ATLANTA -- Here’s Chipper Jones, age 40, still playing a boy’s game. He looks surprisingly young doing it, too. And more than three months before the holidays, he’s unwrapping presents.
The Cardinals tossed him a signed jersey from Stan Musial (one of Chipper’s teammates joked that Chipper and Musial must’ve played in the All-Star Game together). The Red Sox gave him the number “10,” his jersey number, from the Green Monster scoreboard. The Rockies handed him a miniature camera to mount on his bow, making it easier for him to hunt, allowing him to take aim at deer the way he did the Rockies’ pitching.
No need to pick on the Rockies, though. Jones has traumatized teams all over the National League. And as the leading hitter for a playoff contender, he is showing amazing bat speed and power in his 18th and final season. If nothing else, he knows how to make an exit.
Jones’ hair-raising walk-off homer off Phillies reliever Jonathan Papelbon on Sunday is the season high (so far) for Chipper and the Braves, a flailing team still living with the memory of swallowing a watermelon and losing the 9 ½-game wild-card lead they carried into last September.
Before Chipper’s three-run blast, they had started their slide a month early, losing 10 of 14 games coming into this month, their slim hold on the wild-card lead starting to feel greasy. It was the kind of tense situation that begged for leadership, someone who’s been there and done that. The Braves have younger and healthier players than Jones, and maybe even better players. But Chipper said: “With two outs and the bases loaded in the ninth inning, I don’t want anyone up there but me. That’s the mentality I’ve always had and that’s never gonna stop. I don’t care if I’m 40 or 60.”
Just four hours after he puffed his chest with that pre-game comment, he took Papelbon deep to right and caused bedlam at Turner Field: a 40-year-old circling the bases and tossing his helmet skyward before getting mobbed at the plate, laughing and frolicking like a kid.
“It was certainly one of those games I’ll never forget,” he said. “Nothing beats that. That’s as good as it gets for a baseball player, being able to walk off the field, especially in our situation.”
The Braves will not soon forget what happened in the early evening hours of Sept. 2. It was just another example of how Chipper is making his last season a lasting season, hitting .302 (through Monday) with 14 homers and 58 RBIs despite playing just 89 games. He had five hits on July 3 against the Cubs, and hit another walk-off homer against the Phillies back in May. He homered twice on his Bobblehead Night. He’s still penciled into the middle of the lineup. There are times when he’s pitched around, an honor that amuses him, but also one that’s deserved. Because while his knees may ache and his gut keeps getting thicker, his swing in the twilight remains surprisingly pure and easy.
“We’re thankful for Chipper,” said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez. “We’ve always been thankful for him, because of what he’s done for the franchise all these years, but even now he’s important for us. And that’s what is special about him. Where would we be without him? Even at his age, we still depend on him.”
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The bear hugs from teammates and parting gifts from rival teams are piling up, but why stop now? Why is Jones winding down his farewell tour and standing firm on plans to retire?
“Well, I made a promise,” he said, “that I intend to keep.”
Whenever the season ends for the Braves, Jones will walk away from the only major-league team he’s ever known, away from the game that put him on a first-name basis with the world, away from the opportunity to keep tormenting the Mets. He’ll keep walking until he reaches Cooperstown -- but before then, he’ll detour to his backyard, toting his four boys and trying to raise them the way his dad raised him.
It’s very simple, actually: Chipper wants to confine his baseball skills to a game of catch.
“I told my boys I’m going to spend my time with them,” he said, and as much as Jones means to the Braves, his boys need him more. It’s the only proper thing to do when you’re nicknamed Chipper, as in “chip off the old block.”
It’s difficult to leave while the skills are still major-league ready, so that paternal pull must be powerful.
“The simple fact is some days, my body doesn’t allow me to go out there and do all the things I’ve done before,” he said. “But when I do go out there and look at the video board and see my average as I step to the plate, at least I know my production in general is still there. And that’s quite gratifying. People have said I’m over the hill, and you know what? They’re right. I am. I’m old. But it’s nice to know I can still hit in the lineup and help us win games.”
What runs through the vast memory bank of a ballplayer as he approaches the end of a farewell tour? The World Series he won? The ones that got away? Being a first-time batting champion at age 36, when he hit .368 and just missed Mickey Mantle’s record percentage for a switch hitter? The MVP season? The tomahawk chop? All those games in the Georgia humidity? All those Bobby Cox ejections?
The Chip often thinks about the Old Block, and those early days in the backyard by the barn where he and his father bonded over a game of catch. And he’ll wonder if he can be that good a father to his own boys.
“I want to be there for them,” he said. “I want to be like my dad. And I need to do a better job. Because he was there for me.”
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That’s really the essence of Jones, and what’s driven him since the Braves plucked him first overall in the 1990 draft. Beneath it all, he’s still a daddy’s boy, still hoping for the stamp of approval, the soft arm around the shoulder. Besides the usual fatherly duties, Larry Jones coached baseball at the local high school and allowed Chipper to tag along with a borrowed glove and an oversized helmet. They hit pitches together in the backyard with a sawed-off PVC pipe. That Norman Rockwellian upbringing eats away at Chipper: Because of his unique circumstances, his own fatherhood experience is completely different.
Professional athletes, especially those like Jones who are lucky enough to play for decades, don’t raise their kids like most normal fathers. They can’t. They’re rarely around. And if they don’t live with the mother, those kids grow up watching their famous dads mostly on TV. Heart-to-heart talks take place via text message. You simply can’t be a baseball player and a perfect father -- two months at spring training, then 162 games over six months and then a stretch run in October if a player is fortunate, doesn’t allow for it. So it’s one or the other, All-Star player or All-Star pops.
