John Bazemore/Associated Press file photo
Chipper Jones still has those glorious moments, the kind that every ballplayer cherishes, from a Little Leaguer just starting out to a 40-year-old on the way out.
When the Atlanta Braves third baseman was amid his first two-homer game in more than three years, he went back to the clubhouse for a sip of water. He wound up spilling the glass all over himself.
“I was shaking so bad coming down off that adrenaline high,” Jones said. “It took me an inning or so to shake it off.”
He loves that feeling. Treasures it.
The hits keep on coming, too. Jones homered again on the first pitch he saw Friday against the Los Angeles Dodgers, his third in two nights. He was leading the team with a .317 average.
But nothing will change Jones’ mind about retirement. This will be his final season, no doubt about it.
“I made my decision; I made promises to my kids. I can’t go back on that,” Jones said. “When I have nights like (his two-homer performance Thursday), it’s really cool. I’ll never forget ’em. But I’m ready to do something else.”
This has turned out to be quite a farewell season for a player who has spent his entire career with the Braves. In just his 77th game, he had 13 homers and 54 RBIs, far exceeding what manager Fredi Gonzalez was expecting – especially when Jones, in what has become a frustrating ritual late in his career, underwent arthroscopic knee surgery in spring training and started the year on the disabled list.
Jones had one other stint on the DL, after getting hit on the leg with a line drive, but he’s been relatively healthy since early June. Oh, sure, he never wakes up without something hurting, and the Braves have to give him regular off days in hopes of getting him through his final season without any major issues. But this isn’t Mickey Mantle in his final year, barely able to walk, or Willie Mays, a sad shadow of himself late in his career.
This guy still can play.
“If I tell you, yes, this is what we expected, I would be lying to you,” Gonzalez said. “This year, he’s exceeded our expectations. He’s stayed healthy. He’s done a good job, and we’ve done a good job of giving him an off day every once in a while just to keep him fresh. We communicate constantly about that. It’s been good. We need to ride him again deep into, what is it now, November?”
Opponents say not much is different in the player who has been beating up on them for close to 20 years, all of them spent in that familiar uniform with a tomahawk across the front.
“He’s just got that sweet stroke, real easy; everything looks smooth,” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. “He seems to come up big all the time.”
The Braves are hoping to extend Jones’ run as long as they can. They are leading the NL wild-card race and still have a shot at chasing down first-place Washington in the NL East. If nothing else, they want to erase the sting of last year’s collapse in the final month, which cost Atlanta a playoff spot on the last day of the season. Even more galling: St. Louis, the team that passed the Braves, went on to capture an improbable World Series title.
No matter what happens the rest of this season – good or bad – Jones insists his decision to retire is set in stone.
“The bottom line is, if I could still go out there and play 140 to 150 games a year, I wouldn’t be quitting,” he said. “But I can’t do it anymore. It’s not fair to the guys on the club. It’s not fair to Frank (general manager Frank Wren), and it’s not fair to Fredi.”
Gonzalez joked around with Jones about staying another season, but he has made no serious attempt to change his mind. The manager simply is trying to enjoy the ride for as long as he can. Everyone on the team is. Heck, the whole city appears to be getting in on this retirement party.
More than 33,000 turned out Thursday – more than the previous two nights combined – to collect a Chipper bobblehead. They cheered his every move, giving Turner Field a playoff feel even though it’s still August. Right on cue, Jones delivered not one but two home runs, his first multihomer game since 2009.
“Every once in a while I go by and touch him just to be sure he’s not a hologram,” Gonzalez said before batting practice Friday. “He’s got this weird – well, maybe weird isn’t the right word – but he’s got this sense of the dramatic. Even his teammates are in awe.”
In his first game of the season, coming off the DL without even bothering to go on a rehab assignment, Jones homered with his parents in the stands. As he rounded the bases, teammate Eric Hinske was screaming in the dugout, “It’s not that easy!”
For most guys, sure. But Jones always seems to elevate his game on special occasions. On the day he turned 40, he homered again. Even on something as silly as bobblehead night, he came through with his best performance yet.
“We get motivated to play every night, but there are certain nights that are special, whether certain family members are in the seats, or it’s your birthday, or it’s bobblehead night, whatever,” Jones said. “You always want to make a splash and bring people to their feet.”
He’s still doing it, but that won’t bring him back for another year.
This ride almost is over.
Rainier Ehrhardt/Associated Press file photo