I started following baseball in the fall of 1996. There were three names I learned before I knew of any others. Even if I couldn't explain why I knew them, I still knew they were important, as though the fortunes of entire baseball teams could rise and fall based on their existence. Those three players were Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte ...and Chipper Jones.
There is a story I like to tell of my early days as a baseball fan, one that I think best illustrates how good the mid-90s Atlanta Braves were considered, not just among the statistical-minded, but among the casual fans as well. It goes something like this: the day after the second game of that year's World Series, I asked my father who had won the game (I was at an age where rigidly observed bedtimes were de rigouer) the previous night. He mentioned that the Braves had won—by a large margin—and when I tried to ask for confirmation that, even though the Yankees were down two games to none, they could still win the series, the response I got was, "Rebecca, the Yankees aren't going to win," said in the same tone an exasperated parent might tell their child that no, there won't be any rescue; Godzilla really is going to destroy New York this time.
Those Braves might have been known for John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, and Greg Maddux (indeed, it feels as though any triumvirate of potentially decent pitching prospects draws allusions to the Braves' threesome), but they were also known for a pair of Joneses, Chipper and (to a lesser extent) Andruw. Now, in 2012—19 years after his major-league debut—Chipper Jones has announced that he will retire at the end of the 2012 season. At 39 years of age and with what has become a lengthy injury history, Jones' announcement doesn't come as a terrible surprise, but as a Hall of Fame-caliber player who has spent his entire career with one team, even in the era of free agency, the news is certainly noteworthy.
Although Jones's games against the Yankees were limited to interleague play (in a 20-year career, he faced the Yankees in just 22 regular season games), he still made the most of it, with a triple slash of .353/.446/.588 against the Bombers. In fact, against the Yanks, Jones walked more times than he struck out, and while the truly great players will be good against any team, these numbers still stand out. Perhaps it was revenge; the injury that cost a young Jones the entire 1994 season and ended his chance to play shortstop in the majors was incurred in a spring training game against the Yankees.
Baseball in the late 1990s was dominated by the New York-Braves rivalry—not just the two World Series in 1996 and 1999 between Atlanta and the Yankees, but a fierce NL rivalry between the Braves and the Mets. Indeed, if you think Jones had good lifetime numbers against the Yankees, consider his .318/.414/.559 career line against the Mets—and that over a not-so-small sample size of 231 games and 965 at-bats. So it stands to reason that in New York baseball circles in the mid-late 1990s, whether American League or National, Chipper Jones became as familiar a name as Jeter or O'Neill or Mike Piazza or Robin Ventura.
Defining an era in baseball history can be a challenge, since dates can blur (did the Dynasty Yankees of the late 1990s start in 1994 or 1996? Did the dynasty end in 2001 or 2004?), and one might even argue that Jones' career spans multiple eras: when he was drafted, Germany was still two countries. His career has spanned the so-called steroid era and more; like Jeter and Mariano Rivera his career seems all the more remarkable since the entirety has occurred with one franchise.
Jones saw the Braves through their run of 11-straight division titles, was with them at the nadir of their fourth-place finish in 2008, and more recently has seen his team return to the postseason in 2010 and quite nearly again in 2011. Today's Atlanta Braves are more likely to make one think of Jason Heyward, Tommy Hanson, or even former Yankees-prospect Arodys Vizcaino than they are Bobby Cox or Tom Glavine, but for one more season, Jones will still be there, a thorn in the side of the New York baseball teams, perhaps, but an almost certain Hall of Famer and one of the best players the game has produced in the past 20 seasons.