“That’s one of the trade-offs I feel bad about,” said Jones. “It’s the sacrifice we make.”
What’s more complicated for Jones is he and his boys don’t live together under the same roof, and therefore don’t share the same experiences that he did with his father. The oldest, Matthew, lives in Michigan. His mother never married Chipper. While it’s not an ideal situation, it’s as good as it can possibly be from a distance. Matthew is now 14 and plays baseball. Trey, the next oldest, isn’t actually a chip off of Chipper -- he doesn’t care for sports. He’s into computers, which is more than fine with Chipper, who says Larry Jones III “will someday make more money than all of us put together.”
Shea is named after the Mets’ former stadium, the site of some of Chipper’s best games. He and Tristan are 7 and 6, respectively. Along with Trey, they’re the children Chipper had with his second wife, Sharon. He toted the boys to Kansas City and the All-Star Game, where they frolicked in the outfield and shagged flies. But midway through his farewell tour, Chipper confirmed he and Sharon would separate after 12 years of marriage.
The challenges he’ll face as a father, then, will be as steep as any he saw in the majors, if he strives to build the kind of life he had with his own father. From a practical standpoint, Chipper knows that’s next to impossible. Different situations, different men, different times.
“My dad was a high school baseball coach and a teacher,” Jones said. “We were together. There was a lot more interaction between me and my dad. And that’s why it’s time for me to retire. I think I’ve proven that, at 40, I can go out and produce. But I don’t want that lifestyle anymore. I don’t want to live out of a suitcase for nine months and be a part-time father. I want more of an everyday influence with my boys.
“I want to do little things with them, you know, like picking them up from school. And backyard time. Running pass patterns on the football field. Shooting hoops. One thing I’ve never done with my family is go on a summer vacation. What does that feel like? I don’t know. I’m about to know. I’ve never gone on a spring break with them, either. All those things I’m going to have time to do. I’m going to catch up. And I’m going to do it next year. I’m looking forward to it.”
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Larry Jones never walked in his son’s shoes, never dealt with the demands of being a major leaguer, the temptation and the celebrity and the months spent on the road. He never went through a divorce or a separation. So he can’t relate to all that. But he is a father, and his son is a father.
“I’ve had the chance to live a dream that every dad who takes his son to the backyard ever dreamed,” he said. “My wife and I have lived vicariously through him. There are a lot of people in our position who will deny that. Well, we won’t. There’s a part of me that wishes he could play forever. But I love the fact that he’s able to go out on his terms, while he’s still productive, and move on to the next phase of his life. And if he’s nearly as successful in that phase as he was in baseball, then he’s going to be a great dad. He’s going to be a better dad because he’s going to be around more. His kids worship the ground he walks on and nothing can enhance that relationship more than just being around.”
A fair number of other kids influenced by Jones are now grown up and working inside the Braves’ clubhouse. One is a local: Jason Heyward, a fluid outfielder who could be the face of the franchise starting next season, was raised watching Chipper. Heyward and his teammates admire how Chipper never took himself too seriously, but always carried himself with dignity and respected the game.
The entire package of talent and loyalty to one organization will likely prove irresistible to voters when Jones becomes eligible for the Hall of Fame. In his younger days, the ball would rocket off his arm from third base. The hitting? Well, Jones won’t reach any of the magic milestones. He can blame his body for that; injuries cost him his 3,000 hits and 500 homers. But he’s perhaps the best switch hitter since Mantle, with 1,600 runs and 1,600 RBIs and a career average of .300. Those numbers, when combined, are magical enough.
“He’s just a baseball player,” said John Schuerholz, the Braves’ general manager for most of Chipper’s career. “He loves the game and what’s more important is he honors and respects the game. And he demands that from those around him.”
With the Braves embarking on a potentially stressful September, given their misery of a year ago, Jones is being careful in the clubhouse. He reads the tea leaves and realizes this isn’t the time to make demands on a struggling team that could prove fragile and vulnerable to another collapse.
“When I feel something needs to be said, I say it. But I don’t want to harp on the past or harp on yesterday or harp on tomorrow,” he said. “Just show up today. Any other approach is just not good. We are mindless numbskulls. We need to think as little as possible. We’re routine oriented. We’re regimented. Any break from that routine makes us start thinking.”
Gonzalez is already tinkering with the lineup, elevating Chipper to third in the order, clearly hoping Jones saved enough fuel for the stretch run. While he hit .365 in May and .364 in July, Chipper cooled to .259 in August. He admits the season has worn on him physically, even though the Braves have and will continue to ration his plate appearances. Jones is quick to remind anyone that he’s had surgeries and missed many games in the past when he was younger.
“I’m not fresh at all,” he said. “Actually, I’m stale beyond belief right now.”
He laughed. Then, turning serious, he said: “It’s all hands on deck. With the number of games we have remaining in the regular season, I can make it work.”
He says he won’t regret walking away now, even though his bat continues to make contact. Even though he just sent a shiver through the humid air inside Turner Field with a mighty blast on Sunday that caused the stadium to shake. He still has more to give, a bit more, but after this season, the next time he takes BP, it’ll be with a rubber ball. And the bat will be a sawed-off PVC pipe.
Chipper Jones is going to the backyard and taking his boys with him. He needs to work on his new game.