When we first met Chipper Jones, he was a kid with a future. Most of that future is behind him now, viewed in a rearview mirror that gets smaller with every game of the baseball season.
Twenty-one years ago, he was a boyish shortstop with hands as hard as Stone Mountain and an arm that wouldn't cooperate. He came to Golden Park with a club that John Dittrich referred to as "the hated Macon Braves."
Dittrich was the general manager of the Columbus Indians. He's a baseball lifer, in his 39th year in the minor leagues. These days he plays against "the hated Hannibal Cavemen."
He operates on a premise learned long ago. Someone asked Dittrich's boss who they were playing that night. "The visitors," he said, "and I hate them."
The 1991 season was the first year the Braves had a farm team in Macon, and they assigned some bright prospects, headed by catcher Tyler Houston and 19-year-old Chipper Jones -- both first-round draft choices.
The Indians were new to Columbus. After the 1990 season, the owner of the Mudcats suddenly moved to North Carolina taking with him the club's popular nickname.
New owners were located, and on Valentine's Day 1991, Dittrich was introduced as the face of the Columbus franchise.
Opening night was less than two months away and to drum up attention, Dittrich called their opponents, "the hated Macon Braves." If it sold tickets, Dittrich could conjure up hate. But on the field, he saw talent.
"Scouts create the hoopla so you pay attention to all that they do. You watched Chipper, and you knew he'd be good," Dittrich said in a phone conversation.
That was Chipper's first full season in professional baseball. He hit .326 with 15 home runs and 98 RBIs. He even stole 40 bases. (We won't talk about his 56 errors.)
In June, he starred in the South Atlantic League All-Star Game in Savannah. Dittrich was there, and, like the players, he received a commemorative watch. "It was one of those deals where if you sent in your logo and $10 they put it on a watch. I wonder if Chipper still has his."
Dittrich is proud that in 1993, when the all-stars played here, they were given $50 Rolex knockoffs. Another future Hall of Fame inductee, Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees, was among them.
Houston, Chipper's teammate in Macon, struggled through eight lackluster seasons with six big league teams. Chipper is finishing what he says is the final season of a memorable career.
Like so many others, local fans saw them before they were tarnished by time and injury. With Golden Park dark and empty with no prospect of a tenant, it is an opportunity future generations aren't likely to have.
That's a shame, for as John Dittrich says, "Everybody needs someone to hate."
-- Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. He is also found at www.richardhyattcolumbus.com.