Following their first marathon game in Washington this week, the Atlanta Braves didn’t board a bus to leave the ballpark until after 1:15 a.m. The next morning, the team’s manager, Fredi Gonzalez pulled out his phone and sent Chipper Jones what he called “a courtesy text.”
“I knew the answer,” Gonzalez said.
“How you feeling?” Gonzalez said he asked.
“Not good,” the veteran third baseman responded.
The back was stiff and knees sore. A 4 ½-hour game with an hour-long rain delay will do that to a 40-year old ballplayer. At one point late that night, Jones passed Nats third base coach Bo Porter on the field and told him, “I’m not going to miss these games whatsoever.”
Wednesday likely marks his last game at Nationals Park. The Braves then travel to San Francisco on Thursday and Jones will have just 38 regular-season games remaining in his major league career. Jones announced before the season that this would be his last, and even though he’s putting up his best numbers in four years, he hasn’t wavered. If anything, games like Monday’s 13-inning affair at Nats Park remind him why he’s hanging up his cleats.
“I was perfectly fine for seven, eight, nine innings. But you start going past that, the knee start barking, the back stiffens up,” he said. “The ball that [Kurt] Suzuki hit, I couldn’t even bend down to get it. I just kicked it. My back just, I couldn’t get down to get the ball.”
Jones sat out Tuesday’s game but was back in the lineup Wednesday. He’s played in 81 of 125 games this season, and even his coaches and teammates say they’re a bit surprised at his production. Jones entered Wednesday’s game hitting .311 — seven points higher than his career average — with 13 home runs and 54 RBI.
In the past 50 years, the only players to top a .310 average after turning 40 are Moises Alou (.341), Stan Musial (.330), Pete Rose (.325), Rickey Henderson (.315) and Harold Baines (.312). And only five 40-plus players ever managed a higher slugging percentage than Jones’s current .519 mark.
“There’s a different look in his eye this year, right from the very beginning,” Gonzalez said. “I always said it’d be a productive year for him, it being his last year. I think that’s a motivator. I don’t think he wants to go out where we roll him out there one game a series, everybody says hi to him and then roll him back in. I don’t think he wants to go out that way.”
Mostly, Jones says, he wants to win one more time. Jones had his first taste of the majors as a 21-year old in 1993. He played on 12 straight Braves teams that reached the postseason. Atlanta made the playoffs just once in the past six years, though, and the Braves recent struggles are going to impact their wild-card chances.
“To do it this year, send him out into the sunset with another ring would be icing on the cake,” said second baseman Dan Uggla.
For Jones and Gonzalez, it’s a balancing act, making sure Jones is in the lineup but also well rested.
“To be honest with you, if I go out and go 0-for-5 and I don’t have any plays in the field, I feel great the next day because I didn’t have to overextend, overexert that kind of stuff,” he said. “But if I go 3-for-4, I’m running the bases and I get four or five plays in the field, the next day I really feel it. So it’s almost a catch-22. The better I do, the worse I feel the next day.”
Because Jones announced his retirement in March, the entire season has become a farewell tour of sorts. The Nats held a ceremony before Wednesday’s first pitch, giving Jones a third base bag autographed by the entire Nats’ team.
“Every last time I go into a park, memories come flooding back — good ones, bad ones, playoff games," Jones said.
For nearly two decades, his influence has extended far beyond Atlanta’s city limits. An eight-time all-star, a former MVP and one of the top switch-hitters the game has seen, his impact has always reached outside the base paths.
“When you think about baseball, you think about him, you think about Derek Jeter – guys who’ve been really good players and have done it the right way,” said Nats’ third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. “For all that the game has been through the past 10, 15 years, you respect the guys who did it the right way.”
While Jones says he’s too focused on the team’s final 38 games to think too much about life beyond this season, the Braves will certainly have their hands full trying to replace him, both on the field and in the clubhouse.
“I don’t know that you can put it in words. He’s been one of the best players to play the game,” said Atlanta General Manager Frank Wren. “When you really look at what he does and what he brings to an organization, it’s immeasurable.”
More on the Nationals:
Boswell: What a difference a year makes
Photos: Scenes from Nats-Braves series