3:12 pm Mar. 23, 2012
As hard as it is for fans of a certain age to believe, Chipper Jones, who announced Thursday that he'll be retiring at the end of the 2012 season, does not have the most career home runs against the Mets. Jones is actually tied with Willie McCovey for home runs against the Mets, with 48, and trails Willie Stargell, who had 60, and Mike Schmidt, who had 49.
But there's a lot more than home runs that go into determining the biggest Met-terrorizer in history. Stargell's Pirates never beat the Mets in a pennant race between the two, while his career overlapped with the 1969 World Series championship for New York. Schmidt's greatest years came during a period, 1974-1983, when the Mets did not contend.
Jones played during an era when the Mets sometimes came close to winning it all, but always fell short, and he, himself, was often the reason why. Chipper Jones is the most terrible of them all.
The length of his dark reign is astonishing. His first home run against the Mets came on May 9, 1995, against Josias Manzanillo, who has been retired since 2004. The home run, in the eighth inning, provided the margin of Atlanta's 3-2 victory. New York's leadoff hitter that day, Brett Butler, is now 54 years old. Their starting pitcher, Bret Saberhagen, has been retired since 2001. And a young infielder named Edgardo Alfonzo, who went on to have plenty of clutch hits himself, was a rookie.
The next day, Jones went out and hit another homer, this time off Pete Harnisch, out of baseball for a decade. The Mets won, with John Franco, long-retired and due to be honored by the Mets Hall of Fame this year, getting the save.
But Jones solidified his unique position in Mets history during a memorable three-game series against the Mets in 1999. New York had battled Atlanta all year, looking to avenge a season-ending series in 1998, when Atlanta swept them and kept them from winning the wild card. (Jones reached base seven times in those three games.)
The Mets entered a Sept. 21-23 series at Turner Field just a half game behind the Braves. Rick Reed faced John Smoltz, and both pitchers were terrific. But the lone run Reed allowed was a booming home run by the switch-hitting Jones, batting left-handed. Alfonzo evened the score in the third with an R.B.I. single to chase home Rey Ordonez, and the score stayed there until the eighth inning. Mindful of Jones's success against Reed, Bobby Valentine brought in the lefty, Dennis Cook, to turn Jones around. Jones responded with his second home run of the game, another solo shot, and Atlanta won, 2-1.
Then Jones homered again on Saturday. And again on Sunday. The Braves swept the series, won the division, and the Mets were sent into a swoon that only arrested itself in the season's final weekend, allowing them to back into the playoffs. Atlanta dispatched New York there as well, Jones reaching base 14 times over that six-game series.
And so it was, then and seemingly forever after. Atlanta would find some back-breaking way to bury the Mets, usually through the industry of Chipper Jones. Like when he homered in the 2000 game when the Braves beat the Mets at Shea Stadium, 7-1, allowing the Braves to celebrate a division-clincher on New York's home infield.
That set the tone for the next decade: Atlanta would win, and Jones would stand victorious, condescendingly glancing toward the New York dugout from second base after putting the Braves ahead with a double, or nonchalantly jogging around the bases after homering against whoever the Mets had on the mound.
On the one-year anniversary of 9/11, Jones hit two home runs, the second off of Satoru Komiyama—inaptly nicknamed the Japanese Greg Maddux—as the Braves won, 8-5.
The Braves demolished the Mets, 18-10, in the second game of the 2004 season. Of course Jones homered.
Desperately trying to stay in the 2005 wild card race, just 2.5 games back, the Mets and Braves entered the eighth inning of a crucial Septmber game in Turner Field with the score 2-2. Jones, batting with one on, launched a two-run homer off of Steve Trachsel to provide the final 4-2 margin. The Mets went on to get swept by the Braves, falling out of contenton by the end of the week.
In a Sunday, September 21, 2008 game at Atlanta, the Mets were in the process of blowing a 3.5 game divisional lead with 17 to play, a mini-catastrophe compared to the 2007 collapse, but no fun, either. New York led a Sunday afternoon game, 4-3, and a win would have given the Mets a series win, chopped Philadelphia's division lead to a half game and provided a 2.5-game cushion in the wild card over Milwaukee, with only home games remaining on the schedule for New York.
Jones hadn't played Saturday, and hadn't played Sunday, either, nursing injuries. The Braves had already scored twice to take a 5-4 lead, but the deficit was still manageable. With a man on third and two outs in the eighth inning, Bobby Cox sent Jones up to pinch hit against Aaron Heilman, New York's fourth pitcher of the inning.
Jerry Manuel, the Mets manager, took no chances with the obviously banged-up Jones, and walked him intentionally. Normally, an injured player off the bench is a godsend and rally-killer. But New York's fear of Jones ran that deep.
The next man up, Martin Prado, promptly doubled in two more runs.
So when Jones appears for the Braves at Opening Day at Citi Field on April 5, expect a response from Mets fans. If they cheer him, they'll be given credit for taking the high road. But they'll also be cheering the fact that, at long last, the man made who made losers of their team for so long will be gone.