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Chipper Jones' knee injury is lousy news

"Hopefully it's just a sprain."

That's what Chipper Jones said after hearing a "pop" in his left knee while making a play in the sixth inning of Tuesday night's 4-2 win against the Astros.

It wasn't just a sprain. An MRI this morning revealed an ACL injury that will require surgery. Chipper's out for the season, and maybe forever.

This is lousy news for Jones, because he might not get the chance to exit the game on his own terms. After the brief talk earlier this season about retiring -- and the quick recanting -- he might now have that decision forced upon him.

Which would be, if nothing else, symmetrical. Chipper debuted in the majors in September 1993, but batted only four times. He'd played brilliantly that season in Triple-A, though, and was obviously slated for full-time duties with the big club in 1994.

It didn't happen. In spring training, Jones tore the ACL in his left knee. (Yeah, the same ACL in the same left knee that would tear 16 years later. Some knees have all the luck.) He recovered brilliantly, though, returning to the Braves in 1995 and launching his Hall of Fame-caliber career.

This latest injury is lousy news for the Braves, because they're in the middle of a pennant race, and the last thing they need is losing one of their better every-day players for the rest of the season. But -- and I know this is small solace today -- if the Braves have to lose an every-day player, Jones might be the best one to lose. They'll not be able to replace Chipper's .381 on-base percentage, but with Omar Infante and Brooks Conrad at hand, Bobby Cox at least has some viable options at third base. Cox, in his last season, might have to do one of his greatest managerial jobs to get the Braves into the playoffs.

This is lousy news for us, because we've not had a chance to say our proper goodbyes to the game's greatest third basemen since George Brett and Wade Boggs. I'm reminded of Mickey Mantle, another switch-hitter who didn't seem to enjoy his last season much. That was 1968, when the pitchers' general dominance masked the fact that Mantle was still an effective hitter. Plagued by various aches and pains, Mantle actually played 144 games and actually led the Yankees in home runs and on-base percentage. Nobody said goodbye in 1968, because Mantle didn't; he didn't announce his retirement until spring training the next year.

But maybe Chipper won't retire. Knee surgery and rehab is grueling, but he's done it before and almost won a Rookie of the Year Award. Maybe he'll do it again and become the Comeback Player of the Year in 2012. And there is the small matter of the large contract; the Braves owe Jones $13 million in 2011 and another $13 million in 2012. I'm not saying he won't just walk away from $26 million ... but would you?

My guess is that we've seen the last of Larry Wayne Jones.

But I've guessed wrong a thousand times. I hope this makes a thousand and one.