On Sunday, I made my final trip to Shea, from Manhattan to Flushing Meadow on the team bus. Excuse me. Not Shea. Citi Field. Shea is the third of my four kids, all boys. Shea Stadium was the place where the fans would chant Lar-ry! Lar-ry! in that New York singsong, but I got the last laugh. I raked there, spouted off in the papers, had a good time-and the fans let me have it. What more could a ballplayer want?
—Chipper Jones, Sports Illustrated, September 17, 2012
The greatest baseball game I ever experienced — and by experienced, I mean was drawn into totally as a spectator — was Game Six of the 1999 National League Championship Series. That my team lost it and was thus eliminated from that year’s postseason tournament doesn’t detract from its all-encompassing nature. I was never more “into” a game than I was the night of October 19 and earliest morning of October 20, 1999, when the final pitch was a bases-loaded ball four to Andruw Jones from Kenny Rogers and the final score after eleven innings at Turner Field read Atlanta Braves 10 New York Mets 9.
I get exhausted just thinking about it. The Braves have been exhausted every October ever since.
They won the battle, but the conflagration clearly took its emotional toll on them, too. The Braves’ next assignment was the 1999 World Series, which they were swept out of in four straight (by some team or another). Then came 2000, when we anticipated an NLCS rematch. The Mets did their part, defeating the Giants in four. The Braves, though, were still drained from what it took them to eliminate the Mets the year before. The Cardinals swept them three straight in the 2000 NLDS and they were done.
The Braves’ last hurrah was the 2001 NLDS, which they won without a hiccup against the Houston Astros (succumbing to their fourth divisional-round loss in five years; they were obviously still groping about for their bearings after losing the 1986 NLCS to the Mets in what we can now label historically “typical” Game Six fashion). Bolstered by getting back on their traditional winning horse, the Braves went right out in 2001 and…were sent packing by the Diamondbacks in five games.
That was it for the Atlanta Braves and October advancement. They lost first playoff rounds in 2002 (3-2 to San Francisco); 2003 (3-2 to Chicago); 2004 (3-2 to Houston, which finally shook off that 1986 defeat to win its first-ever postseason series); and 2005 (3-1 to Houston again). Before the Braves cut out the middleman and took a postseason hiatus from 2006 to 2009, they lost seven of eight October series after snuffing out the Met dreams of 1999, including five sets in a row, four of them as soon as they could. During that span, their playoff won-lost record measured 11-23.
And Chipper Jones was on hand for all of it. He wasn’t on hand in 2010 when an injury sidelined him from participating in the Braves’ return to postseason action, which was a four-game loss to the Giants in the NLDS. But he was around as the 2011 Braves opted to skip the postseason despite a large Wild Card lead in late August, and he played Friday night in the first immediate-elimination game in postseason history. Quite fitting to have the Braves inaugurate this new feature of October with a signature one-and-done defeat at the hands of the Cardinals.
Chipper Jones joined the Braves full-time in 1995 when they were a juggernaut on their way to their first world championship. They remained a divisional juggernaut for the next decade, but got a little less, shall we say, ’nauty as the Octobers went by. As a result, Chipper Jones was on the active roster as his team was ousted from postseason play on eleven separate occasions, presumably some kind of record. The Yankees beat the Braves. The Marlins beat the Braves. The Padres beat the Braves. Everybody beat the Braves sooner or later except for our beloved Mets, and you could say the Mets got the “sooner” part out of the way back in October of 1969 when they swept the Braves in three to win the first NLCS-decided pennant.
But strain as we might, we can’t pin that on Larry Wayne “Chipper” Jones as he calls it a Hall of Fame career, so what fun is that?