Mets-killer Chipper Jones has fond NY memories as his career winds down
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Chipper Jones couldn't remember the exact circumstance, nor could he recall where he was the first time he was called a Mets-killer. However, the outgoing Braves star showed a firm grasp of when he transitioned from mere rival to despised villain.
To be precise, the first reference came on the morning of Sept. 29, 1999. That's when three New York newspapers bestowed upon him the title that will follow him into retirement at season's end. It came during an inspired stretch run by Jones, who spent the final days of his 1999 MVP season -- what else? -- killing the Mets.
"I know he had success against the [Mets] for so many years because we played them so many times," said former Braves teammate Andruw Jones, currently playing for the Yankees. "But I think that was the time that he really came out as a true Mets-killer, because he took the team by himself and carried us over to the playoffs."
Party like it's 1999
By late September, as the Braves charged toward yet another division title, the Mets found themselves right on their heels. On Sept. 21, the two teams began a critical stretch during which the rivals met six times in 10 days. The Mets trailed by just one game. By the end, the Braves had won all but one contest, pushing their lead to eight games and nudging the Mets to the brink of missing the playoffs entirely.
"They pitched me carefully, but there were a couple of situations in the series they couldn't avoid me," Jones said. "I was just in one of those streaks where everything I hit went out of the ballpark. It kind of put me on the map, and I guess that's really the first time I really started drawing the ire of Mets fans."
Teammates marveled as Jones led a sweep of the Mets in Atlanta. He hit four homers in the three games.
"He went off," Andruw Jones said. " . . . [Former Mets manager] Bobby Valentine accused the team of cheating. He said the camera guy in centerfield was giving Chipper the signs or something."
Jones' assault on the Mets resumed less than a week later. He collected three hits and a pair of RBIs while helping the Braves take two of three at Shea, where fans famously jeered him with chants of his birth name. "Lar-ry! Lar-ry!" they shouted.
Jones did not take the taunts lying down. After a 4-3 victory in 11 innings on Sept. 30, one that sent the Mets to the brink of losing a playoff spot altogether, Jones offered his most notorious retort.
As always, the villain aimed for the heart. Said Jones: "Now all the Mets fans can go home and put their Yankee stuff on."
"He cherished and relished that whole 'Larry' thing," said Al Leiter, the Mets' ace at the time. "I think, initially, it bothered him, going to Shea Stadium with 50,000 crazy Mets fans trying to get under his skin."
Whatever effect the jeers may have had, they apparently didn't linger too long for Jones, who hit so well at the Mets' former home that he named one son Shea. Certainly, the chants did little to slow him in the 1999 NLCS, when he helped dispatch the Mets in six games.
"Chipper," Leiter said. "Talk about a pain in the . . ."
Considering that history, no stop on Jones' farewell tour around the big leagues carries more significance than this one in New York. Jones' 49 career home runs against the Mets is tied for second-most of any visiting player in franchise history. He batted .313 with 19 homers at Shea Stadium, the most he's hit at any visiting park.
Despite being so intimidated that years would pass before he was comfortable leaving his hotel room to explore New York City, his dominance of Queens began immediately.
On May 9, 1995, in his first game at Shea, Jones swatted a 2-and-0 fastball from Josias Manzanillo over the rightfield fence for the first of his 468 career home runs. The next day, he homered again, this time off Pete Harnisch.
Nobody could have known it at the time, but they had just witnessed the birth of a great villain.
"I can't tell you how many times I've heard, 'Yo, Chippuh!' " he said, channeling his best New York accent. " 'Yo Chippuh, quit beating up on my Mets.' Or 'Good luck against the Yanks' or whatever. It's that kind of interaction that quite frankly, 10 or 15 years ago, I didn't think it was in my future."
That friendly banter suits Jones' style much better than the hatred of '99, when part of the leftfield experience at Shea meant nine innings of listening to fans "questioning the ancestry of your mother."
Looking back, Jones said he didn't necessarily relish playing the role of nemesis to Mets fans. Despite their outright contempt for teammate John Rocker, he said Rocker played the part with more flair.
"I don't think I enjoyed it as much as Rocker did," he said. "I'm one of those guys that wants to be liked. I care what people think about me. I care what people's image of me is."
Hatred to respect
Unlike Rocker, Jones sustained his success, ultimately sticking around long enough to watch the hatred of Mets fans mellow into more of a grudging respect. "Because he was good," Leiter said. "And he's got a little bit of that funny side, that old- school 'hey, I'm going to have a good time,' because he liked to have fun."
Of course, not all fans have been as forgiving. When Jones was shown on the video board before Friday night's game, the crowd at Citi Field offered a mixed response. As evidenced by the boos, some will never forget when Jones became a Mets-killer.
The villain understands. He was asked what he'd think of himself if he were a Mets fan. "I would respect the body of work, but I would hate his guts," he said. "That's just the way it is."