The Final Season: Bobby and Chipper

Braves 2 – Mets 0; CJ: 0-4

It was great seeing Bobby Cox at the ballpark yesterday to participate in Chipper Jones’ tribute. The two of them seem to have a really strong bond, and while I don’t believe it’s entirely unique, it does seem to be rare.

For one thing, it has become quite rare for players to play for one manager for so long. 17 of Chipper’s 19 seasons were spent with Bobby. Add in the fact that Bobby helped scout him and drafted him, and you have yourself a very long relationship. I would imagine, over 17 years, a working relationship with anyone would become strong. I mean, could you imagine working for your current boss for 17 years? Some of you might say yes, but nowadays, I think most of you would shudder.

Yet Chipper did it and, at the end of it all, basically said he’d do it all over again. To me, that sounds like they got along alright. Chipper often used to refer to Bobby as everybody’s favorite grandfather, and from what I’ve seen and read of Cox, that sounds accurate. He was the manager that always pulled for and defended his players. The guy who really wanted them to succeed.

But I’ve written enough about Cox this season. Seeing Chipper and Bobby next to each other got me thinking about comparable relationships and none immediately came to mind. The first was Dustin Pedroia and Terry Francona. The seemed to have a tight bond, but it didn’t last nearly as long as Bobby and Chipper’s. Just five seasons, which, actually, in today’s baseball world, is probably considered a lot.

Derek Jeter and Joe Torre is another one. Jeter and Torre were both rookies in 1996 – Jeter as a player and Torre as a manager. They lasted 11 seasons together. Close, but not quite 17.

But after those guys, I’m at a loss to think of anyone. I could of course go back to earlier decades. Earl Weaver and Jim Palmer have 14 years together but that was through the 70’s mostly. I think it was much more common to stay with one team your entire career. Also, not sure why I picked those guys. They just popped into my head.

Casey Stengel and Mickey Mantle also popped into my head. But that one as well, only 11 years. I suppose 17 is quite impressive. I do like to hear Mantle talk about Stengel. Always referred to him as wanting to be everybody’s dad and how, in the absence of his father, Stengel tried his best to step in. There’s a great quote in Ken Burns’ baseball documentary where Mantle admits to always feeling like he let Stengel down. It’s poignant and not at all reminiscent of Bobby and Chippper.

And I imagine, the further back I go, the more stories like this I’ll find. But in today’s baseball world, players move around too much to be a part of a relationship like that. But guys like Ty Cobb and Ted Williams, I bet they can appreciate the bond Chippper has with Bobby.

I do know it is refreshing in this day and age to see a relationship like that between a player and a manager. Just this week we heard disparaging comments from Heath Bell about playing for Ozzie Guillen. He quickly backtracked, but once words are out, you never get them back in. Just ask any Boston Red Sox player that played for Bobby Valentine this season. I bet that team never thought they’d rue the day they booted out Francona. But maybe Tito will be back next season, as I doubt Valentine will make it much longer. However, I really doubt it.

Anyway, it’s awesome that my favorite player was surrounded by such consistency. You know it benefitted his career to not have to adapt to new systems every season or so. Of course, it helped that Bobby was such an amazing player’s coach that every guy seemed to love playing for. Yet, I’d like to think Chipper’s success was a big part of Bobby’s success. A nice, symbiotic relationship.

Congratulations to the both of you and be sure to thank each other a plenty.

The Final Season: Stay Healthy My Friends

Mets 3 – Braves 1; CJ: 0-4

The Braves honored Chipper Jones tonight. Great to see. I felt great for him, watching him get all those accolades. I mean, would you believe Michael Jordan not only knows who Chipper Jones is but also claims to be a fan? Again, I guess I forget I didn’t grow-up in the TBS bubble I think I did. I, along with my fellow Braves’ fans, am not the only one who thinks Chipper is pretty great.

So the ceremony and then… they lost. I had this terribly cynical thought while I was watching Chipper groundout for the third time: Now this is the Brave team I know. Huge crowd in the stands, intent audience at home, and Chipper does nothing and the Braves loose. These are the Braves I know, particularly those teams that made playoff runs back in the early aughts. I know, that’s not fair and is a terrible thought for a team I claim to be a fan of. The night was just a bit anticlimactic, to say the least.

