Chipper Jones said he was calling it quits after this campaign months ago. He’s supposed to be trying to say goodbye. There might be a small problem: He’s too good for the rest of us to let him quit.
On the latest Chipper Jones bobblehead night, he stepped in against the Padres and clouted a pair of home runs, getting him to 12 for the season. He was already tied with Pablo Sandoval for the second-best OPS+ among NL third basemen, trailing only David Wright of the Mets. Among all third basemen, he’s in the MLB top 10 in slugging, OBP and average. He’s driving in more than 17 percent of his baserunners, between Ryan Braun and Joey Votto in baseball’s top 50.
He is at the top of the game, if not the top of his game, only because of the extraordinary standard he’s set for 19 seasons. And yet this may well be it for Chipper Jones not because he can’t play, but because he might be reaching the point when he simply decides he’s played enough. Even after having hammered career shots Nos. 465 and 466, would sticking around long enough to hit one numbered 500 really change what he’s been to baseball for two decades?
Storybook careers don’t make themselves, and Jones has made his cause for immense pride despite too many interruptions. His rookie season was supposed to be 1994, when he was slotted to move from shortstop to left field to replace Ron Gant. But tearing up his left knee in spring training ended what was supposed to be his first full season before it even began.
Not unlike Mickey Mantle, Jones’ lone rival for the title of greatest switch-hitter, injuries would be synonymous with his career. The Mick famously tore up his knee as a teenager in the 1951 World Series.
But thanks to better treatment options, as well as a stronger commitment to his career than the hard-partying Mantle, Jones has been able to play longer than the Mick did. Mantle quit at 36 in 1968, four years beyond his last truly great season in 1964. At 36, Jones won his first batting title, and he’s cranked out a .276/.374/453 line in the four seasons since (not including Thursday night’s action).
But he’s also had to make five trips to the DL -- two of them for that same left knee that shelved him back in 1994 -- losing 93 games to that dead time spent recovering and rehabbing. Those are above and beyond ballgames lost to the day-to-day assorted aches, pains and injuries he plays through just because he’s Chipper Jones.
We don’t know and we can’t know if a guy is simply tired of trying to do the same thing for a 20th season, no matter what the results are when he plays. Jones has talked about retiring before, particularly in 2010, when he would have potentially added himself as fuel to the pyre in Bobby Cox’s final season as the Braves’ manager before making his own slow journey to baseball Valhalla in Cooperstown. Then Jones tore up that left knee again and nipped retirement talk in the bud on Aug. 13, 2010, when he stated, “I don’t want the fans’ final image of me to be one of me hurt on the field.” Fast-forward 12 months, and on Aug. 19, 2011, Jones squelched talk that maybe that would be his last year by saying he would play in 2012, the “last year” on his contract.
So now it’s August again, and after so much teasing, people have to wonder if this is really it or not. We’ve been here before, and this time around Jones is hitting as well as he ever has in the past four years. As Viking funerals go, this is truly a blaze of glory to go out on.
The Braves also have a $7 million option on him for 2013, an amount that would have been guaranteed for much more than that if he’d been healthy enough to trigger any of its increases. At this point, though, it probably isn’t about the money; perhaps even the bean counters at Liberty Media who hold the purse strings would give him whatever he wanted if he was willing to step back into the traces one more time.
The Braves have the third-best record in the league, while trailing the Nationals in the NL East, and unlike the Nats, their rotation drama is of the happy variety -- having one starter too many instead of the incipient issue of an ace too few. We haven’t seen Chipper Jones in a postseason series since 2005. If Jones was looking for a high note to go out on, this might be the year that 2011 so clearly was not.
But however you frame it -- up, down, in or out -- the big-picture question is whether or not any of us really want a Chipper-free future sooner rather than later. As good as he’s been and as good as he is, I don’t. But I’m selfish that way, and you probably are, too. Even if we don’t really know the price Jones pays to put himself out there, we want to see the greats. The way Jones is hitting, there should be no mistaking him for anything less.
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Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.