Saturday, September 29, 2012

Chipperpallooza: Chipper Jones retires and I feel old

You know....sometimes it's hard to describe "Getting Old". There isn't really a "Technical" definition of it and for some people, there are different milestones, or signs that yeah, maybe you are getting old.

For me, it was sitting in the stands at Turner Field Friday night to witness the "Retirement" ceremony for Atlanta Braves all-star Chipper Jones. And no, it didn't help that the Braves lost the game 3-1 either.

Why is Chipper my marker?

Because my first interaction with him was an interview in 1990. He, a 17-year old about to graduate from the Bolles School in Jacksonville, Florida and be the Braves #1 draft pick. Me, a 24-year old TV Photographer working at the local NBC affiliate.

Now mind you, this is important for several reasons. The biggest: I am and have always been an unabashed Braves fan. My first game was as an 11-year old, in 1976. My father took us to see the Braves play the Pittsburgh Pirates at Fulton County Stadium. And as they often did in those days, the Braves lost. I remember Richie Zisk had 6 RBI's during that game.

But the Braves were my team.

For a long, long, time I was okay with the fact my team wasn't very good. Sure, we had the Bob Horner/Dale Murphy era in the early 80's. But that only lasted a couple of seasons, and then they went right back to sucking.

But I still went to games whenever I could. There were games in the mid 80's, when we'd drive up from Georgia Southern (Statesboro) and get seats in the outfield. By games end, we were behind the dugout. Why? Because nobody else was there.

I still followed them after I graduated, but moved to Virginia for my first job. It was tougher to follow them, but not impossible.

We already talked about the 1990 interview. And that's where the paths continued to cross. I didn't get to go cover the Braves when the World Series runs began in the early '90's, in fact, my station sent a crew to cover the playoffs in 1993. I didn't get to go, I had to stay back and produce our 30 minute Sunday Night Sports show, featuring a sit-down interview with one Chipper Jones.

I watched the 1995 Series win from an apartment in Nashville, myself. But after screaming my lungs out, I just stared at the TV...for a long time.

My path crossed Chipper's...and the Braves once or twice a year while I lived away. My parents moved to Atlanta, and it was an excuse to come to town and see a game. I'd drag my father with me and he'd sit there and watch, not terribly enthused, but he knew how happy it made me. We actually were at Fulton County Stadium when one of the "Penultimate" tabloid stories of all-time happened. We first learned about the O.J Simpson, slow speed chase in California, by seeing it on a TV monitor while leaving the stadium.

I sat there during the 1996 World Series with my friend Tom Leonard, sitting in the outfield at the Jim Leyritz game. (Braves fans will get that reference) I'm not sure I've ever heard a stadium as quiet as that one.

It all changed in 1999. I got a job in Atlanta and though initially it wasn't a sports job, it became one. The first time I went to do post-game was a "Holy-Shit" moment. I walked in towards the locker room and just stopped. And proceeded to get punched in the arm by producer Rob Tribble who said, "Stop gawking" "We got work to do".

In 10-years, I probably walked into that locker room 100-plus times. I always smiled and got chills. Always.

During that time, I got to know a couple of the players. Our paths would cross on occasion, while out and about. And they were always nice, if a bit wary.

Chipper had his own place in that locker room. And for the most part, he would be willing to talk if we went to him, but he was in the middle of the side row. In the Braves locker room, the senior guy had the locker closest to the shower on the left. John Smoltz occupied that locker for years. That locker is where Chip ended.

It seemed as time passed, Chipper lost that filter. He just said whatever was on his mind. I stood in front of him in 2007 while he sat on a table in the middle of the room and listened to him just "Rip" into umpire Bob Davidson after a Braves loss. Didn't sugarcoat anything. And we didn't have to ask him any questions, he just started talking. That cost him some money, but he never apologized for saying it.

There were more times than I can count where I was in the locker room, without a reporter and would see him at his locker; "Hey Chip, can I talk to you for a minute or two? Yeah, sure, anyone else around?" "No, haven't seen anyone"..."Okay, what'cha got?"

The Braves are a very close-tight group. It's been part of their dynamic for years. It wasn't uncommon to see groups of them out together and they always had each others back. If one player didn't, that player didn't last very long.

Me and The Lovely Bride at the game
But the one constant was Chipper. He was there through it all. He was deferential to Smoltz and Greg Maddux for years and when they left, he became the face...and voice of the team. Never colorful, very matter of fact, with some humor sprinkled in.

So it was a very conflicting moment Friday night being with 52,000 other fans and Braves management saying goodbye. Yeah, I know, the season hasn't ended, but an era has. It's funny, in all my years in TV, I covered hundreds of football players who went on to be successful and many came, went and retired and it was never really an issue like this.

But this time it registered. It was someone that I identified as the face of my favorite baseball team for a long time. A really long time. And he's actually walking away. Walking away on his terms, after one last shot at the playoffs. After one last run of anchoring the lineup. After one last run of showing the young guys (and the Braves have a lot of them), what it's like to be a Major League Baseball player. Showing them what needs to be done to be successful, the dedication to the craft and most importantly---how to win.

Thanks Chip, you know how much Braves fans appreciate what you've done. And you can add me to that list, both personally and professionally. But you've now forced me to confront something that I've desperately tried to avoid. And that is the fact that I'm now officially old too.

This is an old song, and I use it a lot, but it fits:

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