Braves icon Jones wants to leave game with his dignity intact
If Jones doesn't get his swing straightened out, he says he'll likely retire after '10
He has struggled to what is arguably the worst season of a Hall of Fame career
Jones: "I'm not just going to stick around to try and accumulate numbers"
His teammates had long since departed the visiting clubhouse at Citi Field on Tuesday night, but Chipper Jones remained. He had recently caused a stir by saying that he was thinking seriously about retiring after next season, even though he'd still have another two years on his contract. But on this night at least, he was in no hurry to leave. His Braves had just won for the 10th time in 12 games to keep their flickering playoff hopes alive, and Jones seemed to be both pain free and in a happy mood, both rarities for him this season as he has struggled to what is arguably the worst season of a Hall of Fame career.
Just a few moments before, Jones had been laughing with a few fellow Braves about their upcoming team outing on Thursday to play paintball in Washington, D.C., on their off day, which will be his first time playing. But as the room emptied out and talk turned to his retirement rumors and his general state of happiness, his smile quickly vanished.
"It's to the point where if I'm not having fun and if we're not in contention then I'm not just going to stick around to try and accumulate numbers and pick up a paycheck," he said. Asked if he was having fun, he thought for a long moment and said, "I've had more fun this year because we've been winning, but with my not producing, that's been my main concern. I'm not having fun putting up the numbers I have this year."
Those numbers -- especially his career-low totals of home runs (17), RBIs (68) and slugging percentage (.441) -- are, as Braves catcher Brian McCann noted, "pretty good production for a standard player." As McCann well knows from having grown up in the Atlanta area "in awe" of Jones and now from having been a friend and teammate for the past five seasons, Jones is anything but a standard player. He is an MVP and a six-time All-Star. A batting champion with nine 100-RBI seasons and 425 career home runs. One of the five best third basemen in baseball history.
But he is also 37 years old, and there have been days where his aches have been so numerous -- from his surgically repaired knees to his balky back -- that he has needed his wife to push him out of bed some mornings. If he still looks like the same dangerous hitter in the batter's box, his .269 batting average (nearly 100 points lower than his .364 total that won him his first batting crown last year) suggests he isn't. And not being Chipper Jones is unacceptable to Chipper Jones.
"I'm proud of the fact that my standards and everybody else's standards for me are better than this," he said. "I don't want to be an average player."
There are still times when even an old Jones can still be the Jones of old. Like on Monday night at Citi Field, when the 37-year-old future Hall of Famer smoked a three-run home run in front of the Mets fans who love to hate him. But those moments are becoming increasingly rare, and as a result, Jones is becoming increasingly frustrated with his play. Two weeks ago, he went to the batting cage with hitting coach Terry Pendleton and his father, Larry. The three of them think they detected a slight flaw in Jones' approach. "He was trying to rush with his body, trying to do too much," Pendleton said. Everything in Jones swing that had once been so pure, and so purely fun to watch from both sides of the plate, was now a mess. His stride was too long, his hands were too far behind the ball, he was rushing his swing. He wasn't hitting the way he should, and even worse, he didn't know why.
Even after that session, Jones says he still doesn't know entirely what is going on, especially from the left side, and that it will take an entire offseason and "watching a ton of video" this winter to get it fixed. Pendleton says he won't give Jones any winter homework assignments because "he's going to go home and do what he wants to anyway. That's Chipper Jones."
It is entirely possible that Jones finally puts his finger on the problem, corrects it and returns to the Braves hitting the way he has for much of his 16-year-career. "With him, there's not telling, to be honest," Pendleton said. "He might hit .360 again. He's just very talented. He's been blessed with the ability to play this game."
If Jones doesn't get himself straightened out, he says, then next year will almost certainly be his last. His comments caught even the Braves brass that had just signed him in March to a three-year contract extension off guard. "That was a surprise," club president John Schuerholz said. "But it wasn't a big deal. It's probably just from tiredness and frustration." Schuerholz says the news doesn't affect the Braves' plans for this winter anyway. "Every general manager always tries to have two plans at once anyway," he said. "A short-term and a long-range. We're always looking at where are we covered, what have we got, what do we need. That's just standard stuff."
The mere thought of Jones' potential retirement is enough to send shockwaves through the city of Atlanta. Along with the team's revered pitchers, Jones has been the fuzzy-chinned face of the Braves franchise from the moment they made him the first pick in the 1990 draft. The Braves were terrible in those days. But thanks in large measure to Jones, they quickly established the longest sustained run of success in baseball history, winning 14 straight division titles, of which Jones played a leading role on the last 11. Teammate Nate McLouth has been so impressed by the size of Jones' star power in Atlanta since he arrived in town in a trade from the Pirates at midseason that he calls Jones "the biggest athlete in Atlanta," and Pendleton refers to Jones as "this organization's security blanket."
"You can only play so long," McCann said, adding that whenever Jones does leave, "It's gonna be a sad day in Atlanta for sure."
That day is not here just yet, and when Jones finally left the Braves clubhouse on Tuesday night he did so with a smile on his face. He wants to make sure that whenever he finally leaves the game, he does so the same way.
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