Watching it, I also couldn’t shake this feeling of dread I have for the rest of the season. Well, I guess not the season so much as the playoffs. Well, I guess not the playoffs so much as the play-in game. It’s making me very nervous. I want them to be fully in the playoffs, but I just, well, I have this gut feeling, and it’s not a good one.

I know I’ve written before about my gut feelings and how I tend to believe they’re right (What It Feels Like for a Fan). Well, for some reason, when I think of the Braves playing like the Cardinals in that play-in game, I don’t think it will go well. I have no trepidation about this last series of the season at home. They’ll do fine. Probably win two out of three. Also no concern with the last road series in Pittsburgh. But that could just be because these series don’t matter. I mean, let’s face it. They’re not going to catch the Nationals for the division.

But I had a feeling, when I first heard about this play-in game that the Braves would be in it and that it would be their undoing. Maybe that’s why I was opposed to it from the beginning. To quote Chipper, it’s stupid. The way MLB crammed it into the season without even making it a proper series. Stupid.

I just have a feeling. Again, I could be completely wrong, but I’m nervous for them to face whoever, be it the Cardinals or some other team. And, no, I don’t see them playing the Cardinals as a chance for poetic justice. Why? Well, as I’m outlining in this, I don’t think they’re going to beat them. So now they get the chance to get knocked out of the playoffs basically by the Cardinals two years in a row. That will officially make them a thorn in the Braves’ side.

I could see Atlanta losing that game. And, to me, it sucks that it’s just a matter of one game to keep them relevant. And my gut tells me they won’t win it, and that will break my heart. Not for myself, but mostly for Chipper. Because he wants it badly for the team, and they want it badly for him. And they’ll get close, but I don’t think they’ll quite get it together. But here’s hoping my gut is wrong. It has been known to be so.

But my gut is also telling me that the winner of the Series will come out of the AL, and I’m thinking either the Yankees or the Rangers, whichever wins the ALCS. (That’s called cheating predicting like that.) Even with the Yankees struggling to hold off the Orioles right not, it’s them and the Rangers world, while the rest of MLB is just playing along.

Both teams are very good, and you know that cheesy expression that “steel sharpens steel?” (haha – side note, I just looked that up to see if I was getting that expression right – it’s from the Bible. So much for cheesy.) I think the more those two break themselves against each other, the tougher they get.

Anyway, I said long ago I would just enjoy Atlanta being relevant in Chipper’s last season. And I have tried to. It was a blast watching them win. Good luck, Atlanta, in your, and MLB’s, first ever play-in game. May you win it and get yourselves in the playoffs outright. If not, it’s been fun. Thanks for playing. Thanks for being relevant. I’ve enjoyed it once again. Brought back a lot of memories.

The Final Season: Free Agency

Atlanta 6 – Florida 2; CJ: 0-3, BB

A lot has been made this season about Chipper Jones staying with one team his entire career. And when they say entire career, they mean entire career, as in drafted by Atlanta and never seen the light at the end of any other team’s clubhouse tunnel.

Why is that being brought up so much? Because, nowadays, to say that a player has stayed with one team his entire career is rare, is an understatement. It basically never happens. I can think of one other guy and that’s it, and you probably can, too. Good ol’ Derek Jeter. But even that seems in doubt sometimes. Seemed like this past offseason, when it came time for him to resign, the Yankees made it clear they were more than willing to let him go. That’s sad because Jeter seems more than willing to not leave. Although maybe he’s not as compromising on price.

Compare that to the fact that the Braves never let Jones get close to free agency before extending his contract. They made it clear they wanted him there, and he made it clear he wanted to stay. But I think he did compromise on price. Well, actually, I’m almost certain he did because he’s said as much. He’s said he was willing to sign for less, or to even rework his contract for less after he’d singed, to help the team win by freeing up some cash to get additional talent. And that, the willingness to take less money, is probably why it’s so rare.

Seems like nowadays no one is willing to comprise, neither the team nor the player. They know what they want to make or what they want to pay, and they won’t budge. Seems like it takes a special relationship to make the marriage between ballplayer and team last.

