On Sunday, I made my final trip to Shea, from Manhattan to Flushing Meadow on the team bus. Excuse me. Not Shea. Citi Field. Shea is the third of my four kids, all boys. Shea Stadium was the place where the fans would chant Lar-ry! Lar-ry! in that New York singsong, but I got the last laugh. I raked there, spouted off in the papers, had a good time—and the fans let me have it. What more could a ballplayer want?
I'm 40 and batting around .300, and my club, the Atlanta Braves, is leading the National League wild-card race. I'm going to play as hard as I can for as long as we go this season, and then I'm done. My body's already thanking me. It's shot. I'm a shell of my former self, at third and in the batter's box, too. I can tell, even if the numbers are good, not so different than the ones I put up as a 23-year-old rookie all those years back.
I came up for a few weeks at the end of '93. My first at bat was at Fulton County Stadium. Kevin Wickander, a Reds lefty, offered me a first-pitch sinker away that I bounced off the plate. I have the ball in my house and the applause in my head. I was standing on first and thought, I'm batting a thousand. Juan Samuel was playing third for Cincinnati that day. Now he's the Phillies' third base coach. I told him the other day, "You fielded my first hit, but I beat it out." The ball went 60 feet. He remembered. It was a generous hit. We won. Ballplayers don't forget.
I grew up in northern Florida, in Pierson, a town with one convenience store. In 1990 the Braves made me the first pick in the draft. I played my minor league ball in Durham, North Carolina; Greenville, South Carolina; Macon, Georgia; and Richmond, Virginia. I've spent all 19 years of my big league career in Atlanta. I feel like I'm the face of Southern baseball, and I'm proud of that.
I've been good to the Braves, but they've been better to me. They never even let me get to a free-agency year. The money I've made in the game is ridiculous, but I'd like to think it hasn't changed me. The Braves in my day brought baseball, winning major league baseball, to the South.
I got one World Series ring, in 1995, when we beat the Indians. In '96 we lost to the Yankees in six. We dropped the final game 3--2 at the old Stadium. The single most intense and memorable experience of my life. Yankee Stadium. The Fall Classic. The whole world watching.
My father, the original Larry Jones, taught me the game. He grew up in Vero Beach, Florida, where the Dodgers used to train, but Mickey Mantle was his guy. As a young player I did a card show with Mickey, not long before cancer took him. He was a god to me. Because he batted switch, I wanted to bat switch. Because he spent his whole career with one club, I wanted to spend my whole career with one club. Because he played hard and played hurt, I wanted to play hard and play hurt. Because he found time to play golf and to fish and hunt and hang out with his friends, I wanted to do all that too.
There were grown men with tears in their eyes that day, meeting the Mick. I asked him, "Do you ever get tired of signing?" He said he had a recurring dream where he gets to the pearly gates and the guy at the door says, "Mick, we're gonna let you in, but we need you to sign these dozen balls first." If you're a ballplayer, people want a piece of you. Why? Because baseball is the grand American game, that's why.
We ballplayers lead strange lives, flying all over the country, playing a kid's game late at night. How many times did the kitchen at the Parc 55, our team hotel in San Francisco, bring me up a three-egg omelet and a mountain of bacon at one in the morning? More than I can count. Thank you, St. Louis, for having an indoor visiting-team batting cage near the dugout, where a guy can get loose coming off the bench. Thank you, Philadelphia, for letting me play Merion and Pine Valley and all those other good courses, and thank you to John Smoltz and Tommy Glavine and Greg Maddux for letting me fill out your foursome. Thank you, Bobby Cox, for everything. I played for one of the greatest managers in baseball history. He grew me up.
I've had a lot of failings, as a ballplayer, as a father, as a husband. I married at 20 the first time, too young, but I didn't know that then. I'm getting divorced now from my second wife, and I will never, ever, get married again. But I honestly wouldn't change a thing. I believe everything happens for a reason. My four kids, three with my second wife, are athletic, smart, fun, still young. I've been a part-time father. Now, come October, I'm going to be a full-time father, like my father was to me. I'm going to teach Shea to bat switch. He's eight. It's time. I'm saying goodbye without a tear in my eye. I gave it my all.
MY BODY'S THANKING ME. I'M A SHELL OF MY FORMER SELF, AT THIRD AND IN THE BATTER'S BOX. I CAN TELL, EVEN IF THE NUMBERS ARE GOOD.
MIKE EHRMANN/GETTY IMAGES