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.

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The Final Season: Yes To Instant Replay

Philadelphia 3 – Atlanta 0; CJ: 1-3

I want to talk about instant replay, if I may. Major League Baseball has, for all intents and purposes, refused to use it, as they allow it for reviewing homeruns only. This is interesting to me for a few reasons.

But before I delve into, here’s my favorite reason. It’s a single event that happened a couple years ago. The Yankees and the Rays were in the middle of beating each other up for the AL East crown. The loser would easily win the Wild Card, but, as they’re two teams that don’t exactly like each other, I think winning was important.

They were in Tampa for the series and, during one of the games, Derek Jeter was at bat. An inside pitch flew by him and, on first glance, iy appeared to hit him. He helped this ‘appearance’ by grabbing his wrist, jumping up and down, and bending over in pain – selling it, really. I say selling it because, upon looking at the replay, the ball hit his bat. It did not hit him. Did not even come close.. He was just, in that moment, a faker and a cheater. But whether his performance sold it or the umps had already determined it hit him, he was awarded first base. The manager of the Rays, Joe Maddon, went crazy. He was screaming at the ump, claiming he saw it hit the bat.

But, really, it was one tip-top acting job by the Jeter. I mean, you’d have thought his wrist was broken. So, instead of being a fair ball and he’s thrown out for the third out (when the ball hit his bat, it hit the butt of it and bounced back into fair territory), he’s standing on first and, as always happens in these situations, scores when the batter behind him (sorry I’ve forgotten your name) hits a homerun, giving the Yankees the lead.

Now, luckily for MLB, in that game the Rays came back to win or else this could have been a big deal. Or bigger deal. Because everyone and their blind dog could tell from the replay that it didn’t hit the bat. That’s right, I said replay. After the game, I remember a reporter asked Jeter where that ball hit and he said ‘The bat.’ He knew. And everybody else knew. Except the umpires.

And, truth be told, I don’t blame Jeter. He was honest about it after the fact when he said, ‘My job is to get on base, and the ump told me to go to first. I wasn’t going to tell him otherwise.’ Nor should he have to, in my opinion. You know what should tell the ump otherwise? Replay­.

When things like this happen, it just makes MLB look foolish. The whole world sees their mistake instantly, and they’re left using their memories to fight that they were right. And it’s not a knock against umpires. It’s hard to catch everything. Put me out there on a baseball diamond, and I’d get every call wrong.

That’s why replay could be there just to help umpires when they need it. I don’t think it would replace umps or anything. It’s just a back-up system, like the self-destruct button in space ships so the enemy doesn’t get all your secrets after you evacuate. You know, a fall back, like it is in, oh, every other sport out there. Tennis. Football. Basketball.

Baseball argues against it on two main points: it takes too long and it takes away the human element. Well the first one is bunk, because they used instant replay during the Little League World Series last year – that’s right, Little League – and they found the average time it took to resolve a dispute, meaning from the moment the coach questioned it to the moment the ump had a decision, was 1:52. Less than two minutes! And the actual review only took 40 something seconds. Most of the time is spent in transit. Football takes three times as long and they would never think about doing away with it. And fans don’t mind that it takes so long. They just want the call to be right. Plus, for me, I think it’s fun to sit there and argue over what you saw and what the ruling will be. So time is really not an issue.

And the human element? Please. The human element stinks. (Literally.) The human element gets things wrong all the time. That’s why we invented things like video cameras to help us get it right. Besides, when we humans make a mistake, we relish the opportunity for a do-over. And that’s all replay is. I just don’t understand why MLB wouldn’t want to get it right.

So, if you can’t tell, I’m in favor of increased usage of instant replay in MLB. I think it’s a good thing. For someone that doesn’t embrace much technology is her life, simply because I can’t be bothered, this I am in favor of embracing. This I see as having an immediate benefit, and I don’t think it would undermine umps. It doesn’t in any other sport. It supports them by helping them get it right. By helping that not be humiliated on SportsCenter and the interweb when everyone is blasting them for their missed call. They can fix their innocent mistake and move on from it.

What will it take, MLB? Will it take a call blown at the crucial moment of the World Series? When it absolutely has to be gotten right and it isn’t. Then, and only then, will you use more replay? Probably. Which doesn’t surprise me. That seems to be the reactive nature of the commissioner’s office these days, anyway.

