Vivlamore reporting from Florida.
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Chipper Jones is going out on his own terms.
The future Hall of Fame third baseman announced Thursday that the 2012 season will be the last of his playing career.
It’s the end of an era.
“There were times when I could have went out on the free-agent market and see if the grass was greener but I really didn’t think that it was,” Jones said in front of family, team executives and nearly 20 current teammates assembled before a Grapefruit League game against the Marlins. “I never wanted to play [anywhere else]. I’m a Southern kid. I wanted to play in a Southern town where I felt comfortable, and I felt comfortable from day one in the Braves organization. … I bleed red, white and blue.”
In an emotional announcement, Jones said he didn’t want a season of constant speculation about his future to be a distraction. He also didn’t want to put the Braves in an awkward position from a public relations standpoint as it had to with saying goodbye to icons Tom Glavine and John Smoltz.
“This gives me the opportunity to appease myself and the Braves organization,” Jones said. “I can walk away on my own terms. Hopefully I can come out and have another productive year and ride off into the sunset.”
Jones, who turns 40 next month, will have played all 19 major league seasons with the Braves, who made him the No. 1 overall draft pick in 1990. He won a World Series and a National League MVP award and was a seven-time all-star.
“I just think the realization that I’ve fulfilled everything,” Jones said of his decision. “There is nothing left for me to do. I’m content with my decision.”
Jones ranks as the Atlanta Braves franchise leader in nearly every offensive category with a .304 career batting average, 454 home runs, 526 doubles and 1,561 RBIs in 2,387 games. His home-run total ranks 33rd in major league history. His 2,615 career hits ranks 75th.
“He was the guy who we could rely on with the Braves to get the big hit, come through at the tough time, to do what needed to be done to help us string together those championship banners out on the wall in left field [of Turner Field],” Braves president John Schuerholz said.
Jones’ 18 years of service with the same team leads all active major league players, bettering Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera (17 years with the Yankees).
The Braves and Jones are discussing a yet-to-be-determined role with the team following the season. Jones said he wants to spend time with his family, giving back to a wife and four sons who have sacrificed so much. He made it clear it won’t be as a manager when he decides to return to the game in some capacity.
He made it sound as if a hitting instructing position is where he might eventually land.
“I love the art of hitting,” Jones said. “It’s one of my passions. Managing is not one of my passions. I want to go off in the batting cage with my guys and work at the game of baseball.”
Jones was near tears twice during his announcement. He thanked a long list of people but was particularly moved when discussing his family and current teammates.
Jones said he is looking forward to watching his sons grow and playing and teaching them the game as his father did with him.
“Kids are something you enjoy during the prime of your life,” Jones’ father, Larry Sr., said. “He is coming to the back side of his prime. He hasn’t been able to do that. I’m looking forward to watching him do it himself.”
Jones was also moved when speaking to his teammates, noting that had it not been for them he would have already retired.
“I’ve been thinking about retiring for quite some time and I probably have to say that the number one that I didn’t was you guys,” Jones said. “It’s been a pleasure to come to work and play with you guys and day in and day out you kept me young, as young as a 40 year old can be.
“I will sit in a foxhole, a clubhouse or a dugout with any of you guys. I love each and every one of you and I hope we go out with a bang here in 2012.”
Jones finished second in the National League Rookie of the Year voting in 1995, the season the Braves won the World Series. He was the league’s Most Valuable Player in 1999 when he hit .319 with a career-best 45 home runs and 110 RBIs
He won his first career batting title in 2008 with a .364 average (league-best .470 on-base percentage). It marked the second-highest single-season average ever for a switch hitter. Mickey Mantle hit .365 for the Yankees in 1957.
Jones is the only switch hitter in Major League history to post a .300 career average with more than 300 homers, and his career batting average ranks second all-time among switch hitters. He also ranks third in career home runs for switch-hitters, behind Mantle (536) and Eddie Murray (504).
“Chipper Jones is in great company,” former Braves manager Bobby Cox said. “He is in with two guys, to me, two of the greatest players in the history of baseball – Eddie Murray and Mickey Mantle. … He is a first ballot Hall of Famer.”
Jones said he could continue to play and be a productive major leaguer – even with career milestone numbers within reach. It’s just time to move on.
“People may ask me about being close to 500 homers and 3,000 hits and if I stuck around a couple more years I could get those numbers,” Jones said. “… I always said I’m not going to stick around for the numbers.”
Jones is in the last guaranteed year of a contract that will pay $14 million in 2012. The deal included a $7 million team option for 2013, which vests automatically at $9 million if he plays 123 games in 2012. But with his retirement announcement, that option appears moot.
He played in 126 games in 2011 despite a stint on the disabled list for arthroscopic right knee surgery, which kept him out of the All-Star game. He had reconstructive surgery to repair a torn ACL in his left knee in 2010, the second time he’s had that procedure.
Jones hit .275 with a .344 on-base percentage and .470 slugging percentage last season, well off his .304/.402/.533 career line. He had 18 homers and 70 RBIs; the only time he’s had fewer of either was 2010, when he had 18 homers and 46 RBIs in 95 games.
Still, his 33 doubles in 2011 were his second-most since 2003, and his .814 on-base-plus-slugging percentage was third among National League third basemen.
On Thursday, Jones thanked Braves fans for their support, in Atlanta and all over the country.
“It blows my mind every time I drive to the stadium and I see a family of four walking down the street with a No. 10 on their backs,” Jones said. “That, to me, still blows my mind.”