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Baseball better for Chipper's genuineness

NEW YORK -- Over the years, the best places for a reporter to spend a few moments at Shea Stadium were at the lockers of Tom Glavine, Cliff Floyd, Robin Ventura and Billy Wagner; Mike Cameron, Joe Torre, David Cone and Raffy Santana; Ed Lynch, Lenny Harris and Todd Zeile; Tim Bogar, Hubie Brooks, Wally Backman and Moises Alou; Marlon Anderson, John Olerud and Jeff Innis -- just to name a dozen or so. Seldom did I leave one of those lockers without a new thought, an anecdote of some value, a quote or some insight.

Across town, a notebook would essentially fill itself if positioned near lockers assigned to Lou Piniella, Bobby Murcer, Bob Watson, Rich Gossage, Rudy May, Chicken Stanley, Tim Raines, Dick Tidrow, Rondell White, Mike Stanton, Phil Niekro, Willie Randolph and, yes, Reggie Jackson.

All of them had something to say and intriguing or entertaining ways to say it. They were go-to guys for me. Every reporter has them -- or better have them.

And if a reporter is well-equipped, he has a few in the other clubhouses. For me, there were Bill Madlock, Dan Quisenberry, Ted Simmons, Carlton Fisk, Frank White, Dave Parker, Ozzie Smith, Rick Sutcliffe and Willie Stargell. Glavine, Dale Murphy, John Smoltz and Mark Lemke made the Braves' clubhouse exceptional for all reporters. They were a rich vein of gold.

And then Chipper Jones came along, and the Braves had the best clubhouse in the game. It remains one of the best because Jones still is an active player, as well as a cooperative, accessible, insightful, trusting, colorful and candid player. He conceals little and often lets us look inside, which means readers get a glimpse of what it's like.

In this era of wall-to-wall distrust in reporter-athlete relationship, Jones is an anomaly. He trusts first. If he gets burned -- and he has been burned in this city -- he shuts out the offender. And that's understandable. He doesn't paint my profession with one brush dipped in an unflattering color. I'm grateful.

And better yet, he's engaging. At a time when some folks playing the game too often are stumped for a response to "hello" and avoid eye contact as a matter of course, Jones practices Southern hospitality. He says "hello." He bothers to learn at least the first names of those who invade the clubhouse with some regularity.

The word probably isn't used often in the South, but Chipper is a mensch.

* * * *

It was sometime last season that he shared the story of meeting his hero -- actually it was his father's hero -- Mickey Mantle. Jones was to participate the following day in a card show and had been told he would be introduced to the Hall of Fame switch-hitter, who had great influence on his career. It was the winter of 1992-93. He was a kid without a big league at-bat.

With no probing, Jones told how he squirmed in anticipation, how, at 2 a.m., he was unable to sleep because of anxiety. He rose, moved to the bathroom of his hotel room and, looking in the mirror, practiced greeting Mantle. A wonderful story. How human of him!

Rare is the player willing to share such a private moment, willing to put himself in position for clubhouse ridicule. Chipper recognized the humanity of the anecdote. He shared it with a smile, prompting a second smile.

That is but one of hundreds of examples of what -- other than performance -- creates celebrity in the game. Chipper has a genuineness, an ease, a charm and a grace about him. He is enjoyable company. He seemed a tad subdued before the Braves' game at Citi Field on Friday night, when the Mets presented him with a piece of art that saluted him and when, for the umpteenth time in his career, he was the target of a few dozen questions. Why all this fuss "about little old me?" he asked.

He is more comfortable than ever in the Big City. He said he revels in it when a bona fide New Yorker summons him. "Yo, Chippuh," he said in his best Phil Foster voice (see "Laverne & Shirley"). But is Larry Wayne "Chipper" Jones completely comfortable here? Give him another 19 seasons.

He's made the best of his first 19. He hasn't been Henry Aaron, Mike Schmidt, Stan Musial or Mantle. But he is on the short list of third basemen with the Hall of Fame monogram on his sleeve or with a spot awaiting one. If a visiting player has been better copy, better to cover in the last two decades, I fear I have missed him.

Chipper made the Mets wait till next year. Now he's filling in his bucket list. This weekend is it for him in our city, at least as an active player. I can wait for next year.

Marty Noble is a columnist for