The Final Season: These Cleats are Made for Walking

Marlins 4 – Braves 2; Chip: 0-2, R, 2 BB

No hits but two walks for Chipper Jones tonight. (If you didn’t notice above.) And one of those walks led to scoring a run. No hits, no strikeouts, either, and one run. That’s an all too familiar line for Chipper. And a rare one for many players.

As baseball writers continue to discuss his place in history, I think more and more about how impressive his numbers are, particularly for a switch hitter. The numbers people throw out about him are really amazing.

The ones I like best are those that show he’s dangerous from either side of the plate. Whether batting right-handed or left, many of his numbers are nearly identical, a feat that is very rare for a switch hitter. His average, homerun totals (when number of AB’s taken into account), and on-base percentage are not far apart.

As a non-expert on baseball, if I had to guess why he’s so successful, I would say plate discipline. Not exactly a ground-breaking, game-changing concept, but definitely something that is easier said than done. For example, when I look at Chipper’s career stats, there is one thing I see on his sheet that I almost never see on anyone else’s. He has accumulated almost 100 more walks in his career than strikeouts. Then, to compare, I look-up some of the best hitters in the game today: Mark Texiera (a fellow switch), A-Rod, Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto, Matt Kemp, Derek Jeter, Carlos Beltran. They all have more strikeouts than walks. Sometimes much more. Only Albert Pujols has more walks. (Considerably more, although I wonder how many were intentional?)

My point is, it seems to be quite a rarity to have more walks than strikeouts. It fact, it’s practically unheard of. Yet Chipper, without fail, walks. All the time. I’ve said it before, but it’s true: he gets paid millions of dollars to take leisurely strolls down to first after watching the pitcher and catcher play catch. He stands there, swings once or twice, than walks. All the time.

Sometimes more often than I’d like. He has a tendency to do it at big points in games. And I know it’s the smart and right thing to do. Walking keeps innings alive, dnd if the game is close, I know often times it was an unintentional intentional pass. Or if the guy behind him isn’t hitting, and with the reputation he has, he’s not going to see anything to hit.

But it seems to be more than that with him. It’s either impeccable vision or flawless instincts. He takes so many close pitches. And some might say he gets the benefit of the close calls because of who he is, but I’ve seen him in at-bats swing at a breaking pitch, get fooled on it, and then not swing at the same pitch two pitches later. He makes adjustments that quickly and has been his entire career. I don’t know if he’s a see it and hit it kind of guy, or if he has a really good idea what’s coming based on scouting reports and film, but either way, he adjusts.

I’ve also heard announcers say that he sits on a pitch, meaning he’s only going to swing at, for example, the fastball, and if you don’t throw it to him, he’s not going to swing. So better get the breaking stuff over the plate and don’t hang it, because he seems to be really good at anticipating mistakes, too.

I also can’t begin to estimate how many times I’ve seen him take a pitch that was so close that everybody in the booth asks, ‘How can he take that?’ Well, how can you, Chip? How come you seem to be so good at knowing when to swing and when not to? That I would like to know. Because it seems to be such a rarity.

It’s even more impressive when you consider a hitter has mere nanoseconds to decide whether or not to swing. The pitch is on you in less than second. What is it they’re looking for to tell them to swing or not? Release points? Arm angles? A slight mistake in the pitcher’s delivery? Whatever the reason, some guys, with Jones being the one I know the best, have all the patience in the world at the plate, well others want to swing at the first few pitches they see and go home. Seems to work out better for the former group in the long run.

As someone who knows very little about baseball, it does seem pretty darn impressive, his ability to walk so much. That’s why his OBP is so high, too. He always puts up, as he says, quality at bats. I think the walks are the key to his average. There are some guys, like Derek Jeter, who manage to have a high career BA and still have more K’s than BB’s. But Chipper seems to keep his average high by walking – a lot.

Who says baseball is a physically demanding game? Oh, that’s right, almost nobody. But you would think more players would recognize that success can come to those who wait, and enjoy the occasional lazy stroll.

