To see exclusive AJC video of Jones’ first swings since surgery, click here.
Chipper Jones’ swing looked the same as it always does, only he was sporting baggy gray sweatpants to go with the familiar tobacco dip in his bottom lip, the toe tap and the sweet level follow-through.
If Jones was favoring his surgically-repaired left knee Friday morning, it didn’t look like it, when he got back into the batting cage for the first time in five months since his career was threatened by a torn knee ligament.
“Swing never changes,” marveled former Brave and current Giants infielder Mark DeRosa, who joined Jones and Brian McCann for a turn in the cages at Turner Field. “It’s the same as when I first watched him take bp in the minor league cages in the spring of ’96.”
Jones started out with soft toss from Braves coach Terry Pendleton, 8-10 swings from the left side, 8-10 from the right. Then he stepped in, familiar red batting gloves holding the blond Rawlings bat, to take pitches from Pendleton, centering ball after ball, five rounds in all, until announcing to DeRosa the familiar “coming out.”
He came out encouraged.
“I could not be happier with the way it went in there,” Jones said.
He warmed up to about 75 percent effort, he said, reaching the occasional 85-90 percent. He said he stopped thinking about his knee after the first swing or two and got back to “just hitting again.”
It looked that way to McCann, who told Jones after one of his turns “You’re ready.” Braves reliever Peter Moylan, who was watching nearby, sent off a tweet from his cell phone: “Look out Braves fans, Chipper is on fire in the cage.”
Jones got a handshake from Braves general manager Frank Wren, who came down from his office with assistant GM Bruce Manno to take in some of his first swings.
“Looked good,” Wren told him.
For where he is, almost five months removed from surgery, Jones believes he’s right where he needs to be. “The knee is sound,” he said.
That doesn’t mean he would feel comfortable playing today – he said he needs more baseball activity to build up his leg strength – but he’s confident he will be ready come March 31 at Washington.
He’ll enter spring training next month right at the six-month mark, which is the typical recovery time from the surgery, in which he had a cadaver tendon transplanted into his knee arthroscopically.
“I thoroughly expect to be the Opening Day third baseman,” said Jones, who also tempers his chances with realism. “But I have days where I go down in the weight room and I think there’s no way. But today I feel like that there’s no doubt that I’ll be the Opening Day third baseman.”
Jones knows he’ll have more bad days to get through. But none so far would qualify as a setback. He had some pain one day in November when he stepped in a hole on a hunting trip. And he’s had to back off some weight-lifting from time-to-time but nothing has gotten him off track from his overall regimen for recovery.
“Going through something like this again, there are going to be times when it’s awfully discouraging,” Jones said. “You sit back and think ‘What are you doing?’ And you wake up the next day and you feel great. I’m going to continue to have bad days, probably on into spring training and during the season. But there are enough good days to reaffirm my belief that I can go out and play at a high level.”
Wren has been encouraged too. He has Martin Prado ready to move from left field to third base if necessary, but at this point that’s just a contingency.
“He’s not the Chipper Jones of his MVP year in ‘99, we know that,” Wren said. “But he makes a difference, and we saw that in August and September after we lost him.”
Jones knew he would draw some extra eyes in the cage Friday morning. He was ready. He seemed to welcome them.
He’s heard – and read – the doubt in some fans’ minds about whether at nearly 39 he can come back and be the same hitter that has anchored the Braves lineup for the past 16 years.
“I’ve read some blogs over the course of the offseason and everybody is sort of writing me off,” Jones said. “And to be honest with you, I listen to the radio and I hear ads for season tickets, and they’re all about ‘Come out and see (Jason) Heyward, McCann, Prado.’ It’s like I don’t even exist anymore.”
He broke into a familiar grin. It’s all the more motivation for him.
“Guys on blogs have got prospective batting lineups and I’m hitting seventh and eighth,” said Jones, who has hit third his entire career. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘Wow. Out of sight, out of mind, I guess.’”
Mixed with the motivation, Jones admits there are still some fears. Not about hitting though, Jones said.
It’s about how he’ll react the first time a groundball comes down the third base line like the ball off the bat of Houston’s Hunter Pence on Aug. 10, which he fielded, planted, and leapt to throw across his body in one spectacular motion, only to tear his anterior cruciate ligament.
But Jones said putting that ball in his pocket, trying to protect himself is not an option.
“My mindset is to come out and prove to everybody that I can do everything that I was able to do pre-injury,” Jones said. “If I come out and shy away from doing something because I’m scared I’m going to get hurt, everybody is going to say ‘Oh he can’t do it anymore’ and that’s my worst fear.”
Jones said it’s similar to the motivation he had the first time he tore his left knee ligament in 1994, before he took over at third base for Pendleton as a rookie in 1995.
“The one thing I didn’t want to hear the entire year was ‘TP would have made that play,’ or ‘You’re no TP,’” Jones said. “I don’t want to hear the fact that I can’t make the slow-roller play, or I can’t make a play down the line and jump and throw to first. I don’t want to hear it.”
Jones said he doesn’t want to hear, come April 24 on his birthday, that he’s 39 and can’t do it anymore. And he thinks he took his first step toward taking care of that on Friday.
It was a message he wasn’t necessarily trying to send to fans either, but Wren and Manno.
“I want to set those guys minds at ease,” Jones said. “Hopefully after today, it was just a little glimpse of ‘You know what? You don’t have to worry about anything at third base. I’m going to be fine.””