I suppose we could all bemoan how out-of-control salaries, brought on by free agency, are to blame. And, of course, they are. But it’s better than the alternative. Before Curt Flood sued for the right to choose which team he worked for, players were basically forced to keep playing for the same team as long as that team wanted them. This was accomplished via the ‘reserve clause,’ which basically said the team they played for had the first chance, or dibs, on resigning them, whether that player wanted to stay there or not. There was also a little collusion going on amongst owners, agreeing not to sign someone, but what’s new?  (Few people remember, actually, that Flood lost his case, but the case itself set in motion the trip to free agency.)

But I believe baseball players should have the right to choose who they work for just like the rest of us do. And I don’t think too many people would disagree with me. I also think, for the reason of granting freedom, among others, free agency has been good for baseball. Certainly makes the long offseason more interesting. And wouldn’t you maybe get a little bored watching the same guys run out on that field year after year? Maybe not if you’re a Yankees fan, but for everyone else, same story different day probably doesn’t sell a lot of tickets. So I like free agency. Heats things up.

However, I don’t think that’s why it’s not worth it to gripe about the high salaries. I think it’s not worth it because guys like Jones and Jeter, so far, show that it can be done, a player can play with the same team his entire career. If a player is open minded and a team is willing to give a little, a guy can stay with his team as long as he wants.

So it’s not the salaries fault. It’s the fault of the guy who’s asking for it and the teams that are willing to give it. Playing for one team an entire career doesn’t have to be a rarity. It can be the norm if players and teams are willing to work at it. I do think, however, it is an achievement Chipper should be applauded for.

The Final Season: Streaks and Slumps

Atlanta 3 – Miami 0; CJ: 0-2, 2 BB

So Chipper Jones’ isn’t hitting as well as he has during stretches of this season. He’s not hitting poorly. He’s getting a hit there, a hit here, but that’s about it. He’s not in a hot streak, let’s say. Or a slump. Maybe he’ll get hot again, though. That’d be a nice way for him to end his career. Going out swinging.

Anyway, all that got me thinking about streaks versus slumps in baseball. They’re weird things, streaks and slumps. I mean, when you break it down, there’s no physical reason for them. You’ve got the same guy swinging the same bat trying to hit the same ball day-in and day-out. It’s not like the size of the bat or the ball changes. The pitcher’s mound doesn’t suddenly get closer. You don’t get two strikes instead of three. It’s all relatively the same. So why do they happen?

As far as slumps, I suppose a batter could get a string of bad breaks in the pitchers he goes up against. Say you’re a left-handed batter who has trouble hitting lefties, and the team goes up against three lefties in a row. I could see that batter having a string of three bad games at the plate. Or vice versa, the batter faces three lollypop righties and he sets a personal best for RBI in a three game stretch.

Or maybe you get an unlucky matchup with a home plate ump who calls everything in your wheelhouse a ball and everything you can’t hit a strike. I could see a batter getting out of sorts that day. Or, again, vice versa, and he has a banner day.

But situations like that don’t account for extended slumps or streaks. I mean, sometimes when guys go cold, they can’t hit for weeks or a month or more. You’re not going to face nothing but lefties for a month. Streakers (not the right word but I’m using it) seem to have a little less luck. They stay hot, but usually for only a couple weeks at a time. Yet, even then, you’re not getting favorable matchups for a solid week. It’s got to be something else.

What’s the only unpredictable element? Well, to borrow a line, how about the ‘the human element?’ You’ve the same game, same ballpark dimensions, same equipment. Yes, you have different matchups, yet not sustained enough either against you or for you to impact you long term. It’s got to be the human element. More specifically, the mind.

That conclusion probably doesn’t surprise anyone. What else would cause a guy that can rip the cover off the ball for the better part of 10 years to suddenly go ice cold, Albert Pujols? He didn’t suddenly start playing with a cricket bat (or whatever they’re called). He probably just started doubting himself, which caused him to think too much about what he was doing and to over analyze why he wasn’t hitting. And that probably caused him to tweak his swing and to worry to the point that he could never get comfortable at the plate.

But isn’t it interesting how big a role the mind can play? These are athletes. They practice one thing and one thing only – swinging a bat. (Ok, yeah, there are more things, like fielding, but you get what I mean.) How can they go from one week hitting everything that’s thrown at them to the next week not being able to hit a hanging curve with a bed slat?