The Final Season: Good Old Yankee Stadium and Me

Atlanta 4 – New York 3; CJ: 1-3, RBI (25), BB

With the Braves in New York, wanna hear a funny story about the time I was in New York? It involves Old Yankee Stadium, so it’s related. Kind of.

After my first job out of school, in which I lived in Amsterdam for two years, I came back to the US and wasn’t in a hurry to find another job. I had some time and money to spare, so I thought I’d take a little break while I figured out what I’d do next.

At the time, a friend was living in New York City. Well, he lived in Hoboken, New Jersey, which is across the Hudson, and I decided I’d go up and stay with him for an entire month. I figured that’d be enough time to really see New York, and, as he had a spare bedroom, I wasn’t imposing.

I did all the touristy things: The Statue of Liberty, a taping of David Letterman, two Broadway shows (Wicked and Avenue Q – thumbs up!), an opera at the Met, lots of museums, shopping on 5th Avenue. Everything. And I took my time with it. Since I had a month, I slept in, took my time getting ready, and headed out in the afternoon to see whatever I wanted to see that day. Super chill and relax, the best way to see New York, assuming you have a month to burn.

While there, I also toured Yankee Stadium. It was the winter, so no games to see, but a tour was better than not going at all. And, since the stadium only had a few seasons left, my timing was great. (Actually, as I walked around the outside of Yankee Stadium, I could see the construction of the new stadium next door. And to think, today it’s all gone.)

It was a great tour. They took us in the locker room where everyone from Babe Ruth to Joe DiMaggio to Mickey Mantle to Derek Jeter suited up. And you know what? The think was tiny. Super tiny. The ceiling was low, and I got the impression the guys were probably pretty cramped in there. The entire space was probably no bigger than my condo. Seriously small.

We also saw the press box, which was particularly neat for me and is probably the coolest press box I’ve ever been in. Good view, too. The overhead view was a bit obstructed by the bottom of the third level, so you might miss the cresting of a high homerun, but for a free seat, not bad at all.

We also got to go in the Yankee’s dugout and sit on the bench. I just kept thinking, do you know the guys that have sat on this bench?! Reggie Jackson. Whitey Ford. Billy Martin. Yogi Berra. Lou Gehrig. The list goes on and on. I’ll say it again, I loathe the Yankees, but I love what they’ve meant to the history of baseball. It’s weird, I know. I hate the modern day team, but I love their history. Once you stop playing for the Yankees and become a name in the record books, you’re okay by me.

Finally, they took us to monument park. Did you know the three original monuments were for Gehrig, Ruth, and… I forget the last guy. (Sorry, last guy.) And that it used to be in the field of play? Smart move to close them off. They have sharp edges.

Overall, it was an amazing sight. I mean, there were much better looking parks out there, from an aesthetics standpoint, but when you think of what that place had seen and what had transpired there, it became amazing. I had a sense of wonderment and awe walking around the place. I know that sounds cheesy, but it’s true. Like they say, it was a giant shrine to the game, and I’m really glad I got to see it before it was gone.

But I’m ahead of myself. I said a ‘funny’ thing happened. Well, turns out I had to pay for that tour twice. Why? Because on my first trip to Yankee Stadium, I made a simple mistake. I had the time right and my directions written down, but I forgot them. So I didn’t know for sure what subway stop to get off at. I knew the street had three numbers in it and that it had two ones and a six. I couldn’t remember, however, what order they were in. Was it 116th or 161st? Terrified at the thought that 161st didn’t exist – How on Earth could the numbers really go up that high? They stopped in the 50’s in Austin – I got off at 116th. (Those of you from New York know where this is going.)

According to my guide book, I couldn’t miss the stadium when I got off the subway. Well, I came out of the station and saw… nothing. Just normal, squatty, brick-covered buildings. One after another.  I walked around a few blocks, hoping to see it, and still saw nothing that resembled a stadium in any way. I even made the mortifying mistake of asking somebody for directions, an elderly gentleman sitting in front of a business, and he just looked at me like I was crazy. It was a very unsettling look to get from an old man. Then he told me it was at 161st.

