Chipper Jones enjoyed one of the greatest careers not only in Atlanta Braves history, but of any third baseman to ever play in the major leagues.
He was an eight-time All-Star, a World Series champion as a rookie and a first-ballot Hall of Famer. And 20 years ago this week, he achieved something close to baseball perfection.
Arguably the pinnacle of Jones’ two-decade MLB career came Sept. 21-23, 1999, at Turner Field in Atlanta, when he dominated a three-game series against the New York Mets like few players have done before or since. The then-27-year-old Jones homered in all three games — twice in the opener — as the Braves swept the Mets and extended their lead in the National League East to four games with nine to play.
Jones’ three-game performance against the Mets — 4-for-9 with four homers and seven RBIs, giving his team the lead in all three — cemented what would be an MVP season for the Braves’ switch-hitting superstar. Atlanta also reached the World Series that year for the fifth time in nine seasons.
“You have a sense like you can do no wrong at the plate,” Jones told the Atlanta Journal Constitution after Game 3 of the Mets’ series. “No other way to explain.”
The series takes up a significant chunk of Jones’ 2018 autobiography “Ballplayer,” written with former AJC reporter Carroll Rogers Walton. The Braves led the Mets by one game in the NL East standings prior to the series-opener, which as Jones notes, was the teams’ first game against each other since July 4 weekend.
Game 1 paired Braves fireballer John Smoltz — the 1996 NL Cy Young Award winner — against soft-tossing Mets righty Rick Reed, whom Jones described as a “poor man’s Greg Maddux.” In the bottom of the first, Jones deposited a 2-1 pitch from Reed over the right-center field wall, putting Atlanta up 1-0.
The Mets came back to tie it in the third on Edgardo Alfonso’s RBI single, but that’s where it stood until Jones came up with one out in the bottom of the eighth against Mets reliever Dennis Cook. Batting right-handed against the left-handed Cook, Jones ripped a 1-1 “fastball away” from Cook out to left-center to put the Braves on top for good.
“Our fans wanted a curtain call, but I was sheepish,” Jones wrote in ‘Ballplayer.’ “I’d never done one before. I’m thinking ‘Hey, this is Atlanta. We don’t do curtain calls.’ My teammates had to push me out there.”
John Rocker set New York down in order in the bottom of the ninth, and the Braves had a 2-1 victory and a 2-game lead in the East. Jones had homered from both sides of the plate for the third time in his career — all of which took place in 1999.
Here’s video of Jones’ two homers in Game 1 of the series:
Game 2 pitted two-time Braves Cy Young winner Tom Glavine against 1988 Cy Young winner Orel Hershiser for the Mets, but again the night belonged to Chipper Jones. Bret Boone doubled off Hershiser with one out in the bottom of the first, and Jones followed by slamming an 0-1 cutter out to straight away right field for a 2-0 Braves lead.
“Granted, it was still early in the game, but you could feel the noose slowly start to tighten around their [the Mets] necks,” Jones wrote years later.
Still, the game wasn’t over yet. Mike Piazza homered off Glavine to tie the game in the fourth.
The Braves regained the lead for good in the seventh on Keith Lockhart’s sacrifice fly. Brian Jordan added a two-run single — scoring Boone and Jones — to make it 5-2, with Rocker again closing out the win in the ninth.
Here’s video of Jones taking Hershiser deep:
Atlanta’s lead now stood at three games, but the Braves — and Chipper Jones — weren’t done yet.
In Game 3, four-time Cy Young winner Greg Maddux took the mound for Atlanta against veteran lefty Al Leiter for New York. The Mets got the upper hand early, scoring in their first two at-bats to lead 2-1 following an RBI single by Rey Ordonez in the second.
Leiter allowed an RBI single to Andruw Jones in the Braves’ first, but got through the next three innings unscathed. That’s when Chipper Jones’ date with destiny continued in a major way.
Gerald Williams led off the bottom of the fifth with a single, then stole second and took third when Boone singled. That brought up Jones, who blasted a 1-0 cutter from Leiter over the left-center field fence for a 4-2 Atlanta lead.
“When I touched it off, I thought, ‘No freakin’ way that just happened,” Jones wrote in ‘Ballplayer.’ “… When I rounded second, it hit me what I had done and how excited the fans were. I glanced up into the stands, and there must have been a dozen fans waving brooms behind the third base dugout.”
