Friday, April 23, 2010

The Father of Turner Davis

In May 1995, Lawrence "Chipper" Jones hit the first home run of his Major League career. It came against the New York Mets at Shea Stadium. Bret Saberhagen started the game for the home team, but the homer came off reliever Josias Manzanillo in the top of the ninth. And it was a game-winner. Surprised? Not if you're a Mets fan.

Chipper is to the Mets as Reggie Miller is to the Knicks. Except, unlike Miller, Chipper's team actually came out on top in most of their crucial encounters with the Mets. Which I guess could make Chipper more like Michael Jordan than Miller. But that doesn't really work either because Chipper's Braves usually came up short after getting past the Mets, unlike Jordan's Bulls, who won championships after outlasting the Knicks. So, in that regard, maybe, Chipper is like Jim Kelly and the Braves were the Buffalo Bills of the Major Leagues. But, I digress. Regardless of which provincial rival you pair him with there is no doubting that he was the Mets' nemesis. Jimmy Rollins ain't got nothing on Chipper.

In 731 at-bats over more than a decade of playing against the Mets, Chipper has hit for a .321 average, gotten on base. 42 percent of the time and slugged .560. He's got 42 home runs, 235 hits and 134 RBI. He's even got 20 steals, while he's got no more than 14 against any other team. I don't have the breakdown, but it just feels 50 of those hits put his team ahead.

In 1998, Chipper raked at a .356 clip against the Mets and in 2000 he hit for a .395 average against his northern rivals. But both those seasons pale in comparison to what he did against the Metsies in 1999. Chipper hit an even .400 against the Mets during the regular season with a .510 on-base percentage and a 1.000 slugging percentage. He hit 7 and notched 16 RBI in 12 regular-season games. And then the Braves topped the Mets in the NLCS.

Fully aware of his dominance against the Mets, particularly at Shea Stadium, Chipper famously named his third son after the Mets' home field. Shea Jones was born on August 30, 2004.

In the first game between the Mets and Braves this season, the 38-year-old (as of Saturday) switch-hitting third baseman who still lets other grownups refer to him as Chipper opened the scoring in the third with a two-out RBI single to right. Even on rookie sensation Jason Heyward's first trip to Flushing, Chipper was still the one getting it done for the Braves.

With Heyward scuffling in his Citi debut and the Braves staked to a 1-0 lead thanks to Chipper, another rookie put his stamp on this game. And hopefully this rivalry. Leading off the bottom of the fifth, the Mets' first-year first baseman, Ike Davis, crushed an offering from Braves pitcher Kenshin Kawakami, sending the ball well over the wall in right-center field, over the bullpens and onto the Shea Bridge. The homer was estimated at 450 feet, but that distance will grow by feets and bounds and yards and country miles if Davis can develop into a bona fide star. If he can one day be to the Braves what Chipper was to the Mets, a nemesis.

After being pulled even by Davis' big fly, the Mets went ahead, 3-2, on back-to-back triples by Jose Reyes and Jason Bay and a deep sac fly by David Wright in the bottom of the sixth. The Bravos pulled back a run in the top of the seventh, but the Mets did them one better by scoring two in the bottom half of the frame.

The runs came largely because Chipper dropped a routine pop fly from Reyes with Angel Pagan and Luis Castillo on base. Reyes popped up to the left side of the infield and the infield fly rule was called. But Chipper whiffed on the catch, and after much confusio the ball (by way of catcher Brian McCann) as well Reyes ended up going to first. Problem for the Braves was that Reyes was out as soon as the infield fly rule was called. Once McCann sent the ball towards first, Pagan broke home for the first run. Castillo advanced on the return throw home and then came around to score on a single from Wright.

After all of these years, Chipper improbably gave us a game back. We're not even. Not by a longshot, but I'll take it. And it got me wondering if there was some sort of passing of the torch going on here. Not from Chipper to Heyward. Or even Chipper to Wright. But from Chipper to Davis.

Could Chipper's error coupled with Davis' mammoth maiden longball represent some sort of changing of the guard? Chipper's first homer came against the Mets and Davis' first came against the Braves. And it came in a game when Chipper muffed a routine play on the day before his 38th birthday. Maybe with the sun setting on Chipper, the Mets will finally have the corner infielder that owns this NL East matchup. Perhaps Davis will head down to Turner Field in Atlanta and tear the cover off the ball. Perhaps Davis will be player that defines this rivalry for the next decade.

Perhaps when Ike Davis settles down with a nice Jewish girl and prepares to become a father he'll feel compelled to name his son after the Braves' ballpark.

Turner Davis does have a good ring to it.