HOUSTON – He received a cowboy hat as a retirement gift from the Houston Astros on Monday, and Chipper Jones plans to be back in the lineup trying to help beat them Tuesday.
The Braves third baseman is expected to brought off the 15-day disabled list and put in the lineup 15 days after arthroscopic surgery for torn meniscus in his left knee — and without a rehab assignment.
Jones and Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez were satisfied with his mobility and swings during an workout Monday afternoon at Minute Maid Park, five hours before the series opener against the Astros. Tuesday is the first day he’s eligible to come off the DL.
“I would have gone down [to the minor leagues] for a couple of at-bats, and I just thought it was a waste of time because six at-bats in the minors isn’t going to help me be on 95 [mph fastballs] when I get back up here,” Jones said. “They might as well just throw me back into the fire. And ultimately, Fredi and [general manager] Frank [Wren] left it up to me.”
Jones had the similar arthroscopic surgery for torn meniscus in his right knee last summer and played in two minor league games before returning. “Then I blew out my quad in my first game back,” he said.
The Braves just got swept by the Mets to start the season, and if Jones feels he’s ready to get back in there and help the team, they’re ready to welcome him back.
He had 25 at-bats in spring training and faced “live” pitching once since then, taking about 15 swings against Braves rookie Randall Delgado during an off-day workout Friday at New York.
“He feels like he doesn’t need to go out and get a rehab assignment, he feels like he’s fine,” Gonzalez said. “So I figure a guy that’s got 10,000 plate appearances, I’ll take his word for it.”
Last week Jones wasn’t sure that he’d be ready before Friday’s home opener against Milwaukee, because he said the left leg still felt heavy and he didn’t know if he’d be ready to run. He ran the bases some during the workout at New York, and Monday he took grounders and moved from side to side.
“While I’ve had some sore days along the way, today I feel great,” he said, “and I did what I had to today to prove that I can go out there tomorrow… I may not be right on time here at the beginning, at least I’m in the lineup and that means something.”
Asked if he thought he could make a difference, Jones nodded and said, “They pay me to hit.”
He has a .397 average with eight homers, 31 RBIs and a 1.207 OPS in 38 games at Minute Maid Park, after hitting .252 with four homers in 27 games at Houston’s old Astrodome.
His parents, who live most of the year on Jones’ southwest Texas ranch, are in Houston for this week’s series, just as they have been for most games he’s played in the city.
“I love playing here, obviously in front of my parents and what-not,” he said. “But it’s just a matter of me getting back in there. I need to get back in there no matter who we’re facing. But yeah, it’s awfully special to be able to play here.”
Stetson for the old Battleaxe
Jones, who’ll be 40 on April 24, was honored before Monday night’s game by the Astros and given a cream-colored Stetson cowboy hat that was presented to him by former Astros star Craig Biggio in a pregame presentation at home plate. He got a standing ovation from a small crowd.
“Really cool. Classy gesture by the Astros organization,” Jones said. “I can wear it out on the ranch. Houston’s always been special to me because it’s the one place my parents get to come. There’s a ton of Braves fans here, we’ve had a ton of great games here in my tenure here with the Braves against Houston, so it’s awfully nice of them to do that.”
In addition to many memorable moments in regular season and postseason games against the Astros, it’s also where Jones tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during in August 2010, a season-ending injury that many initially believed might end his career.
Jones was back for the start of spring training six months later.
“A lot of good and bad things have happened here,” he said. “It’s been an interesting place to play. Back when the Killer B’s were here, I think we went 10 or 12 games in a row where they were one-run games. Just really close, well-pitched, well-played games that two playoff-type teams often played against each other. That’s what I’ll remember when I’m done.”
Teammates are wearing blue T-shirts they had designed as a tribute to Jones, whom they refer to as “Battleaxe.” The shirts have two crossed axes over Jones’ No. 10 on the left breast, and highlights of Jones’ career on the back along with a picture of him batting.
Jones was in New York with the Braves for the opening series, where they hit .151 in three games. They had a .172 average during an eight-game losing streak going back to last season, and the Braves hit .195 with runners in scoring position last September during their 10-20 collapse.
“We’ve dug ourselves a little bit of a hole, but it’s important that we start swinging the bats,” Jones said. We played well enough to win at least two of the three [at New York] if we swing the bats at all. We’re just not getting anything started early in innings. Whenever we get a guy in scoring position it’s always two outs, and that’s not a comfortable spot for a hitter. They have to get a hit to score.
“We haven’t given ourselves many opportunities to score any easy runs, you know a guy on third less than two outs, where guys really prosper. It’s going to take us being a little better early in innings to turn it around.”