LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Chipper Jones has seen enough baseball history to recognize it when it hits him right between the eye-black. His decision to retire is less about achy knees and diminished skills than an acknowledgement that even fairy tales must eventually end. Jones still remembers how messy things got when Tom Glavine and John Smoltz left Atlanta, and he vowed not to subject the Braves to what he calls the same “PR nightmare” all over again.
But Jones did swap one inconvenient truth for another by calling it quits. Over the next six months, he’ll be free to visit parks throughout America without reporters coming over and grilling him on his baseball future — or feeling guilty when the questions spill over to his teammates.
On the other hand, he’s now guaranteed to be up to his eyeballs in golf clubs, fishing equipment, Cuban cigars and Chipper Jones portraits to hang above the fireplace. If things get too crazy, he might even look up in the stands later this summer and see people cheering in New York and Philadelphia.
Starting April 5 against the Mets at Turner Field, the Chipper Jones farewell extravaganza will be under way. And who knows how crazy things will get when the sentiment starts flying.
“I don’t need any rocking chair tours or anything like that,” Jones said. “If somewhere along the line somebody wants to thank me, that would be good enough. But I’m not doing this for a farewell tour. I want to get this out of the way, because it’s been weighing heavy on me for a long time.”
Two hours before a routine Braves-Marlins game Thursday, Jones retired to an upstairs concourse at Champion Stadium and eased his burden. He laughed, cried and waxed philosophical without the benefit of any notes. With Bobby Cox and Fredi Gonzalez seated to his left and John Schuerholz and Frank Wren to his right, he saw his baseball life flash before his eyes.
Eighteen big league seasons. Seven All-Star appearances. A slew of division titles and a World Championship. A .304 career batting average and a Most Valuable Player Award. And all in the same zip code. His cup runneth over.
“There have been times when I probably could have gone out on the free-agent market and seen if the grass was greener,” Jones said. “But I really didn’t think that it was. I never wanted to play anywhere else. I’m a Southern kid, and I wanted to play in a Southern town where I felt comfortable. And I felt comfortable from day one in the Braves organization.”
Jones’ legacy is special, of course, because he symbolizes something so rare these days — the All-American kid who found a home with a franchise and never left. He grew up in Pierson, Fla., the “Fern Capital of the World,” and was deemed a can’t-miss prospect at the Bolles School in Jacksonville, but the Braves didn’t decide to draft him first overall until high school pitcher Todd Van Poppel told them he was determined to attend the University of Texas.
Cox, Atlanta’s general manager in 1990, traveled to Jacksonville to watch Jones play. In those days, Cox told scouting director Paul Snyder to refrain from identifying which prospect they were looking at during pregame stretching, because it might color his perception from the outset. So Snyder remained silent, Cox scanned the line, and it took him about 10 seconds to pick out the phenom in question.
“They didn’t have numbers,” Cox said. “They were working out in their T-shirts. I said Paul, ‘He’s the third guy in the first row from the right.’ And Paul said, ‘You finally got one right.’ That was Chipper Jones. He stood out like a sore thumb.”
Jones had one of the best days of his baseball life, and the Braves selected him first overall ahead of California high school outfielder Tony Clark. Shortly thereafter, Atlanta sent two scouting emissaries to the Jones house to meet with Chipper and his father, Larry Sr. The Braves offered a $250,000 bonus, the Joneses asked for $300,000, and the two sides split the difference at $275,000.
The rest is switch-hitting history. With 454 career homers, Jones ranks third among switch-hitters behind Mickey Mantle and Eddie Murray. He is also third in career OPS (at .935) behind Mantle and Lance Berkman. After Jones delivered his retirement speech Thursday, Cox said he should just save it and recycle it when he goes into Cooperstown on the first ballot.
“Bobby took a flyer on me, and I’ve spent the last 23 years every day trying to make him proud — and not to have him answer questions about why he took some young punk from central Florida with the No. 1 pick,” Jones said. “I was lucky enough to play 17 seasons under Bobby Cox. He’s the greatest manager any of us will ever know.”
Amid the big-picture reflections, it’s funny which little things stand out when a man finally has a chance to exhale. Jones’ eyes welled up Thursday when he acknowledged wife, Sharon, and his young sons. His voice cracked when he thanked his agent and best friend, B.B. Abbott. But the tears really began to fall when he gazed to his left and saw Tim Hudson, Dan Uggla, Jason Heyward and the Atlanta teammates who showed up for his farewell speech.
I never wanted to play anywhere else. I’m a Southern kid, and I wanted to play in a Southern town where I felt comfortable. And I felt comfortable from day one in the Braves organization.
— Chipper Jones
“I’ve been thinking about retirement for quite some time, and I probably have to say the No. 1 reason that I didn’t is because of you guys,” Jones said. “It’s been a pleasure to come to work and play with you guys. Day in and day out you kept me young — as young as a 40-year-old man can be.”
Through the years, Greg Maddux and many other Braves referred to Jones by his given name of “Larry” rather than Chipper. Now that he’s 39 going on 40, Fredi Gonzalez calls him “Battle Ax.” But life in the twilight years has been less of a joking matter of late. Jones has undergone five knee operations and reached the point where every time he charges a bunt or hustles down the line to beat out a chopper, someone in the dugout or an upstairs executive suite instinctively cringes. He has surpassed 140 games in a season only once since 2003.
Jones began pondering the idea of retirement early in spring training, and it built an inexorable momentum. Ten days ago he went around the clubhouse, looked his teammates in the eye and told them it was going to happen, but asked them to keep it quiet while he got his “ducks in a row.” On Monday, he went upstairs to Frank Wren’s office and made it official.
The only certainty is that there’s no turning back. The Braves have a $7 million contract option on Jones for 2013. The deal vests if he appears in 123 games this season, and can increase to $13 million if he appears in 140 games. But Jones gave little or no thought to money when he decided to retire. He wasn’t thinking about the 36 homers that he needs to reach 500 or the 385 hits that could bring him to 3,000, either.
“Chipper could be at 495 home runs, and he’d still walk away if that’s what was in his heart,” Abbott said. “He’s truly at peace with this decision. He’s not going to do a Brett Favre.”
So what comes next? Jones will try to send the Braves out in style in 2012, then spend lots of time at Little League and flag football games. Long term, he lacks the patience, aptitude or interest in managing. But he’s passionate about the art of hitting, and it wouldn’t surprise anyone to see him working in a major league batting cage in a few years.
He leaves it to others to determine his legacy, but there’s some nice generational symmetry at play here. Larry Jones Sr. idolized Mantle and taught his son Chipper to switch-hit in the good old days at Stillmeadow Farm in Pierson, behind the family haybarn and the garage. Young Chipper followed Eddie Murray as a kid. And you can bet that today some aspiring big leaguer in Georgia or Florida is digging his toe in the batter’s box from both sides of the plate and fantasizing that he’s Chipper Jones.
“It blows my mind every time I drive to the stadium and see a family of four walking down the street with the No. 10 on their backs,” Jones said. “To think a kid could be taking practice in his backyard with his father doing all the same things that I did — and trying to emulate me — that’s about as good as it gets.”
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