The mind is a powerful tool. And when it’s at ease and comfortable, it can do great things. Stress it out, worry it, and it can almost cease to function. And, in my opinion, it really is all about the mind being comfortable so that it essentially gets out of the way of the body doing its thing.

It’s also interesting to me how, even when a player knows they’re in a slump, knows they just need to relax at the plate to start hitting again, they can’t seem to do it. The minds too powerful. Eventually they’ll get a lucky pitch that anybody could hit, or they’ll fight off a pitch for bloop single. Then they breathe a huge sigh of relief and begin to move forward.

Then, once players are in a hot streak, it seems like they just hold on for dear life and ride it out as best they can. When asked why they’re hitting so well, they say things like ‘feeling really comfortable at the plate’ and ‘seeing the ball real well.’ Yet ask them how to keep it going, and they have no idea.

I used to think I could tell when Chipper was in a slump or a hot streak. If he was pulling weak ground balls to the second baseman, he wasn’t comfortable at the plate. And if he did it a lot in a couple games, he was slumping. But, on the flipside, if I saw him lace a base hit to the opposite field, as in he stayed back and hit the ball where it was pitched, he was about to get hot. And I used to love it when he was in a hot streak. It seemed like everything pitchers tried to get past him he square up and drive. It was during those times that he made me his biggest fan. But who doesn’t like watching their favorite player dominate pitchers?

Anyway, I don’t know why streaks and slumps suddenly come in go in baseball. If I did, I’d probably be loaded. I just know they happen a lot and that it sure seems like the only variable not accounted for is the human mind. So, that said, let’s hear it for comfort!

The Final Season: The Apparently Forgettable 1995 World Series

Atlanta 4 – Miami 3; CJ: 1-2, RBI (62), 2 R, BB

The Braves are playoff bound! They’re in! Guaranteed a spot. Can’t not make it in. Thanks to a Freddie Freeman two-run, walk-off homerun in the bottom of the ninth, they beat the Marlins and clinched a spot in the postseason. High fives!

I love postseason baseball. It’s so exciting. Every pitch carries such weight. Which will be the pitch to change the game and, potentially, history? One pitch, that’s all it takes. Or sometimes two, if you ask last year’s Texas Rangers.

But I love the pomp and circumstance. The national anthems by celebrities and the flyovers and the packed ballparks. The primetime spotlight. All of it. I could do without, as usual, the obsessive coverage from the talking heads, but, for the most part, all pluses in the postseason baseball column for me.

And, thanks to the Braves being so good for so long, I have plenty of potential favorite postseason moments. The ’99 NLCS has some contenders. As does, of course, the ’91 World Series. And who can forget the ’92 NLCS? What I don’t have, however, is the obvious choice.

True, yet sad story: I don’t remember where I was when the Braves won the 1995 World Series. Isn’t that terrible? Ok, most of you might say ‘no,’ but Braves fans out there likely feel my pain. The Braves finally won it, after two previous swings and misses, and I don’t remember that exact moment in my life. It was huge for me, as a fan, yet I have no recollection of it.

Of course, I know what it looks like. I can easily picture Mark Wohlers pointing straight up to the sky after getting Carlos Baerga to fly out to Marquis Grissom in centerfield. I can see Grissom raising his arms high over his head as he leapt in the air and practically skipped to the infield. And I can remember the dog pile that ensued on the pitcher’s mound.

That, sadly, is all courtesy of television replays, because I honestly can’t remember where I was when that happened! The weird thing is, I can remember where I was when David Justice hit his homerun, the lone run of the game. I’ve written about that moment before, how my dad predicted his homerun and became, if only fleetingly, a god in my eyes. (My Dad Calls the Shot) I was sitting on the couch in our living room while my dad sat to my right in his recliner. That I remember clearly.

Then it gets fuzzy. I have this memory of, of all things, having to babysit. No joke. For some reason, my deeply buried memories seem to recall having to walk over to my neighbor’s house to watch their newly born baby. And I mean newly born. The first time I watched this kid, she was nine days old. And I think the night of Game 6 was the second time, and she was only a few weeks old then.

