Mark DeRosa was 23 when he first experienced life with Chipper Jones. A 1998 September call-up for the Atlanta Braves, DeRosa was in the dugout watching as the Braves‘ third baseman tapped a 3-2 change-up back to the pitcher in his first at-bat one night.
When he returned, Jones told DeRosa he was going to sit on that pitch the rest of the game, “and he’s going to throw it again.” To DeRosa, a rookie who played in five games for the Braves that fall and thought of hitting as “see ball, hit ball,” that line of thinking was novel.
“He got that change-up again in his third at-bat and hit a three-run homer to win the game for us,” DeRosa recalled Wednesday. “And he came in and looked at me and said, ‘Welcome to the big leagues.’ Those are the moments where I was like ‘All right, I need to up my game a little bit.’”
When it comes to Jones, the Braves‘ third baseman who will retire after the season, DeRosa’s story is not unique. A figure feared by the opposition for his transcendent talent, the former NL MVP and future Hall of Famer also is one of the most revered and respected players in the majors.
“You almost second-guess it now,” Ryan Zimmerman said with a chuckle. “He’s hitting .320 [.311] or whatever. But any time someone like that is hanging it up, it’s tough for the sport because you like to see them play.”
Wednesday night, in his final regular-season game in D.C., the Nationals held a pregame ceremony with DeRosa, Zimmerman and fellow former Brave Adam LaRoche to honor Jones. The Nationals were not the first. In each city he’s visited on his farewell tour, teams have feted him — but that alone is a sign of his impact on the game.
“Players don’t get this all the time,” LaRoche said. “Not every player that retires has the kind of respect to be cheered for everywhere they go their last run, getting gifts from teams. It just says a lot about how he handled himself throughout his career.”
In 261 games against the Nationals franchise (which includes the time as the Montreal Expos), Jones has done significant damage. Entering Wednesday, Jones was a career .299 hitter against the Nationals with a .406 on-base percentage and .506 slugging percentage. He’s hit 41 home runs and been walked 173 times — the most of any team he’s played against.
He also owns a piece of Nationals history having hit the first home run at Nationals Park, a solo shot off Odalis Perez in the fourth inning March 30, 2008.
His abilities as a switch-hitter, seen by many on cable station TBS throughout the 1990s, also spurned a generation of players who viewed him as “the golden child, really,” as LaRoche put it.
“As a little kid, the only switch hitter that you knew was Chipper Jones, Chipper Jones, Chipper Jones,” said switch-hitting second baseman Danny Espinosa. “He was the best. You’d play with your friends and you’re calling names out of who you wanted to be, I was Chipper. I thought he was an unbelievable ballplayer.”
“He was one of the guys growing up that everyone looked up to,” Zimmerman said. “And he doesn’t really appreciate when I say that because it makes him feel really old, but I always say it because he is a great player. He plays the game the right way and that’s why people look up to him like they look up to Derek [Jeter]. When you have a player who’s that good and does seemingly everything the right way, people look up to him.”
But it’s more than the numbers that make Jones the type of player who will be missed.
Jones was teammates with DeRosa for parts of seven seasons and LaRoche for parts of four. Both tried to absorb as much from him as they could while they were together, but their relationships lasted well beyond their days in the same uniforms. Even now, LaRoche will look down at his phone occasionally and see a text from Jones after he’s seen one of the Nationals‘ first baseman’s most recent at-bats.
“I’ve actually had him go back and look at at-bats a lot,” LaRoche said. “Even when I’m on a different team because he can pick apart an at-bat like no other… and he’s seen me enough where I may not even ask him, he’ll just shoot me a text that says ‘Hey, you’re pulling off,’ or ‘Get back to seeing the ball, hit it the way it’s pitched, be more aggressive.’
“It’s a pretty cool relationship. I can’t say enough about everything he taught me.”
The Nationals are seven games up on the Braves, perhaps forcing Jones‘ final playoff drive to be one for a wild card spot. Even with all this series represented, none of the Nationals‘ players took issue with honoring one of their divisional rivals in the heat of a pennant race.
“He deserves that,” said rookie Bryce Harper who got to know Jones at this year’s All-Star Game. “I think everybody thinks he deserves that.”
Said Jones to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “I’ve got a lot of friends over in that clubhouse. We have a lot of respect for each other on both sides. When we’re out there between the lines, it’s a war every time. I think that’s why both teams respect each other so much.”