By this time I was late for the tour and had no choice but to head back in the direction I’d come. I decided instead I’d visit the Museum of Natural History. (The butterfly exhibit, where they actually land on you – awesome!) But don’t worry. I didn’t let my misadventure deter me. When I got home, I bought another ticket for the tour. Then I looked at a map to figure out where I’d been wondering around aimlessly. Guess where? Harlem. All by myself. Now, it was the middle of the day, so I was probably more than fine, but still. Only me. And, hey, now I can say I’ve been to Harlem.

On my second attempt I made it. And the book was right: when you got off the subway at 161st, you couldn’t miss it.

The Final Season: To Err Is Human

Baltimore 2 – Atlanta 0; CJ: 0-3, BB

What did I learn from Chipper Jones’ cheating? That athletes are human. Simple enough. They have bad days and good days, things they struggle with and things they excel at. They have strengths and weaknesses and experience success and failure. And just because an athlete is really good at one thing, like hitting a baseball, doesn’t mean they aren’t going to be really bad at another, like being faithful. We all have things that hold us back, things that make us human.

Sure, athletes are better than most of the population at whatever it is they do for a living. Chipper is an excellent, excellent baseball player, and he should be respected for that. And he has earned my respect for that. But beyond that, he’s no better than me. As far as I know, at least. So does it make sense then for me to respect him beyond the baseball field?

Take a guy like Derek Jeter. People tend to look at him and say, ‘He seems like a good guy.’ And I’d agree, except ‘seems like’ are the key words there. After all, I don’t know him. I can’t say whether or not he’s a good person. If I knew him, I might agree. But I don’t.

Now, I don’t automatically disrespect athletes. My point is just that, because they haven’t earned my respect off the field, I feel I can’t be blown away when they do something charitable or disappointed when they do things in bad character. I shouldn’t have expectations, either good or bad, to begin with. Because of Chipper, I’ve learned not to automatically hold athletes to any standard off the field. To me, it’s the equivalent of expecting a stranger to be saint like.

On the field, Chipper can certainly disappoint me. How many times in his career has he grounded into a playoff series-ending double play? That disappoints me because I hold him to a high standard as a baseball player. I know what he’s capable of in that arena, and I’ve seen him be better than that. But as a man? I don’t have a higher standard for him because I can’t have any standard for him. I don’t know him. I guess it comes down to the fact that I now understand that respect is earned and that I believe it’s earned mainly through actions. I’ve never followed how Chipper behaves off the field (not after Hootergate), so I don’t really know what his character is like and if it’s respect worthy.

But I think everyone at some point experiences something similar to what I did. A reality check moment. Maybe your role model growing up wasn’t an athlete who went through a public fall from perfection. Maybe it was just your next door neighbor, whom you admired, and he simply got frustrated with you and said or did something you never thought he would, something that indicated to you this person wasn’t a walking example of perfection and maybe you shouldn’t pattern yourself after him.

And, because of that experience, you learned not to be too dismayed by people’s shortcomings and not to put them on too high a pedestal. Instead, you learned to admire the positive attributes in a person, take from him what you wanted, and then create your own self. That lesson might seem obvious enough, but I think it’s still a learned lesson. And call me simple, or just lucky, but I didn’t really learn it until this happened.

The fact that Chipper continued to be successful in baseball taught me something else. People aren’t all one thing or another. You can’t dismiss someone as being completely bad, or even applaud them for being completely good. (Ever Mother Teresa has her critics – look it up.)

Like I’ve said before, I’ve never looked at him the same way. I always see the mistakes he’s made. But they don’t bother me like they did when I first found out. I still laugh and shake my head at how horribly cliché his actions were, but I don’t do it with malice anymore. So, while it sucked when I first found out about it, I now see it for what it was. And is. A human being, who’s ability elevates him to a certain level of recognition, that made a mistake. And me, a young girl who was looking for someone to project onto and was let down, if only temporarily. In those terms, it sounds quite typical and normal.

Actually, I think this incident helped me to be a better sports fan. It opened my eyes to the humanity of athletes, how they’re just people trying to do their best. Now that’s all I see them as. I cheer for them when they do well and just say, ‘Oh well’ when they don’t.

So, if I haven’t said it a hundred times already, this man definitely had an impact on my life, both good and bad. But mostly good. And I thank him for it. I’ve enjoyed being a fan of his. I wouldn’t be tracking his baseball season if I hadn’t. And, like I said, my love of the game was always greater.