PHOENIX — When Chipper Jones arrived in earnest at the major league level in 1995, the Arizona Diamondbacks did not yet exist. In fact, Arizona had just been awarded a yet-to-be-named expansion franchise, and Chase Field (formerly Bank One Ballpark) would not open for another three years.
Yet when Jones and the Atlanta Braves came to Phoenix in April, the third baseman got a standing ovation and a video tribute congratulating him on his 19-year career, which he announced during spring training would end after the 2012 season. It was a testament to what Jones has meant to major league baseball and the respect he has earned throughout the league.
This time, the D-backs meet Jones on his own turf. The two teams could conceivably meet again in the postseason, but this week’s three-game series at Turner Field may very well be the last time the D-backs face Jones, almost certainly a future Hall of Fame inductee, assuming he holds to his promise of retirement.
The occasion may be somewhat insignificant on a baseball level, but for some D-backs players, Jones’ retirement means more than just another opponent hanging it up.
“I loved watching Chipper play growing up,” D-backs right fielder Justin Upton said. “Back East we had WGN or the Braves (on TBS), so you had a couple options you could watch. I liked Chipper, Terry Pendleton, Ron Gant, the whole crew. But Chipper definitely stood out as a guy who, when you get to 2012 and he’s leaving the game, that everybody would be like, ‘Man, that’s the end of an era.'”
Upton grew up in Virginia, a state without a pro baseball team, so it was easy to latch onto a highly visible player such as Jones, who helped lead the Braves to 11 straight NL East championships from 1995-2005 and three World Series, including a win in his rookie season.
Though Jones has received numerous tributes at visiting parks this season, his retirement, Upton said, may not sink in until next spring or later.
“You’re just so used to, when you play Atlanta, seeing Chipper Jones at third base,” Upton said. “Until somebody else is suiting up every day over there, it’s not something that’s going to sink in. Every era ends, but he put together a great run.”
Upton said he feels proud to be able to say he’s competed against Jones and is happy he can one day share that memory when he has children.
“Seeing him on the field and being able to compete against him one last time, it will be cool,” Upton said. “You think ‘Man, that guy left his mark on the game.’ You look at the guys in that organization he influenced, and you know that his style of play and what he’s been able to instill in his teammates is going to continue to trickle down.”
D-backs backup catcher Henry Blanco offers a different perspective on Jones’ career. Having broken into the majors four seasons after Jones and having played with him in Atlanta in 2002 and 2003, Blanco is more of a Jones contemporary.
Blanco said the D-backs are focused on beating the Braves this week, but he still had a few kind words to say about his former teammate before the D-backs left Phoenix on Sunday.
“He’s showed all his career he’s a good hitter and a great third baseman and obviously a pretty good teammate too,” Blanco said. “Sometime we’re all going to hang everything up. I’m sure his name is going to be in every book on major league baseball.”
Jones has fared well against the D-backs in his career, posting a .324 average — the third highest of all NL opponents — and a .408 on-base percentage in 97 career games. He is hitting .275 this season with a .348 on-base percentage, five homers and 26 RBIs.