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In New York, a love-hate relationship turns Chipper

NEW View Full Game Coverage YORK -- Rusty Staub approached Chipper Jones at the 2000 New York baseball writers' dinner, his right hand extended, and congratulated the 1999 National League Most Valuable Player. "Larry," Staub said, "you won it the way it should be won. You kicked the hell out of the team you had to beat."

Jones warmly accepted the compliment, shook Staub's hand and said, "Thanks, Daniel."

New York has been on a first-name basis with Larry Wayne "Chipper" Jones since the May day in 1995 when he hit his first big league home run, a ninth-inning game-winner at Shea Stadium. He is as readily identified by one name as are Yogi, Elvis, Cher, Mitt or Lassie, though, in his case, the one word occasionally is preceded by the present participle modifier Chipper shares with Bucky Dent.

Chipper is one of the few visiting baseball players whose New York identity has risen to the one-word level. A certain familiarity exists with him in these parts, one that has bred a degree of contempt for the Braves third baseman in the five boroughs and their satellite communities. He has been more than a formidable foe, he has been the primary party pooper in the Mets' recent history.

Whether identified as Larry, Mets fans' preferred way of taunting him, or Chipper, Jones has been on a first-name basis with beating the Mets seemingly forever. But, truth be told, this market has come to regard Jones as it once regarded Pete Rose -- with respect well disguised as loathing.

Few opposing players have battered the Mets during their 51 seasons as Jones has during his 19. He hit that home run 17 years ago against Josias Manzanillo, leading off the ninth inning, and has spent the subsequent summers as if convinced that is how it always ought to be.

He seemingly has undermined the Mets at every turn. A shot at Shea, a sac fly at Citi. And it's not as though he was invisible when the Mets visited the old Chop Shop or Turner Field.

Chipper and Mike Schmidt have hit 49 home runs each against the Mets. Only Willie Stargell, with 60, hit more. Only Stargell (182) and Schmidt (162) have driven in more runs against the Mets than Chipper (158). And the Mets and Braves have six games remaining, the first of which will be Friday at Citi Field.

The mattresses at the Grand Hyatt willing, Jones is back in town for one final visit as an active player, one more return to the scene of the crime, or, if you will, the scene of his prime. The Braves are in New York for three games. And before the first pitch is thrown, the Mets will remove the face that suggests they hate the man and salute the player who so often has personified a wet blanket in Queens.

"After what Chipper did against us that year [1999], he had to be the MVP," former Mets third baseman Robin Ventura said this summer. "If I was managing then, I probably would have held up four fingers [intentional walk] when he was on deck."

Ventura and some of his contemporaries recall vividly how Jones single-handedly created a path of destruction through the Mets' September. The Braves led the Mets by one game with 12 games remaining for both teams. They played three games in Atlanta.

• Sept. 21: Jones hit home runs in the first and eighth innings against Rick Reed and Dennis Cook. The Braves won, 2-1.

• Sept. 22: Jones hit a two-run home run in the first inning against Orel Hershiser and walked and scored the Braves' final run in the eighth. The Braves won, 5-2.

• Sept. 23: Jones hit a three-run home run in the fifth inning against Al Leiter. The Braves scored four times in the inning and won, 6-3.

Hence Staub's comment.

"It was the high point of my career," Jones said earlier this season. "I had four hits in the series, all home runs. That was as good as it gets for one player. You know you've carried your team in a real important series."

"Lots of guys have a big series, or they get real hot and you can't get them out for two or three days," Leiter said years afterward. "But Chipper was like a bomb that went off, only at the perfect moment. He just leveled us that series."

* * * * *

And many other series as well. The Mets are a favored opponent. "I think it's been a combination of a bunch of things," Chipper said last month at Citi Field. "Obviously, you're going to have certain stadiums where you feel comfy in that you see the ball well. Shea Stadium had one of the best hitter's backgrounds of all. I enjoyed hitting there. I saw the ball well in that ballpark. That combined with the fact that a lot of times when we played the Mets early on in my career we were either first or second in the standings, and [they are], I've said all along, the closest thing to a rival I've experienced in the game. So it was important for us to beat them to accomplish our goal, which was to win the NL East."

New York's feeling about Chipper was a factor as well. "On top of that, the amount of guff I get from the crowd on a nightly basis, you want to make left-hand turns. You don't want to make right-hand turns. You make right-hand turns, you're obviously going back to the dugout. You make left-hand turns, you're obviously doing things well. Fear is a powerful motivator, and fear of failure in this city is, I guess, what's driven me for a long time."