I think this because I also have a memory of my dad, because it was dark, walking me over to their house, and my even asking him, ‘How did you know Justice would hit that homerun?’ And that was when he gave me his now iconic (in my mind) answer: ‘He was due.’

Digression: That expression, by the way, is one I use frequently in an attempt to recreate my father’s magic. Whenever I hear an announcer say something like, ‘He hasn’t had a run of over 10 yards in six games,’ or some random statistic, I say, ‘He’s due.’ Once in a great while I impress my friends, but mostly I’m wrong. Or they’re not impressed because even they can tell he’s due.

Anyway, back to that night. So I remember walking with my dad discussing Justice’s homerun. But here’s the rub. I can’t remember if it was the same night as the game, or if I was just still talking about a day or so later – a very real possibility.

Also, seems like it would have been late to start babysitting. But maybe these folks went out later. Might seem strange, but they were also the kind of people to leave their nine-day-old kid with a 13 year old, so not ruling it out.

But if I did go babysit, I was probably in their living room watching the game when the Braves won, which I can also vaguely remember, yet I’m still not certain of. Although, if I was babysitting an infant, that could make sense. I may not have been able to devote 100% attention to the game. Yet, again, I don’t know for sure!

And not knowing, it sucks! My life’s great mystery, I suppose. Where was I when the Braves finally got their championship? Perhaps I’ll never know. I guess all I can do now is make sure to be present for every game this postseason the Braves play. And fingers crossed that it’s more than just one.

The Final Season: Ode to Baseball Scoring

Atlanta 2 – Philadelphia 1; CJ: DNP

I wasn’t near a TV this afternoon (sadly, given that’s it football Sunday), so, when it came to keeping myself updated on the Braves/Phillies score, I was using my phone. (God love smartphones.) With most score tracking apps or websites, you have the option to track a game live, where you are updated pitch-by-pitch with what is happening. However, with baseball, I find that unnecessary. In my opinion, all you need to know can be found in a simple box.

Henry Chadwick, an early baseball sportswriter and statistician, is credited with inventing the box score, which he apparently adapted from a method used to report cricket scores. (Thank you, Wikipedia.) For that, I say, Mr. Chadwick, you are nothing short of an American hero. I think a box score is the most succinct, efficient way to communicate the results of a game that is available, and nothing, in its 100+ year history has been developed to supersede it.

When you think about it (as I’m doing right now), it’s really quite ingenious. If you read through a box score, you can tell instantly how a game was played. How the pitcher did, who had a big day at the plate, who was the scapegoat, if there was one. Heck, you can even tell if it was a well-attended game or not and how long it took to play. All in one set of rows and columns fitted together in the shape of a box that take up, probably, about a third of a page. Everything in that tiny space. What more do you need?

So you can keep your pitch-by-pitch tracking. Sure it adds a little more detail, but usually it’s a little cumbersome and lags behind. Plus, who knows how accurate it is? For those reasons, just keep updating the box score, and I’m good.

I’m going to sing the praises of another ingenious baseball creation, if I may. The scorecard. Another Chadwick invention, apparently also from the late 19th century that, in my opinion, surpasses the computer-driven, pitch-by-pitch tracker in terms of wealth of knowledge. If you want a brief game overview, look at the line score. You want a little more detail, read the box score. If you want to know every little thing that happened, read through a scorecard.

A scorecard, for those that don’t know, is a sheet of paper essentially covered with little pictures of a baseball diamond that allow you to track every at-bat in detail. Much like the pitch-by-pitch tracker, every pitch is recorded, yet, unlike the computer trackers, past at bats are easily referenced if need be.

Now, scoring a baseball game in this method is not easy. The scorecard is completed in an almost code-like pattern that, to the layperson, might look like markings from a long-extinct language. There a lines cut in half by dashes. There are dotted lines. Full diamonds, half diamonds. There are also a series of letters and number written in combination that look like suddenly the scorekeeper broke into a made fit to solve a great physics equation. 1 – 6 – 3. 5 – 4 1B. F2. You understood all that, right?

Now, I have to be honest. I don’t know how to score a baseball game. Not at that level of detail, at least. I know the basics, like scoring a double play where the pitcher, shortstop, and first baseman were involved, or the first example I listed above. I can also score errors (E5) and homeruns (HR) and other simple plays like that, but that’s about it.

