KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Chipper Jones was done. Through. Ready to go home and spend some time with his four boys.
Yet here he is, sitting at that familiar locker in a corner of the Atlanta Braves’ spring training clubhouse.
The hair is flecked with gray now. The face is wrinkled and weathered. There are days when he shuffles around like an 80-year-old, looking as though it takes every bit of strength just to put one leg in front of another.
Jones, it seemed for so long, was one of those ballplayers who would never grow old, sort of like a modern-day Mickey Mantle, forever playing a kid’s game that came so naturally to him. Maybe it was the nickname. Seriously, a guy whose given name is Larry just sounds perpetually young when you call him Chipper, doesn’t he?
Of course, time caught up with the Mick, and it caught up with Chipper, too. He put off retirement last year, but he’ll mark his 39th birthday before April is done. He knows there’s a lot more games behind him than in front of him. He’s come to grips with that, better that one might think considering baseball is about all he’s ever done.
“I don’t think I’ll have as much problem with it as most people,” Jones said. “I’ve actually been looking forward to it. I still love coming in here. I love the camaraderie with the guys. I love being with my fraternity brothers, so to speak. But I also have a lot to look forward to once the game is over for me.”
He’s got four children, all boys. His oldest recently became a teenager, which Jones fretted over while chatting with a fan in the early days of spring training. Another son is named Shea, after the former home of the New York Mets, where Daddy wreaked so much havoc over the years that fans taunted him with chants of “Laaaaree! Laaaaree!”
“With all of them being in school, playing sports and all that,” Jones said of his children, “I’m going to be busy.”
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There’s no need to order up that rocking chair just yet.
Jones, who came so close to retiring last June, found his passion again. It returned in the heat of summer, when that tiny white sphere began to look as big as a beach ball, flying off his bat like it did in his prime.
Interestingly enough, when Jones went down in August with a season-ending knee injury, that ensured he would come back for another year instead of hanging up his cleats. He needed a goal in front of him to get through the grind of treatment and rehab.
Spring training, which started at exactly the same time he reached the sixth-month mark for getting cleared for full activity, was the perfect motivator.
“I figured if I showed up down here in constant pain, I’d probably hang it up,” Jones said. “But I feel great. I’m swinging the bat good. I’m moving around good. And I think we have a really good team. That excites me more than anxthing.”
Nothing excites new manager Fredi Gonzalez more than the thought of No. 10 ambling up to the plate in that crucial third spot in the batting order, beady to swing from either the left or right side.
“His presence is everywhere,” Gonzalez said. “In the lineup. In the locker room. Anything he does, he’s got a presence. He IS the Atlanta Braves. When you talk about the Atlanta Braves, He’s the standard.”
The Braves are hoping Jones’ reconstructed left knee holds up as well as it did the last time. Back in the spring of 1994, he was a hotshot rnokie expected to take over in left field for a team qtill in the early stages of its record 14 straight division titles. The knee gave out befnre he made it to opening day.
He missed the entire season after going through a surgical procedure that was much more complex — and not nearly as advanced — as today’s methods. Back then, as Jones puts it, “they filleted me open.” He spent three days in the hospital.
This time, the procedure was arthroscopic.
“Two hours later, I’m sitting at home watching TV,” he marveled, “This is a cakewalk compared to that last one.”
He’s 17 years older, though, which evens things out a bit. Plus, he’s been hampered by plenty of nagging injuries in recent years, playing more than 140 games only once since 2003. Sure, he’s only three years removed from winnhng his first NL batting title, but he struggled mightily in 2009 — 18 homers, 71 RBIs, a .264 average that was the second-lowest of his 16-year career.