LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Entering his 18th season in the majors, Chipper Jones is again a focus of attention as the soon-to-be 39-year-old third baseman attempts to come back from major knee surgery, the second of his career.
Since the beginning of the 1995 season, he ranks among major league leaders in many major offensive categories with 2,488 hits (fifth), 1,503 runs (fourth), 436 home runs (eighth, tie), 1,491 RBIs (fourth), 1,403 walks (third) and 492 doubles (fifth).
Jones has had one of the best spring trainings of his career, and is determined to defy skeptics who didn’t think he’d make it back — or doubted he could still be an integral part of a winning club if he did return. He said his surgically repaired knee has been pain-free for three weeks.
We sat down for a candid, wide-ranging Q&A before the team left spring training. This is the second part of the two-part interview (if you missed it, the first part is posted here).
How hard is it, as a ballplayer, to raise a family?
Probably the single most difficult thing to do as a professional ballplayer. Only baseball players, wives of baseball players and kids of baseball players can attest to how difficult it is day in and day out. I mean, you miss so many firsts. You miss so many opportunities to bond with your family. And at times, it puts a strain on your relationship.
It’s very difficult being away as much as we are. For example, we’ve been down at spring training for seven weeks, or I’ve been down here for seven weeks. All my kids are in school, and my wife came down for one week in February and just made it back down yesterday. So it’s been a month in-between seeing my wife and kids, and really the only reason she came down was because it’s our anniversary, just as a special occasion.
It’s very difficult. But you’ve got to trust each other, and you’ve got to have a strong woman. Because, you know, she’s basically a single parent for more than half the year.
Is it frustrating that fans don’t understand that?
I’ve never really gotten the feeling that fans have been frustrated with me. I think that’s one of the things that you have to learn as a baseball player – you’ve got to learn to say no. People don’t understand what your life is like on a daily basis, and that when the day is over, when your job is over, your main concern is to get home and kiss your kids before you tuck them into bed, or soak up whatever kind of time you can with them. And that the autographs and the public appearances have to be put on the back burner.
To a certain extent, when you hear frustration from fans it is a little disheartening. But you don’t hold a grudge, because they just don’t quite understand it.
What does hunting do for you, and it is similar to what golf does for some others?
I think so. I think everybody has their refuge, their place of tranquility. And for me it’s going out and climbing a tree, sitting there and experiencing nature. I mean, the actual harvesting of an animal is secondary, compared to what it does for me mentally. It allows me to recharge my batteries, make big decisions in my life, and the ability to be able to not be me for an extended period of time. I don’t have to worry about getting recognized, I don’t have to worry about cellphone reception, all that kind of stuff. It’s just a place where I can go and get away from everything.
How many guns do you own, and what’s the most expensive one?
Oh, I probably own 10 or 11 guns. The most expensive on the open market would probably be a gun that I didn’t actually pay for – Mizuno bought me a 7-millimeter Magnum that’s custom-made, just a beautiful gun. I’ve probably shot it maybe four or five times. They got it for me for winning MVP [in 1999], because they knew that I’d love it and I’d use it. But it’s too pretty to use. I mean, I don’t know how expensive it would be, but I would have to say of all the guns I own, if you put them up for sale that would probably be the most expensive one.
What was the favorite car you’ve owned. I know you once mentioned to me the T-top Camaro you had when you played at Macon and would blast rock ‘n’ roll on the stereo….
No, that was a Corvette. That was probably my favorite. My parents got me a Ford Probe for graduation. And when I signed with the Braves, I was having a lot of trouble with the Probe; somebody actually poured sand in my gas tank, and I just had tons of problems with it. And I just got to the point where I was like, you know what, I’m going to go out and get another car. I ended up getting the 1991 ZR1 Corvette, which was pretty similar to the Mercedes, but it was fun car. [Jones bought an expensive Mercedes-Benz later in his career and said after six months of running great, it “drove like a John Deere tractor.”]
Did you ever hit balls as hard as Jason Heyward does?
Is that possible? No, I don’t think I did. You’re talking about a 6-5, 240-pound behemoth of a 21-year-old. That’s part of his allure; he does things that most guys can’t do.
Did you ever tell him you did?
Oh, yeah. Most definitely. [Smiles.]
