PHILADELPHIA – Chipper Jones sat at his locker stall, wearing his customary four pairs of sliding shorts, a can of Skoal on his left thigh, stuffed between layers of stretch fabric. He was surrounded by more than a dozen reporters in a scene that’s become familiar the first day into each city on the Chipper Farewell Tour.
Chipper, a Philadelphia writer asked, since you’re playing so well this year, having any second thoughts about retiring?
“Did you see me walk in here?” Jones said, smiling. It was a reference to the gingerly walk he’d made across the clubhouse minutes before. “I’m in a lot of pain today, and it’s time. I’m happy that I’ve played well and I’m happy that I’ve produced, but it’s time to go. So the answer to your question is no.”
Of course, he hopes it’s not quite time. The retiring third baseman wants to play baseball for about six more weeks, right up through the World Series, if the Braves can get into the postseason and win a couple of series after they get there.
First, though, they will likely have to win a one-game playoff against the other wild card team in the National League. A second wild card was added to the postseason in each league beginning this year, and the two wild card teams will play a do-or-die game Oct. 5 to determine which advances to a best-of-five division series against the NL division winner with the best record.
This new format is not something that old “Battle Axe” – Chipper’s nickname among teammates – is sold on.
“I think it’s stupid, to be honest with you,” he said. “But Major Lague Baseball wants a bunch of teams in the playoffs. There’s nothing like cut-throat baseball for the fans. And people love that 163rd regular-season game. They’ve loved it in the past. I’m sure that’s probably what’s promoted a second wild-card team. I wish they would’ve done it a year earlier so we would have had a chance last year. But it is what it is.”
The Braves blew an 8-1/2-game wild-card lead last September and were overtaken by St. Louis on the final day of the season. The Cardinals won the wild card and went on to win the World Series.
This year the Braves have are back in the driver’s seat in the wild-card race, entering Friday with a six-game lead over St. Louis and 12 games to play. And with two NL wild card spots available now, the Braves had an 8-1/2-game lead over the third-place wild-card team before Friday and could clinch a spot as soon as this weekend.
It’s not ideal. They would much prefer to win the division and avoid the wild card “play-in” game. But the Washington Nationals had a 5-1/2 game lead over the second-place Braves in the NL East before Friday, making that scenario improbable.
“You say to yourself, we could possibly have the second- or third-best record in the National League when the season’s over and we have to play a one-game playoff just to get in,” Jones said. “That doesn’t seem fair because anything can happen [in one game]. Now if you were to say the two wild-card teams will play a best two-out-of-three [series], I’d be OK with that. We play three-game series all the time, and we concentrate on winning those series all the time. I think it’s more fair from a standpoint that anything can happen in one game – a blown call by an umpire, a bad day at the office … at least in a two-of-three-game series you have some sort of leeway.”
But as he said, it is what it is. And this weekend the Braves will focus on three games against a Philadelphia team that’s playing much better ball than it did for most of the season. The Phillies kept alive their faint wild-card hopes by going 15-5 in their past 20 games before Friday, including 7-0 with a 2.29 ERA in seven home games, but still trailed St. Louis by 3-1/2 games and also had the Brewers and Dodgers between them and the Cardinals.
The Phillies paid tribute to Jones before Friday’s game, and Philadelphia veterans Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins presented him with a painting of Jones swinging a bat. The crowd was uncharacteristically respectful and many gave him a standing ovation.
Jones has had some of his more unforgettable moments playing against the Phillies over the years, many of them at old Veterans Stadium before the Phillies moved to Citizens Bank Park. He won’t forget the games – or some of the leather-lunged ballpark denizens in Philadelphia.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for [the Phillies],” he said. “These guys have done it as well as anybody for the last five or six years. Even before the last five or six years. My first taste of big-league ballgames were — I was in the dugout in ’93 when they beat us. The [Curt] Schillings and the [Terry] Muhollands, Dutch [Darren Daulton], [Lenny] Dykstra and all those guys. Lot of good baseball has been played here in Philly.”
Asked if any particular moments stood out, Jones thought for a moment.
“Mitch Williams striking out Bill Pecota [for the final out of the 1993 NL Championship Series],” he said. “I can remember all the fans outside the stadium almost tipped our bus over. That was a little intro into what Philly fans were all about. So that was fun. Whew, man. So many of them. I think we actually played the first professional game after 9/11 here in Philly. I remember hitting a home run off of Robert Person in my first at-bat after that, in the first inning.
“And I just cherish and savor all my ABs against Doc [Roy Halladay] and Cole [Hamels] and Cliff [Lee]. Schilling back in the day. That’s how you make a name for yourself, is going out and putting up good ABs against guys like that. They’re the best in the business, and they have not made it easy for us in the past.”
Jones entered Friday with a .332 career average against Philadelphia and a career-best 70 doubles, 49 homers and 151 RBIs in 243 games. His .442 OBP and .599 slugging percentage against the Phillies were his highs against any NL opponent, and the homers matched his total against the Mets as his high against any team.