KISSIMMEE, Fla. — After another of those spring training workouts that are increasingly tough to get through, Chipper Jones pulls off his jersey to reveal an undershirt that says, “Slow it down, boys.”
Sounds about right for a guy approaching his 40th birthday.
Even with a boyish nickname and a still-youthful-like passion for the game, there’s no getting around the fact that in less than two months – April 24, to be exact, a few games into his 19th season with the Atlanta Braves – Jones will reach the age that is like 65 to everyone else.
Retirement will be staring him in the face.
“Never in my mid-20s would I have given myself a snowball’s chance to be in a camp and have a job at 40 years old,” Jones said. “But I like to think I’ve kept myself in pretty good shape over the years. The skills are still there to go out and get it done. I don’t know for how much longer, but we’re gonna ride it as long as we can.”
Jones doesn’t need to look at his birth certificate to remember his age. His body tells him every day.
“There’s not a day I wake up that something doesn’t hurt,” Jones said. “There’s not a day goes by that I don’t take some kind of pill or injection, whether it’s an anti-inflammatory or a pain killer or cortisone, whatever it may be, to help me go out there on the field.”
He’s not ready to discuss the r-word, which he came so close to carrying out two seasons ago. He’s got two years left on his contract, and the plan for now is to play it out at third base.
“This could very well be my last spring,” Jones said. “So I’m cherishing every chance I get down here, soaking it all up. The baseball clubhouse, the baseball fraternity, is a unique one. It’s been my second home, my second family for 23 years now (since he was drafted No. 1 by the Braves out of high school). When I do finally to decide hang it up, I’m gonna miss that camaraderie.”
He’s already plotted how he wants to go out. Or, more specifically, how he doesn’t want to go out. He was there for the ugly departures of longtime Braves stars Tom Glavine and John Smoltz.
Jones had frank talks with general manager Frank Wren over the winter, wanting to make sure that he was still a useful member of the team rather than an over-the-hill player trying to hang on.
“I’ve always said as long as I’m productive, I would play. I still feel like I am,” Jones said. “When the day comes (that he’s not), hopefully I will realize it before they do. The last thing I want is what happened to Glav and Smoltzie, where it becomes a P.R. thing. I’d much rather bow out gracefully.”
Former Braves manager Bobby Cox stopped by to watch the Braves go through their drills. He marveled that someone about to turn 40 can still play a physically demanding position.
“To be playing a corner, it’s not easy to still be able to hit and do everything else,” Cox said. “But Chipper has always been in unbelievable shape, and he’s got that baseball attitude.”
The knock against Jones, the one that could keep him out of the Hall of Fame, is that he’s injury prone. If he hadn’t been sidelined so much, he is confident he would’ve reached the benchmarks that pretty much ensure entry into the Hall of Fame: 500 homers and 3,000 hits. As it is, he’ll likely come up just short, heading into this season with 454 homers and 2,615 hits. Still, he’s won a World Series, an MVP award and a batting crown.
“I feel like I probably would’ve gotten those numbers had (the injuries) not happened,” Jones said. “But I’ve done all I can do. I’ll walk away with my head held high, proud of the career I had, regardless of what other people think.”