© 2012 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.
ATLANTA -- The final lap began that day in Houston, when Chipper Jones insisted on being activated from the disabled list, sans rehab assignment.
Didn't matter that he had missed a couple of weeks of Spring Training and the first few days of the regular season because of knee surgery. Didn't matter that he had taken only a couple of rounds of batting practice. Chipper wanted to be in the lineup, wanted to kick off his 2012 farewell tour.
The result that day was dramatic, almost comically so. Because of course, with so little preparation under his belt and his parents in the stands at Minute Maid Park, Chipper singled in his first at-bat and homered in his second.
"It's not that easy!" teammate Eric Hinske yelled to Jones as he circled the bags after the homer. "It's not that easy!"
Chipper just makes it look that way.
"I think the guys that are Hall of Famers are just touched on the way out [of the womb]," Hinske says now. "When they're born, they're the ones. And he's one of the ones."
Sometimes they're touched on the way out of the game, too, and that's about the best way to describe this victory lap.
Jones has provided a perfect juxtaposition to what's happening out in Anaheim. For while Mike Trout is having one of the best rookie seasons in Major League history, Chipper is having one of the best exits, and his efforts have been instrumental in the Braves grabbing firm hold on a National League Wild Card spot and staying alive in the NL East race with the Nationals.
For the season, Jones is batting .313 with a .916 OPS, 13 homers and 54 RBIs. Despite playing in just 78 games, he's provided 3.1 Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball Reference, his highest WAR total in four years.
But the stats only tell part of the story. Chipper homered in his first home game, he homered on his birthday, he hit a walk-off shot on May 2, he banged out five hits on July 3, he singled in his only All-Star at-bat after giving the National Leaguers a pregame pep talk, and he went deep twice on his bobblehead night last Thursday, the 40th multihomer game of the 40-year-old's career.
"Every once in a while, I just go by him and touch him to make sure he's not a hologram," manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "He's got this knack for the dramatic, for stepping up his game that regular guys don't have."
Nothing about Chipper's accomplishments at this age are what you'd consider "regular." He's on pace to become just the eighth player in the modern era to post a .900 OPS or higher with a minimum of 300 plate appearances at the age of 40 or above. Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Willie Mays, Harold Baines, Barry Bonds (twice) and Moises Alou are the others, and you'll note that Jones is the only infielder among them.
This begs the question: Why stop now? And Jones has been getting that question from every direction this summer.
"I joked with him about it," said Dodgers center fielder Shane Victorino. "I told him, 'Man, you know you got a couple more years in you.' But he's like, 'Shane, I'm done.' And you know, that's what makes it more special. Sometimes in this game, players try to stay around and then they get run out of the game. How many can say, 'I can still hit .300, and I can walk away from this game.' That, to me, is great."
As Jones' body routinely betrayed him in recent years, the speculation about him possibly calling it quits hung over this organization's head. Rather than become baseball's answer to Brett Favre, Jones opted to make it clear midway through Spring Training that this was, indeed, the end of the line.
And no matter how many dramatic moments he creates, he's not backing off that stance.
"I've made my decisions and my promises to my kids," he said. "I'm not going back on that. The bottom line is if I could still play 140-150 games, I wouldn't be quitting. But I can't do it."
Indeed, while the stat line is striking, this has been a typically trying season for Chipper's battered body. He opened the season on the DL following the knee surgery (his third knee operation in three years), and he missed 14 games in late May/early June after suffering a bruised calf.
Beyond what shows up in the transaction wire is what goes on behind the scenes, where the creaks and cracks of 22 years of professional wear and tear make suiting up a daily struggle. Gonzalez has had to be careful with Jones' playing time.
"I want to play every home game," Jones said. "Through texting and through Twitter, people tell me all the time, 'We're coming to games and we hope you're playing, and this is the last time we'll get to see you play.' I take that to heart. But there are just times when I can't do it."
But while his knees provide a daily reminder that the end is near, this season has seen Chipper quite, well, chipper, on the whole. He's been surprisingly active on his new Twitter account (when he used it to complain about a malfunctioning TV set at the team's New York hotel, a maintenance worker immediately showed up at his door), and his teammates note that he's been especially engaged in clubhouse banter.
"I think his favorite part of being in the big leagues now is just the interaction with the guys in here," said Hinske, Jones' locker mate. "What he does on the field is second nature for him. It's what he's been doing his whole life. But I think what he'll miss most when he's gone is the time from 6 til 7, when we're putting our uniforms on and interacting with each other. Because he's not treated like a Hall of Famer in here. We rip on him quite a bit, to say the least."
Chipper's nickname in the clubhouse is "The Battle Ax" -- a phrase oft-reserved for combative old women. And Jones, naturally, has given that phrase double-meaning with the weaponry he's brought to the field.
Had he retired before 2012, Chipper's legacy already would have been secure. He's won an NL MVP Award, he's won a World Series, he's reached the postseason 11 times, he's been a regular participant in the All-Star Game, he's hit more than 400 homers and 500 doubles. He's also in the First Name Club (referring to him as "Jones" in casual conversation just doesn't feel right), and he's played for the same organization from the day he left his senior prom weekend early to sign his first professional contract.
"You think of Chipper Jones," Commissioner Bud Selig said, "you think of the Atlanta Braves."
But whenever or however the 2012 season ends for the Braves, we'll know, thanks to this frenzied final lap, that Chipper Jones left the game with quite a few hits left in the tank.
The ol' Battle Ax can still make this game look easy.