In the morning before his last appearance at Yankee Stadium on June 20, retiring Atlanta Braves third baseman Chipper Jones walked up to the museum at Yankee Stadium and explored its artifacts of Mickey Mantle memorabilia.
“That was really cool,” Jones said. “You saw a 40-year-old kid just in awe of the history that I was witnessing. Whether it was holding Mickey Mantle’s bat or holding Babe Ruth’s bat or seeing baseball cards from the olden days.
“So much memorabilia and paraphernalia that really takes me back to my childhood because my dad had a Mickey Mantle bat in his closet that I always used to pick up as a kid. And I used to think, man, this is a big, how are you ever going to hit with this? Now I pick it up and it’s like yeah, I could with this.”
Jones’s farewell tour to his Hall of Fame career has already made stops in Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago, St. Louis, Tampa Bay, Cincinnati and Boston. In each city, the home team has provided gifts such as a flag from Wrigley Field, bases from Cincinnati, a cowboy hat from Houston and a number from the hand-operated scoreboard in Boston.
After touring the museum, Jones sat down with Metro New York for an interview that discussed baseball history, switch-hitting, his career and his rivalry with the Mets.
In your opinion, what is the most intriguing era or time period of baseball history?
Probably the 1950s and 1960s when some of who I think are the best players of all time played the game, whether it was Mick (Mickey Mantle), Willie Mays, Hank (Hank Aaron). That to me was the golden age of baseball and my infatuation with Mickey Mantle and my affiliation with the Braves’ organization and Hank Aaron is probably the reason why that’s the most intriguing era to me.
What has been getting to know Hank Aaron been like?
I’ve never felt so small, and not in stature, just thinking to myself all the great things this guy has done in his life and his career and how many people he has impacted. For him to be sitting here talking to me in such a humble manner was really kind of awe-inspiring to be honest with you. This guy has every reason to be cocky and smug, but he’s not. He’s down to Earth, humble and very congenial.
How did Mickey Mantle influence you becoming a switch-hitter?
My dad was from Baltimore and every time the Yankees came to Baltimore, he was in the top row. Mick’s influence reached far outside of New York and even though my dad was an Orioles fan, Mickey was his guy. I grew up in the very long shadow of Mickey Mantle.
Did you ever think you’d be mentioned with Mickey Mantle as among the greatest switch-hitters in baseball history?
Growing up as a kid, you always dream that you’re going to be one of the greatest of all-time, but to sit there and say you can be mentioned with Mickey Mantle in a lot of categories — never. I think that now as I sit here 20 years into my career, the biggest compliment for me ever is to be mentioned in the same breath.
When did that start to sink in?
Probably in the last few years. I try to keep my nose to the grindstone, keep my head down and not listen too much. But when you are getting to the end of your career and start passing milestones in certain numbers [then you notice]. Anytime you pass a Mickey Mantle number, that’s special to me.
Who is the best hitter that you played with and why?
I would say probably Gary Sheffield. I’ve never seen a guy with quicker hands. I’ve never seen a guy swing that hard every time and more times than not hit the ball right on the button. He just hit balls that defied logic. I’d be hitting behind him, standing on deck and see the flight of the ball he hits and I’d think to myself, that’s a bullet right at the left fielder and it would go five rows deep. He was famous for those one-iron shots out of the park. I think a lot of people would be shocked to know that Gary is probably one of my top-five all-time teammates. [He was] very popular in the clubhouse while he may not have been popular outside the clubhouse. He was a phenomenal guy and a phenomenal player.
Who is the best defensive player that you played with and why?
The best defender would probably be Alex Gonzalez, a shortstop we had here a couple of years ago. It’s a given at the big league level you’ve got the great hands, but what sets him apart from the guy with great hands are the guys with great feet. He had great hands and great feet.
Who is the best pitcher you ever played with and why?
Greg Maddux — a surgeon, the professor, all those nicknames garner respect. That was Maddux. I’ve never seen a guy just absolutely pick apart opposing offenses with, you know, not overpowering stuff, but just able make the ball go both ways on both sides of the plate and change speeds.
Who is the best pitcher you ever faced and why?
I’ve never had to work so hard to put the ball in play against someone like I did against Roger Clemens. No. 1, he had overpowering stuff. No. 2, he never threw the ball down the middle. He took overpowering stuff and he lived on the corners. He was the guy I point to that you better bring your lunch pail and your hard hat because it’s going to be a long day.
Is there a pitcher you didn’t have good numbers against that might be somewhat unexpected?
I think at point I was 0-for-21 or 22 against Woody Williams. He was just one of those guys that pitched me backwards and to be honest with you, he just made good pitches. When I did center one up, I hit it right at somebody. It was just one of those freak things that you can’t really explain.
Who is the best pitcher that you have hit really well?
Probably Randy Johnson. I think I hit five or six home runs off of him and .350 or .400, somewhere in that vicinity.
What was playing for Bobby Cox like?
It was great. He just gave us the freedom to go out and play. Bobby had very few rules but what few rules he did have, you’d better abide by. What I liked about Bobby was he put every individual player in the best possible chance to succeed and put them in spots where he thought this guy is going to excel in this spot or situation. He had a knack for it and that is why he’s so great.
What is the most memorable ejection?
There’s one I can’t tell you what was said. It was Hunter Wendelstadt in Cincinnati and he stepped on John Smoltz’s foot in an exchange and they bumped and Hunter being the hothead threw Smoltzie out of the game. It was the first inning of the game and Bobby came out and he told John to get back on the mound and that he was not thrown out of the game, that it’s Hunter’s fault that they bumped and Hunter objected and Bobby referenced Hunter not being able to make a bump on his daddy’s behind and that got Bobby tossed. That was colorful. It happened right there at third base so that’s why I remember it so well, but certainly one of the ones that myself, Smoltzie and Bobby reminisce about.
What home run of the 19 you hit at Shea Stadium is the most memorable?
Wow. My first one, my first home at Shea Stadium was a game-winner in the top of the ninth inning off of Josias Manzanillo. It was my rookie year. I can just remember being a long time coming because I spent all of 1994 on the DL and I waited a long time for that home run. It’s something that’s etched in my memory.
What stands out from the Mets-Braves rivalry of the late 1990s and early 2000s?
There’s so much. Whether it’s the grand slam single that Ventura hit, whether it was the series that I had against them in 1999 late in September, whether it was the hate-hate love-love affair the fans had with John Rocker. There’s a bunch of things. It’s hard to point at just one.
What was your reaction to the first time you heard Met fans chant “Larry, Larry, Larry?”
All I can think about was Barry Bonds saying that 50,000 people wouldn’t be screaming your name at one time if you suck. I take it with a grain of salt to be honest with you. I think one of the reasons why I could be successful on that stage was that I tuned it out and I didn’t let it affect me. So I can’t really say that somebody calling me by my real name is going to get under my skin.
Follow Yankees beat writer Larry Fleisher on Twitter @LarryFleisher.