When I went to my first Braves game in 1991 and saw them win their first of fourteen consecutive division titles, my parents bought me a pennant as we left Fulton County Stadium.  Below the tomahawk logo and the red “1991 NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST CHAMPIONS” banner was listed everyone on the team’s roster at that time.  Over the years, I lamented the departure of many of the names on that roster.  Terry Pendleton, Mark Lemke, Sid Bream, and Ron Gant were gone by the mid-1990s.  The big names on that pennant left later – Tom Glavine in 2002, John Smoltz in 2008, and finally Bobby Cox in 2010.  With every player who retired or left, it felt like a part of my childhood melting away.

Chipper Jones’s name wasn’t on that pennant – he was still coming through the minors one year after being drafted ahead of Todd Van Poppel with the top pick in the MLB Draft – but he is a piece of my childhood.  When Chipper made his big-league debut, I had just started fifth grade, which is a staggering thought.  Players came and went, success ebbed and flowed, the Braves even stopped playing on TBS – but Chipper was the one constant through the years.  The last remaining piece of the good ol’ days when the Braves routinely won the division by 15 or more games and won a playoff series every now and again.  The greatest Atlanta Braves hitter of all-time.

One of several Chipper Jones rookie cards I have, this one from 1991.

As I watched Friday’s Wild Card game slip away from the Braves in the late innings – thanks in part, ironically, to a costly error Chipper committed during what should’ve been a double play ball – it was surreal to think that I was watching the last Braves game in which Chipper would be playing.  With all due respect to all the players I listed earlier, Chipper Jones is the Atlanta Braves.  I clapped and jumped around my empty house when he got an infield single in what turned out to be his last at-bat, and was angry when the Braves fans’ barrage of bottles after the now-infamous infield-fly incident prevented a final glorious curtain call.

But mostly, I was sad.  Chipper has said time and time again that he has no regrets, and I guess that’s good because I think plenty of Braves fans have enough regrets on his behalf.  Regrets that he only won one World Series ring despite several seasons when the Braves were a dominant squad.  Or that the 1994 strike and his failing knees kept him out of enough games for him to give him a chance to reach 3,000 hits or 500 home runs.  But despite all that, he never complained or bemoaned his lot as his body let him down.  I feel fortunate that I was at Turner Field for one of his last milestones – his 1500th career RBI on a solo home run against the Marlins in 2011.  It was awesome to see someone pushing 40 still be able to hit the ball and field like that.

The Braves should have a great squad in 2013; the pitching is solid, and they have several awesome power hitters in Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward.  But without #10 at third base or “Crazy Train” blaring, it just won’t be the same.  The last link to my childhood with the Braves is gone, but the memories are plentiful and amazing.

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