Chipper pays tribute to childhood hero Mantle

Chipper pays tribute to childhood hero Mantle

NEW YORK -- Chatty Chipper Jones and Derek Jeter seldom allow a chance for on-field conversation to pass. Their paths have crossed often enough that they have more than a passing relationship.

So it was during the fourth inning Tuesday night, when Jones taxied into second base after driving in a run with a double. He and Jeter instantly resumed whatever dialogue they had begun during batting practice Monday night. Jones told his friend, "If I could have it like this every night, I might never quit."

Jones was moved, not by the double or the RBI, but rather the energy that overflowed the railings and onto the Yankee Stadium lawn. "It's so cool here," he said later. "I love coming here."

Jones returned Wednesday morning, and again immersed himself in Yankee Stadium and the Yankees. More to it this time, though. Three hours before the Braves engaged the home team, Jones visited the Mickey Mantle exhibit at the Stadium. He and a few others were walked and talked through the exhibit that focused on Jones' favorite player.

This was more than a casual visit or baseball sight-seeing. This was McCartney visiting Graceland, Duke Wayne touring the Alamo. This was the preeminent switch-hitter of his time, soaking in all he could of the preeminent switch-hitter of all time. This was a Dixie's hero stopping to enjoy more of the slugger who was his father's hero, and the all-time hero to several generations of fans in all parts of the country.

"My father wasn't necessarily a Yankees fan," Jones said. "But he was one of the biggest Mickey Mantle fans ever. Mickey was his guy."

And he became Chipper's. So the eyes of the Braves' third baseman were open child-wide and fixed on the slew of 7's and all the Mantle memorabilia on display. The photos, uniforms, the bronzed shoes and cap, the invitation to Mantle's high school graduation, his first professional contract -- $140 a month plus an $1,150 bonus -- and game bats responsible for some of the 536 home runs Mantle hit, the most by a switch-hitter and 77 more than Jones has hit.

"I got chill bumps three or four times," Jones said as the private tour rounded third. A fellow tourist found a plastic figurine of Mantle in one showcase. Next to it was the cardboard box that the figure had been sold in some 50 years ago. "I have one of those," he said proudly. Jones pointed to Mantle's 1956 Most Valuable Player award. "And I've got one of those," he said laughing.

Two Mantle bats caught his Jones' eye, and Jones told of his father keeping a Mantle model in a closet in his childhood home. "I'd go and take it out," he said. "I couldn't swing that thing." Across the room was the bat Babe Ruth had used to hit the first home run at Yankee Stadium, in 1923. "Forty-two ounces," Jones said when it was placed in his hands. "This'd be like swinging a tree trunk."

The bat was smudged on the sweet spot, the spot at which bat and pitch had collided. Jones was impressed by that and the balance of the weapon Ruth had ordered specially for the Stadium's opening game. He inquired about the relationship between Ruth and Lou Gehrig, and other areas of Yankees history. He was stunned to hear Gehrig's consecutive game streak had grown to 2,130 despite what post-career x-rays detected -- 17 untreated fractures.

But this was a day for Jones to connect with Mantle. He intends to return to the stadium after his retirement following this season. He knows there's more to see. At age 40, he says he has time.

Jones has played in five World Series games, an All-Star Game and two Interleague series at the current or former Yankee Stadium, and has never visited Monument Park. But he says the exhibit offers so much more than the Park and its plaques.

"Phenomenal," Jones said. "I thought the Braves had a rich tradition with all the greats who have played for them," he said. "But this is over the top. Pretty cool.

"To me, the other setting, over there, across the street, was better 'cause you're standing in the same digs as all the great Yankees." But when he saw the model of the current park -- now in its fourth year -- and recalled the energy of the audience, he repeated, "I might never quit." He admired the replica.

Before he departed, he was given a Mantle model from 1962. He measured it without an instrument as players often do with others' bats and made comparisons to the bat his father kept in the closet. "Now," Jones said, "I can handle this."

He neither swung the bat nor struck a pose that millions of kids readily copied 50 years ago.

"Not big on doing that," he said, as if he were uncomfortable with comparison. Heroes affect their audiences differently. Mantle's image alone makes Jones self-conscious.

Last summer, Jones shared his story of meeting Mantle in 1992, a year before his big league debut, and all the angst the meeting caused him.

"It was at a card show," Jones said. "I came in the night before, looking forward to meeting him. But then I started to get real nervous about it. So I went to bed, but I couldn't sleep. I got up at 2 or 3 in the morning, went into the bathroom and practiced meeting him. I was looking in the mirror and putting my hand out to shake his. 'Nice to meet you, Mr. Mantle.' I was so nervous.

"But when all you've heard growing up were stories about Mickey Mantle, it's understandable. He was my father's hero and mine, and I guess a lot of people's."

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.