Chipper refuses to take a knee on career
Legendary Brave determined to come back, finish on right note
TAMPA, Fla. -- A smile creeps across Chipper Jones' face when he thinks about the nearly 21 years he's spent in the professional game -- all in the Atlanta Braves' organization. It's telling that babies born on the day he signed are now adults nearing their first legal drink.Does it feel like it's been that long? "Mentally? No," Jones says, and here comes that smile. "Physically? Yes." Seven months removed from surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, he's putting on his uniform, getting ready to head out to stretch with his teammates at George M. Steinbrenner Field, where a spring exhibition with the Yankees awaits. He's listed as the designated hitter for the day, because, these days, Chipper has to take the DH days when he can get them.
2010 Spring Training - Atlanta Braves
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Jones has yet to play more than two consecutive days in the field, so the three weeks remaining in camp will be a test of his preparedness to play on an everyday basis. But his knee has responded well to the limited workload, thus far."I have my good days and my bad days," Jones says, "but the bad days are growing fewer and farther between." Remember, it was before tearing his ACL for the second time in his career when Jones was contemplating retirement. In June, the bat that had made him arguably one of the five greatest third basemen in history looked barren, and Jones felt he was no longer of much use to the Braves. It wasn't until a summer spurt of productivity, followed by the challenge that another knee procedure presented, that Chipper felt the competitive drive he would need to come back in 2011. Just as his bat bounced back, he tore the ACL on Aug. 10, ironically on one of the finer defensive plays of his career. Jones fielded a Hunter Pence grounder, ranged into foul territory and jumped high into the air as he made a perfect strike to first for the out. While fans marveled at his feat, Jones felt a pop in the knee and crashed to the ground. In the aftermath, he decided he didn't want the last image of him in a Braves uniform to be that of a man crumpled in a heap after an acrobatic play gone bad. Still, even when he made his announcement last August that he was willing to go through the rehab process and prolong his career for the sake of helping out a Braves team he believes in, Jones had no assurances that his 38-year-old knee would cooperate. "I wasn't able to see it until the last couple weeks," he says. "You always wonder if you're going to be able to feel the same way you did pre-injury. Are you going to be able to run as fast? Are you going to be able to hit from both sides pain-free? Are you going to be able to slide? All those things you really take for granted, centered around your health. "But last week, we were in Viera, playing the Nationals. I walked out to the line to run some sprints, and it was the first time I felt, 'I've got no pain. It feels perfect right now. If I can bottle this up, it would be awesome.' That was when I was like, 'I'm going to be all right.'" The Braves sure hope so. Sports Illustrated cover boys Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman are the offensive future of the franchise. A rotation fronted by Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe, Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson will determine how well-equipped Atlanta will be at countering the Phillies' vaunted arms. And a baby-faced closer named Craig Kimbrel could very well dictate the success of the bullpen. But make no mistake: This is still Chipper Jones' team, at heart. "He's one of the constants, back to the '95 world championship," general manager Frank Wren says. "He's the last piece of that, and I think it's important that he carries that legacy. We feel that, and our fans feel that. He's an important part of our franchise." That he's spent his entire career with that franchise is the kind of thing that rouses respect in an era of manic player movement. From the moment he was made aware that the Braves had chosen him over Todd Van Poppel with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1990 First-Year Player Draft, Chipper has been committed to the organization. So committed that he cut short his prom weekend when he got the news. "It was crazy," Jones says of that time. "It was kind of the culmination of everything that had happened my senior year. I had so much attention and didn't have my mom and dad there, because I was away at boarding school. Handling all that by myself was difficult, as was not getting to experience much of my prom because, quite frankly, my career was starting to overtake my life." The Braves informed Jones' parents that they wanted to speak with Chipper about his signability. Immediately, they tried to get their son on the phone to tell him to get back home. This was before cell phones were standard issue, of course, but somehow word got to Chipper while he and his friends were on the beach. He quickly left his prom and his youth behind and hit the road. "When they made the call," Jones says with another smile, "I was gone." Looking back, it's clear the Braves made the right call in taking Jones over Van Poppel. And the obviousness of that observation is hammered home all the more by the fact that Jones has remained loyal to the organization throughout what is sure to be a Hall of Fame career. Jones initially signed for a $275,000 bonus. Then he received a four-year, $8.25 million deal after his robust rookie year in 1995. A six-year, $90 million extension began in 2001, but the latter portion of that contract was eventually reworked to afford the Braves more financial flexibility to sign other players. Jones' loyalty to the Braves in that process was rewarded when he received a three-year, $42 million extension that began last season. "His last contract, when we sat down, it was real important to him that he finish his career as an Atlanta Brave and be one of that small handful of guys that can say they only wore one uniform," Wren says. "I actually think it was the most important aspect of the contract." Jones admits that had he played in a market with more media scrutiny, he might not have lasted as long in one uniform. But Atlanta, he says, has been a "perfect" fit all the way through. "It's like a regular marriage," he says. "You have to give a little here and there, which I've done and they've done. But for the most part, it's been pretty ripple-free." A potential ripple erupted when Jones met with club officials last June to discuss his possible retirement and what to do about the $28 million remaining on his contract for 2011 and '12. Word quickly got out about these talks, and suddenly it was a major story, in Atlanta and elsewhere. It was certainly a distraction for the Braves for several days, as Jones' status threatened to reach Brett Favre-like "will he or won't he?" levels. Jones was leaning toward hanging 'em up, but then a funny thing happened. He started to hit like Chipper Jones again. No, not the MVP of '99, but certainly an impactful presence in the lineup. And where the knee injury might have been the straw that broke the camel's back in June, in August, it served as a motivating factor to keep going. So here he is, playing in another round of Grapefruit League games and attempting to get back into the flow of everyday duties. Jones knows that even if all keeps going to plan with the knee, he'll need a day or two off each week. "If I can go out and play 130 games or so," he says, "that would be pretty good, one year out of tearing my ACL the second time." While the first tear occurred in 1994, when he was a much younger and, therefore, much more adaptable man, it also occurred before medical advancements sped up the recovery timetable. "It was a 12- or 13-month process the first time I did it," Jones says. "This time, they scoped it and I have no restrictions in six months. If I had been 38 years old and done this in 1994, I'd probably be done right now." But he keeps going. Playing the game he loves and playing it for the only organization he's ever known.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.