Mantle — but by the mid ’60s, I really admired the way Pete Rose played the game. He was my favorite player for more than 20 years, and even though I came to realize he wasn’t as good a human being as he was a ballplayer, I still have an autographed bat of his among my memorabilia.
From the time Rose stopped playing until about 1993, I’m not sure I let myself have a favorite player. For one thing, I was covering baseball — the Dodgers — for a good chunk of that time, and I took the old rule about No Cheering in the Press Box seriously.
By the mid ’90s. though, I had another favorite, one I followed from the very beginning of his career up to the present. And this year, I’ll make several trips to Turner Field in Atlanta to watch that favorite play out his last season with the Braves.
Chipper Jones has had the sort of career that very few athletes have anymore. He spent his entire time in the game as a member of one organization. He was drafted by Atlanta, came up through the Braves’ farm system and reached the majors for good — after losing a season to a knee in injury — in 1995.
The Braves won the World Series in his rookie year, and four seasons later, Jones won the National League Most Valuable Player award.
He was a switch-hitter, and he established himself as one of the four or five best ever to play the game. As he enters his final season, his .304 batting average is the second-highest ever for someone who hits from both sides of the plate. His 453 home runs are third among switch hitters, and he’s certainly worthy of being included in the debate with Mantle, Eddie Murray, Rose and Frankie Frisch.
In recent years, he has been hampered by injuries. He hasn’t hit 30 home runs since 2004, and his last really great seasons were 2007 and 2008, when he scored more than a hundred runs, drove in more than a hundred runs at age 35 and then won the batting title with a .364 average at age 36.
When he announced earlier this week that 2012 would be his last season, he spoke of how much he had enjoyed playing his entire career in one spot. He said he was a Southern kid who had been happy to play for a Southern team. He spoke of how difficult a public relations problem it had been for the Braves when Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz had overstayed their welcome, and he said he didn’t want to do that.
One last time around the sun. One last season of cheering and possibly a spot in the playoffs.
Then the five-year wait for the Hall of Fame begins.
As for me, I also like this kid Ryan Zimmerman who plays for Washington. I think he’s a worthy successor.