Here’s video of Jones’ blast off Leiter:
The Braves added another run in the inning thanks to a Mets error, to make it 5-2. Piazza trimmed the Braves’ lead back to two with a solo homer off Maddux to lead off the sixth, but another Mets miscue allowed Boone to score in the seventh and put Atlanta up 6-3. Rocker worked around a pair of ninth-inning walks to finish off the game and the sweep, and the Braves found themselves in first place by four games with a little more than a week left in the season.
The Braves won the series by a combined 13-6, with Jones’ four homers responsible for the seven-run difference. Mets infielder Matt Franco had that part figured out.
“This was a pretty even series except for him,” Franco told the AJC. “We might still be playing all three games.”
Columnists covering the series made reference to some of the all-time greats from the world of sports.
“Nobody expected it. Everybody expected it,” Mark Bradley wrote in the AJC. “Such is the majesty of Chipper Jones that he leaves you awaiting, having already done so much. Michael Jordan left you the same way, but not in this sport.”
The New York Daily News’ Mike Lupica was more succinct: “Jones did not just look like the Most Valuable Player in the National League, he looked like Mickey Mantle.”
After finishing off the Mets, the Braves headed to Montreal, where they swept the Expos. They locked up the NL East title with a 10-0 victory in the series finale.
Then came a three-game series with the Mets in New York, which was largely anti-climactic. Jones had two hits in a 9-3 victory in the opener, but did not homer in the series as the Braves won two of three.
Atlanta then finished off the season by taking two of three from the Marlins, including an 18-0 blowout in their last game. Jones sat out that game, having earned a day off.
The Braves beat the Houston Astros in four games in the NL Division Series, then faced off again with the Mets in the NLCS. Atlanta won the series in six games to head back to the World Series for the first time in three years and the fifth time in nine, but the Mets were determined not to let Chipper beat them this time.
He went a respectable 5-for-19 in the series with two doubles, but did not homer and drove in only one. Perhaps most tellingly, he walked nine times.
The World Series ended up being a sour experience for Jones and the Braves, as they were swept by the New York Yankees. Jones went 3-for-13 in the series with a homer off Orlando Hernandez in Game 1, but Atlanta was outscored 21-9 in the series and never recovered after blowing a 5-1 lead in Game 3.
“In ’99 it was glaringly obvious the Yankees were a better ball club than we were, just as I thought we were the better team in ’96,” Jones wrote in his autobiography. “A lot of those Yankee teams in the late ’90s and early 2000s were better than everybody. A team of National League All-Stars probably couldn’t have beaten them.”
Not counting the postseason, Jones finished the year with a slash line of .319/.441/.633, 45 home runs and 110 RBIs, a 169 OPS+ and 6.9 bWAR. Thirty of his homers came after June 15 — 10 in 27 regular-season games in September and October.
In mid-November, Jones was named National League MVP, receiving 29 of 32 first-place votes (Arizona’s Matt Williams got two and Houston’s Jeff Bagwell got the other). Jones appeared on all 32 ballots, finishing second on two and third on the other.
“Most people who watched our team play know what a significant role he played in our success, especially when the season wore down and the pressure got great,” Atlanta general manager John Schuerholz told the Associated Press. “He showed he was a leader of this team and he had what it takes to be recognized as the MVP of the league.”
And at least in Jones’ mind, that spectacular three-game performance against the Mets in late September put him over the top with voters.
“Any time I read anything over the last couple of months pertaining to the MVP race, they pointed directly back to that Mets’ series,” Jones told the AP.
Jones played in Atlanta through 2012, but never won another MVP and never got back to the World Series. He finished his career with a .303/.401/.529 triple slash line (one of 22 players in MLB history to go .300/.400/.500 in at least 1,000 games played), 2,726 hits, 468 home runs, 1,623 RBIs and 85.2 bWAR.
Jones was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2018 on the first ballot, receiving 97.2 percent of the vote. But never did he shine more brightly than on three days in September 1999 at Turner Field, when he murdered the Mets and pushed the Braves to the NL East title.
Sources: “Ballplayer,” Chipper Jones with Carroll Rogers Walton (Penguin Random House, 20183); BaseballReference.com; Newspapers.com