ATLANTA — With one last trip to the postseason assured – albeit maybe for just nine innings – Chipper Jones is relishing the final days of his last season.
Atlanta, which clinched a wild-card spot on Tuesday night, is still chasing the Washington Nationals in the National League East. That’s not all that motivates the 40-year-old Jones to keep playing every day.
Jones, who plans to retire after the season, normally rests his aching knees every few days. Not this week. He said he’s starting every game in the six-game homestand that ends Sunday because he doesn’t want to disappoint fans coming to see him play.
“I just feel bad sitting out,” Jones said. “A lot of people are coming from all over the country to watch me play, to say goodbye, and I’m going to be out there.
“Now how much I’m out there, where we sit in the standings is going to have a lot to do with that, but I plan on starting every game.”
Jones, hitting .295 with 14 homers and 62 RBI, remains a key part of Atlanta’s lineup. He hit cleanup Thursday night against the Marlins.
The Braves will honor Jones before Friday night’s game against the Mets.
Commissioner Bud Selig said the celebration will be special because Jones has accomplished the rare feat of playing his full career with one team.
“Maybe it’s the generation I was brought up in, but here’s a player who was here 19 years, a great player, great on the field, but he played here as Robin Yount did in Milwaukee for me or George Brett in Kansas City and Derek Jeter in New York,” Selig said when he visited Atlanta in August.
“It means so much. You think of Chipper Jones, you think of the Atlanta Braves and I can see how much it means. How much has it meant to baseball? More than I think people can count. It means a great deal.”
Atlanta’s Eric Hinske, who sits beside Jones in the clubhouse, said he knows it hasn’t been easy for the third baseman to make it through the season.
“He hurts. His body hurts a lot, so it’s no surprise to me that he doesn’t want to continue to do it,” Hinske said Thursday. “Every day when he walks in, he does not look like he’s in good shape. But when he gets himself fired up and ready to go, he still can perform on the field. Obviously, his numbers are speaking for themselves at 40 years old.”
Jones’ career numbers are expected to earn him a spot in the Hall of Fame.
Jones’ 468 home runs are the third-highest total for switch-hitters, behind Mickey Mantle (536) and Eddie Murray (504). His 1,623 RBI are the most for a third baseman, passing Brett and Mike Schmidt this season.
He hit .319 with 45 homers and 110 RBI in 1999, when he was named NL MVP. He won the NL batting title in 2008, when he hit .364.
He has a .305 career batting average and has never had 100 strikeouts in a season.
“He is, in my mind, the best third baseman to ever play the game,” Hinske said. “To sit here for three years next to him and see what he does and what he goes through, he’s all in. He’s been all in his whole career.
“He is who he is because he’s the one. He’s the guy. When he was born, he was touched on the way out. ‘You’re Chipper Jones.’ He even got a cool name.”
And Jones has a flair for the dramatic. He has hit two game-ending homers against the Phillies this season. His double set up Freddie Freeman’s ninth-inning homer that gave the Braves a 4-3 win over the Marlins on Tuesday night, clinching at least a wild-card spot.
“I mean, he hit two home runs on his bobblehead night. Who does that?” Hinske said of Jones’ big game against the Padres on Aug. 16.
Jones was drafted by the Braves with the first overall pick in 1990, when Bobby Cox was the general manager. Cox then was the Braves’ manager most of Jones’ career and is expected to be part of Friday night’s ceremony honoring Jones.
Jones was one of the Atlanta players who predicted Cox would never retire because he’s a baseball man. Now Jones has one week remaining in his final regular season, and he’s facing the same questions Cox faced when he retired after the 2010 season.
“Call me crazy, I don’t think you’ve seen the last of Bobby and I know you probably haven’t seen the last of me,” Jones said. “I know I’m going to want to be back in a uniform in some capacity later on in life, but I have other priorities I feel outweigh that in the very near future.”
But first there is one more postseason appearance for Jones, the only remaining player from the Braves’ 1995 World Series championship team.
Jones has played in 12 postseasons. He wants to enjoy the playoffs this year with some teammates, including Freeman, closer Craig Kimbrel and shortstop Andrelton Simmons, who will be playing in their first postseason.
If the Braves wind up as the wild card, they’ll have a one-game, winner-take-all matchup against the other wild-card team to advance.
“I want so much for these guys to be able to have a playoffs-type adrenalin, and that atmosphere is what it’s all about,” Jones said. “Which one of these guys is going to step up and be a hero? I’m excited to see all that.
“At the same time, when it’s over, that big gust of wind you’ll feel is me exhaling.”