(Updated at 1:45 a.m. with quotes from Chipper Jones’ parents.)
It was spring training of last season when the Braves gave Chipper Jones a three-year, $42 million contract extension that would run through the 2012 season. What followed was one of the most disastrous seasons of his career.
I’m not sure why, but over the past year the number of people telling me, “Chipper doesn’t care; he’ll just sit on the disabled list and collect his money for three years,” probably has dwarfed his number of defenders by 20-to-1.
To those people: You don’t know the man.
The career slide and injuries that have followed Jones recently frustrate him more than you can know, so much so that an official retirement announcement appears imminent.
As Jones stood by the batting cage, I asked him when we can expect him to address retirement.
“At some point during the home stand,” he said (and the Braves are home for only six days).
Was an announcement just being held up by red tape issues?
Jones smiled at the question. “I’ve got some things I’ve got to take care of,” he said.
He wasn’t supposed to publicly address the issue at all. When news leaked earlier in the day, he even asked the Braves to put out a news release informing the media that Jones would not speak on the topic. But his media-friendly persona got the best of him.
Reports circulated earlier in the day that Jones was meeting with Braves manager Bobby Cox, general manager Frank Wren and team president John Schuerholz, and that he planned to make 2010 his final season. That’s when team officials scrambled. This is not how announcements are made, let alone for one-franchise superstars and sure-fire Hall of Famers.
The fact that Jones has over two seasons remaining on a three-year, $42 million extension possibly creates some contractual issues that Jones needs to resolve with the club. Or rather, the club needs to resolve with him. Fact is, Jones himself is not much for formalities.
It’s important to note that nobody is denying the story, least of all Jones.
“I need to go through the proper channels,” he said when he arrived at the stadium. “Once those [issues] have been taken care of, everyone’s questions will be answered.”
Just don’t ask the question, “Will he stick around for the sake of the paycheck?” Answer: no.
Jones has been contemplating this since the winter — yes, even with a $42 million carrot dangling there. That’s the difference between Jones and some athletes that we mock. That’s certainly the difference between Jones and Mike Hampton. The former Brave broke down long before his contract did.
Hampton couldn’t get out of bed without having a major organ explode. Funny. It never seemed to affect his ATM finger.
But Jones is different. “He’s a prideful guy,” pitcher Tim Hudson said. “That’s why he’s been a little frustrated this year. But that’s any superstar. They’re going to have pride in what they do and they’re going to be upset when they feel they’re not living up to the standard that people have come to expect. That said, to me he’s a guy who’s still contributing and helping us win.”
It’s all relative. Jones has 40 walks. But he knows he is not batting third for 40 walks.
He entered the Tampa Bay game hitting only .228, which was behind even last year’s average of .264, which was far behind his 2008 average of .364. But this was a good night. He doubled and scored in the first inning. He hit home run No. 4 on the season and No. 430 in his career in the eighth. It didn’t make much of a difference in the final score (the Rays won 10-4, dismembering Kenshin Kawakami and Chris Resop). But at least there were rare highlights.
Afterward, Jones did not dress at his locker, preferring to remain away from the media. However, how parents, Larry and Lynne, who had traveled from Texas a day earlier — it was a prearranged trip; the timing was coincidence — waited for Jones outside the clubhouse.
Larry Jones initially said he did not believe his son would make an immediate retirement announcement, adding: “I think he personally will know down the stretch.”
But soon after, he added: “He’s down in the dumps about things right now. He talked to me about [retirement] three or four months ago. I told him, ‘Don’t make a decision based on how you feel right now. Give it a chance.’ But he’s a grown man. He’s 38 years old and he’s earned the right to make his own decisions, and we’re gonna support him.
“I’m good with the fact that the end is near. I just wish, I hope, the end comes with him playing well.”
The nagging injuries for Jones have been piling up. Just when it looked like he was starting to come out of it this season, going eight-for-16 during a five-game hitting streak, he started having problems with the ring finger on his right hand. He had missed nine of 11 games before Tuesday.
“I’m old,” he said at one point, between swings during batting practice.
When asked about the injury, Jones gripped the bat, showing how he leaves the pinky on his lower hand (when batting left-handed) off the end of the bat.
“That [ring] finger takes a lot of the brunt of my swing,” he said. “When you normally grip the bat with only four fingers, it makes it a lot harder to grip it with three fingers.”
He desperately wants to get back to the postseason. A memory jog for you: When the Braves won the World Series in 1995, Jones was a rookie.
But he has been spending too many days sitting or whiffing. The Braves are doing well, but Jones is not playing to the level he either hopes or expects. And he is not one to sit around and collect checks.