What’s the secret to you being able to seemingly flick the bat, not even have a great swing or a good pitch to hit, and still drive one 400-plus feet out of the ballpark, like you’ve done a few times in the past couple of years?
That’s just understanding your swing and understanding the mechanic of timing. Of timing a pitcher and making sure that your hands and your hips explode at the same time, and quite obviously the hand-eye coordination to be able to flush it. A lot of people have asked me that question. Obviously I swing a little bit bigger bat than most people. When you get that bigger bat into the right position and make solid contact, the ball’s going to travel a little bit farther. That’s the only way I can explain it.
How long does backspin take for a hitter to be able to develop? What’s the key to doing that? Is that a big thing for most home-run hitters?
Yes. I think backspin is the product of a sound swing. It comes from your mechanics being correct. When you get a level to downward plane going through the strike zone, you’re going to get backspin. If you have a slight uppercut, or a drastic uppercut, you’re going to promote topspin.
What size bats are you using, and how has that changed in recent years?
I’m swinging 35-inch, 33-ounce. I’ve gone down an ounce from three or four years ago, just because I went through a phase in my career where I was having trouble squaring up the fastball. If I have to eat a little crow and make a little adjustment in to start centering fastballs again, then you’ve got to do it. It took long enough for me to make that adjustment because I thought I’d be bull-headed and continue to try the same things that have always been successful for me. Not until I swallowed my pride and went down an ounce did I start centering balls again.
Biggest bat you ever used in a game?
Probably 36-36, it was one of Julio Franco’s bats.
That was to be my next question, whether you could have hit with Julio Franco’s huge bats.
There’s no doubt I could hit with his bat. Hit effectively is a different story.
Did you lift more weights when you were a young player, more upper-body work then or now?
I would say I’ve lifted more weights in the past year, for obvious reasons, than I have in the past. But my workout regimen has remained pretty constant and consistent over 20 years.
Do you think you’ll be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and is it important to you?
All I can say is, I’m proud of my resume. I have no control over whether I make it or not. You throw the best resume up that you can. I know I’ve done a lot of things that a lot of other players haven’t, players who are in the Hall of Fame. Would I be disappointed? I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t. Any guy who is on the cusp of being Hall of Fame-worthy, I think if they answered you honestly they would tell you there were a little disappointed if they didn’t make it.
The possibility of being elected on the first ballot — is that special to you?
I haven’t even … it would be, yeah. I mean, the reasoning behind it. How close were you? All those things would factor in. I don’t think that I’ve received enough, uh … I don’t know if I’m quite popular enough to be a first-ballot guy. Just for the simple fact that you play in a smaller market. That’s just my opinion.
Should Maddux be the first unanimous selection to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and do you think he has a chance?
Oh, yeah, I think he’s got a chance. You’re talking about the best pitcher of the last, what, 50 years? I mean, I have no qualm with saying that. He’s certainly the best I’ve ever seen. I had a front-row seat for a long time. Of all the pitchers that I faced over the course of my career, and you’re talking about Clemens and Randy and Pedro and people like that, I would have no problem pitting the mid- to late-90s Greg Maddux against any of those guys.
What’s the hardest thing about getting older?
Something hurts every day. [Smiles.] But it’s not my knee.
What have guys like veterans Eric Hinske and David Ross meant to you over the past year or two, in terms of your enjoyment of the game?
You’ve got to have those class clowns in here to keep it refreshing, to keep it light and loose. To kind of knock out the monotony of having to come in here day in and day out for seven months. It’s guys like them that make it fun to come to the ballpark. You know, we don’t literally have to come to be here until 3:30, 4 o’clock. But most of the guys are in here at 1:30, 2, because we all like hanging out together.
So, how is the knee?
The knee is great. I’ve played pain-free for three weeks now. I reached a certain point of working it day in and day out, where it just stopped hurting. And I couldn’t be happier. I’m so, so jacked up to get this season started.
How many games do you hope to play?
[Smiles.]. Every one of them.
How much longer could you play, and how much longer will you play?
I’ll play as long as I continue to have fun and as long as I continue to be productive and help this team win. I’m certain that, you know, contract status will have a little bit to do with that. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.
(This was the second part of a two-part interview, a condensed version of which ran in Tuesday’s print editions of the AJC. You can read Part 1 of the full interview here.)
– David O’Brien, Braves/MIB blog.