A grand slam of Chipper anecdotes
  • 1. After the Braves had swept the Mets in the final three games of the 1998 season, denying them a place in the postseason, Jones was particularly delighted to have denied Mets manager Bobby Valentine, a.k.a. "Top Step," a label created by opposing managers who thought Valentine too often sought the camera's eye.
  • "I guess you can say we knocked 'Top Step' off the top step," Jones said.
  • 2. I was seated in the manager's office in the visiting clubhouse at Yankee Stadium, kibitzing with Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. A Braves-Astros playoff game was on the television screen. One of the announcers noted that Jones had named his son Shea, but the basis for that decision was inaudible.
  • Gardenhire was intrigued. "Why'd he do that?" he asked.
  • "'Cause he always hits the hell out of the ball at Shea," was my reply.
  • "So," Gardenhire said, "I guess I should have named my boy Tidewater, 'cause that's where I hit the hell out of the ball."
  • 3. Chipper's memory of the first game played in New York following 9/11:
  • "My father was a Marine, so I was exposed to the military a lot. I had heard about 21-gun salutes, but I'd never experienced one until that night at Shea. They had those ceremonies; very touching. Then they had the 21-gun salute. Pretty impressive.
  • "When I went out to left field and we got out there, I found the cartridges in the grass. So I picked them up -- I don't known, 12 or 15 -- and I kept them. Yeah, I brought them home. They weren't on display or anything. And I didn't consider them souvenirs because of why they were there. But they were like my physical connection to 9/11 and those ceremonies.
  • "I gave one or two away to people I thought would appreciate them. And I started carrying one in my bag as a reminder. I carried it until two or three years ago when I got pulled out of line at security at an airport. I'd never been stopped before. But I was flying commercial. I told them where I got them, I told them the whole story. They told me, 'You really can't travel with them.'"
  • 4. I accompanied Chipper on his tour of the Mickey Mantle exhibit at Yankee Stadium in June. A Mantle disciple, he enjoyed himself. And I enjoyed this exchange with him. I had pointed to a plastic figure of Mantle in his left-handed followthrough in a display case. The original packaging was next to the figure.
  • "I have one of those at home," I said proudly.
  • Chipper moved a few feet and pointed to Mantle's 1956 Most Valuable Player award. "And I've got one of those," he said.
  • -- Marty Noble

The fear has diminished over the years. Chipper evolved, the fans began to respect his ability to perform in challenging circumstances, and the experience of playing in the first game in New York after 9/11 changed the circumstances. A sense of détente has developed. Hence the Mets' salute on Friday.

"I wouldn't trade the experience for anything," Chipper said of the games at Shea in 2001. "I can't tell you how many 'thank yous' and 'I love yous' and just 'Way to go, Larrys' I got that entire series. That was certainly a weekend I'll never forget.

"I think once people realized that I was kind of on the downside of my career and had one foot out the door, they really started to sit back and say, 'You know, this guy's not that bad a guy. He's been a good competitor over the years. He's done well on the biggest stage in baseball.'

"And I say that with the utmost respect. I think, if you can play and be successful on this stage in New York -- and it does matter which field your playing on -- you can be successful anywhere because the distractions are multiplied by 10 here vs. everywhere else. I'm proud of the fact that I've been able to come up here and do well and play well and hopefully garner the respect of the people here in New York."

Even the ones who call him Larry. "I don't mind that. Glavine and Doggie [Greg Maddux] always said they couldn't call a grown man Chipper. And guys in here [the clubhouse] call me Larry."

Just as Fritz Peterson always referred to Whitey Ford as Ed.

"What bothers me are the imposters," Chipper said. "Calling me Larry started here. That's why I always say to people outside New York, 'Get your own name. That started somewhere else. It's not yours; the Mets fans should have a patent on it. Yell something else.' I guess the Mets fans can be proud to be trendsetters.

"It's annoying in other places. I don't like it if some guy, who doesn't know me, walks up and calls me Larry in the streets of Cincinnati. I'm more liable to fuzz up at that because he doesn't know me well enough to call me that. If he walks up and says it to my face, then obviously, he's trying to be a jackass."

You might even say Chipper has grown to enjoy/respect how New York has treated him of late. "I like playing here now. See, I'm a small-town kid, so big cities used to intimidate me a lot. Obviously, I didn't like coming to a lot of the big-market places because they were so big. You know, it was just that you grow to appreciate it. I love coming to New York now. I look forward to each and every trip.

"But I look at New York a lot differently now than I did earlier in my career. New York used to be our enemy. Who's gonna like walking into the enemy's backyard? You know nobody's gonna like that. But I've mellowed.

"A certain percentage of fans here has become less volatile, more appreciative. Don't get me wrong, there's still a handful that still give it to me pretty good. But I've mellowed a lot as I've gotten older. I can walk down the street now in New York and feel fairly comfortable and that everybody's going to be friendly.

"Fifteen years ago, I wouldn't have said that. I would have stayed in my room. Now I enjoy it. I go down to Portobello's and talk with people all the way down. I talk to people all the way back. When I'm out here at the ballpark walking, talking to all the security officers, they're all very complimentary. We sit and chat. I walk out there on the field, when I do have time to sign some autographs all I get is positive feedback.

"Obviously, once the uniform goes on and you step out there between the lines, they're Mets fans, they're trying to take you out of your game. I get it. You know, they're clever and they're raunchy. You get a little bit of both from time to time. But I think, overall, there's been a mellowing of the attitude toward me.

"When we played the Yankees here in June, I told Jeter how much I appreciate the energy in both parks. If I could have it like that every night, I might never quit. It's so cool here."

Atlanta Braves, Chipper Jones