As for those that can speak the language of baseball scorecards, I am always impressed. It is an acquired skill, but certainly one that takes time and attention to learn. It’s not something picked up overnight. I imagine it’s something that would need to be practiced and would become easier to do with time. It certainly requires a spectacular attention to detail. I wonder, though, given that baseball can be tedious at times (I will admit), if it helps to keep your focus on the game. I would imagine it does.

But if you want, on one piece of paper (usually one, although there are exceptions), to know everything, and I mean everything, that happened in a three-hour long baseball game, a scorecard is for you. For those that just want to be quickly brought up to speed like myself, you can’t go wrong with the 100+-year-old box score.

The Final Season: Aroldis Chapman

Atlanta 8 – Philadelphia 2; CJ: 2-5, RBI (61), R

As the baseball season winds down, it’s tradition to ramp up the debate over who should win the postseason awards – MVP, Cy Young, Rookie of the Year, etc. And lately, when it comes to the Cy Young, there’s been a lot of debate about whether or not a reliever can win it. And when they’re talking about relievers, they’re really only talking about two: the Braves’ Craig Kimbrel or the Reds’ Aroldis Chapman.

You know who I’m going to vote for, so I’ll spare you the arguments as to why. However, I will say, if you don’t vote for Kimbrel, you’re not paying attention. Statistically he’s having the best season a reliever has EVER had in the history of baseball. In nearly every pitching category you have for relievers, he’s doing things that have never been done before. Not even by Chapman. If that’s not reason enough to vote a reliever as a Cy Young winner, I don’t know what is.

Speaking of Chapman. Another flame thrower. I think he’s got a great story. The kid’s a Cuban defector who walked out of his team’s hotel room while on a road trip to the Netherlands knowing he could never see his family again, a family that included his young child. And I don’t think he has seen them since. That’s courage, I think.

Oh, and he’s also got a fastball that reaches triple digits consistently. I remember when he debuted, the stadium was going nuts. He only struck out one guy and got two groundouts, but his fastball hit 100 plus five times. Never saw people cheer so loudly for a ball.

It was impressive. Yet, as I was watching, I kept thinking, and when will you need Tommy John? How long will I get to watch this before your elbow or shoulder explodes? Or maybe, if they keep you in a relief role, say closer, you may be able to escape due to lack of strain. I hope he doesn’t go that way, but you never know.

I know I’ve talked ad nauseam about the “hype machine,” but I feel like it’s always been turned up to 11 for Chapman. I could actually see him getting more votes than Kimbrel for the Cy Young because of it, despite their stats. Although the ratio of hyperboles to innings-pitched probably does go in Chapman’s favor. The typical dominant, explosive, and unhittable are thrown around and that’s usually before he makes an appearance. It’s on par for the hype media, but still.

Of course it was the most absurd when he debuted. I’ll never forget how one announcer said he would be “key to the Reds’ post season success.” Again, this is during his first ever major league appearance. I just remember thinking, I’m sure the other Reds who have played 130+ games and gotten their team on the brink of the playoffs for the first time in 15 years might disagree with you, sir.

I just wonder if the media will ever learn its lesson. If it will ever approach potentially game changing talent with a bit of caution. Or certainly less attention. Let them develop a bit before they put them on the cover of Sports Illustrated. So, in the chance they don’t pan out, they don’t look like an epic fail, but just what they are, which is a young kid with potential that didn’t succeed. Which is, by far, the more common narrative in sport.

I know, ESPN, you have to sell us all soap we don’t need, but if you could turn the dial just down to 10, it would be appreciated, particularly by those young kids and their families that wouldn’t have to suffer through your crash course in unparalleled success followed by biggest failure in history in the span of a few weeks. Something like that can be rough on the psyche, you know?

Anyway, I got off on a tangent, something I never do. The point is, Chapman is amazing, yet I’m pretty sure the Earth is still spinning at the same speed it was before he started pitching, ergo he did not change the world, including the world of baseball.And, even with his monumental success, it is not unparalleled, as Kimbrel has done him one better, and that is something I hope he gets awarded for. Let the debating continue.