You knew Chipper would work in Atlanta simply based on his face. He could have been the mascot for the Atlanta Crackers, the minor league team that played at Spiller Field in Ponce de Leon Park* before Fulton County Stadium floated in from orbit and landed just south of the state Capitol. Chipper looked like a walking definition of cracker: slitty eyes, swaggery, slow steps to the plate even as a rookie, and a fondness for Oakleys and sleeveless shirts.
You knew he would work for so many reasons. He came to the plate to "Crazy Train," the precursor to totalling a Camaro, or chugging a 12 pack of Natty Lite before a Jackyl concert, or hitting a baseball with the name "Chipper." His real name was Larry Wayne Jones, the name of a serial killer, state agricultural commissioner, or budding candidate for the position of cracker baseball pope. He switch-hit, validating the backyard frustrations of a thousand fathers in Gwinnett County who told you, son, that it not only could be done, but would turn you into something no coach could leave off the all-county team.
He won like a white trash millionaire, too, winning a World Series after his first full season, and then never again. Like new money does, he got a flossy new house just across the street from the old one, and closed the place himself. He got rich, and got divorced, and when his wife shook out the rug in public, a Hooters waitress and a child born out of wedlock fell out and into the papers. In the years his personal life imploded, Larry Wayne drove in over 100 runs.
He did all of this in the best possible place for it, a city filled with Chipper's aspirational peers. Getting divorced? Hell, I been there, said the dude with a pickup truck dropping ladders on I-75 en route to building another cluster of McMansions no one would buy. Lost in the playoffs? He's just one man, man, thought a boom-era bro listening to Skip Caray on the way to the golf course. Maybe he's just not good at articulating his feelings, thought every woman who unabashedly listed Chipper's ass as the second best on the mid-90s Braves, and who nodded sympathetically when Chipper was his usual honest self talking about it all.*
The Braves would continue to fall just shy of Chipper's rookie lottery prize of a World Series, consistently rolling out of their beds, winning their division, and then returning to The Ted each spring just in time to occupy the space between the Masters and college football. Chipper saved his best moments for the Mets, whose fans called him by his real name, drawing out the name like one long indictment of everything the Braves represented.
The Mets' fans misfired, of course. The one they wanted was John Rocker, another cracker from along the I-75 corridor who packed a single fictional subway car with everything he hated about the world: AIDS, foreigners, homosexuals, and kids who dyed their hair. That was John Rocker's response to New York. Chipper responded by hitting .329 lifetime against them and performing the permatroll of naming a child after a place where he had such great success: "Shea," his son born in 2004. In his last game in the city, Mets fans applauded him on their home field. I have no idea where John Rocker is right now, and neither do you, and that's just fine with all of us.
The Mets rivalry was not a World Series, but it was the kind of cheeky melodrama you can only build around a veteran character actor capable only of playing himself. Like anyone significant enough to become one team's villain, he acquired institutional status in a city with very few institutions to call its own. He got his own charity wine. He created a deer hunting show, because of course he did, and slowly aged into one of the few points on a map of Atlanta immune to bulldozers, foreclosure, or the elements.*
A banner hanging on the side of Turner Field this past weekend read: "THANK YOU CHIPPER." Chipper Jones helped open that park back in 1997, the year after the Olympics when Atlanta rushed headlong into an overfinanced and unplanned future, building, expanding, and leaving ample space in the trophy case for the implicit and obvious riches to come.
The metaphorical trophy case for Chipper and the city he never left proved to be just a bit ambitious. I don't know what exactly reminds me of that. It could be the hollow apartment complexes on Memorial Drive as you drive to Turner Field, recession ghost ships left floating in the market for anyone to claim. It may be the two feral dogs I saw fighting giddily over trash in an empty lot across from a half-demolished house further down the road. It could be the inconsistent patches of the city itself, a mangy outlay of parking lots, beautiful neighborhoods, and utter squalor randomly sandwiched inside a heart-shaped array of clogged interstates.
It may have been the MARTA train rising up and out of Georgia State, just shy of Five Points where the Braves shuttle bus takes antsy suburbanites off the train and into Chipper Jones' office. Once, on that east-west line running across Atlanta's equator, a homeless man grabbed me and slammed me into a seat on the train.
"You sit here," he said.
"NO. You don't understand." He was a middle-aged black guy, and speaking from somewhere behind a veil of legitimate insanity and a recently consumed handle of Glenmore Gin. He smelled awful. He could have been one of the scrap-metal harvesting drunks released each morning from the old drunk tank from City Hall East. I can't prove The Walking Dead wasn't conceived watching this happen, but it was.
His eyes swam in his head. "Lemme tell you. He white. I know he white. But Chipper Jones is a bad motherfucker."
He turned to the car full of staring, horrified strangers. "Oh, he white." Dramatic pause. "BUT HE IS A BAD MOTHERFUCKER, Y'ALL."
The man got up, nodded confidently, and stumbled into the next train. I remember slowly realizing the man had slammed me into a seat full of piss, and that I was going to have to take the longest shower of my life when I got home. I remember how his pupils floated in his eye sockets like fish suffocating in dirty water. I remember having no reply. Even the insane homeless of the perpetually indeterminate city knew one definite thing a total stranger would agree with them on: that Chipper Jones, while white, was a bad motherfucker.