LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Seventeen years ago this spring, Chipper Jones turned to avoid a tag at first base in an otherwise meaningless exhibition and his knee buckled. He heard a pop. Then he heard a doctor say, “torn ACL.” At 21 years old, he wondered if his career was toast.
“Honestly, I was a lot more scared the first time this happened,” he said Sunday. “I didn’t know anything about the injury. I didn’t know if I could be the same player that I was before.”
Jones’ second attempt to come back from a reconstructed knee began in earnest Sunday. He played in a game for the first time since suffering a torn ACL last August. In an exhibition against the New York Mets, he went one for three (strikeout, single, flyout) as a designated hitter and even broke up a would-be double play at second base — with a cautious and “measured” slide.
“Once the season starts it will be, ‘Go after him.’ Right there, it was, ‘Don’t blow out [the knee in] the first game,’” he said, smiling.
Baby steps. Unlike when Jones was injured as a rookie, he is confident he can pull this off. It’s others who wonder.
When an athlete pushing 39 has reconstructive knee surgery, the tendency is to speak about them in past tense. Or worse. Some cynics not only question Jones physically, they wonder if money is his primary motivation. This accusation generally comes from the short-sighted, ignorant and disturbed segment of the populace that vents on sports talk radio and posts comments on blogs, all behind the comfort of anonymity.
When I asked Jones about the accusation, he laughed.
Then he swung away.
“If they think I’m doing this for the money, they obviously haven’t seen my bank account,” he said. “I’ve never played this game for money. Nor will I. My mind doesn’t work that way. I play this game because I love my teammates and they wanted me to come back.
“I still feel like I have something to offer, and the cynical fan can really kiss my ass. I really don’t care. There’s a bunch of true fans and the people who actually want to take the time to get to know me know who I am. The guy who sits in his mom’s basement and types on his mom’s computer, I couldn’t really care less about.”
Everybody else gets a big hug.
Jones has made over $141 million in his career, including $127 million in the last 10 years alone. To blow through that much cash would require dropping paychecks into a food processor or possibly just being your average former heavyweight champion.
Doing it for the money?
There are a lot of reasons to be cynical about pro sports today. Chipper Jones isn’t one of them.
In mid-June last year, when he was still hitting .230, retirement was imminent. His mother even cracked that he should sacrifice a chicken. But over the next several weeks, his timing returned, his legs felt stronger. In his last 19 games before suffering the injury, he hit .349 (22 for 63) with three homers, five doubles, nine walks and 12 RBIs.
“I just felt locked in,” he said. “Unfortunately it took a few months for that to happen, but better late than never. Then the injury hits and I’m in a new frame of mind. If the injury would’ve happened a month and a half earlier, I probably would’ve retired. Timing is everything.”
The closeness of last year’s Braves team also played a role in his decision to return. “If this was a team like we had four or five years ago, things might be different,” he said. “We all like hanging out together. That’s unusual in this day and age.”
The knee has flared up periodically in the spring. But so far there has been nothing that ice and a day off couldn’t cure.
“I just have to get to the point where I’m not Andre Dawson and have to drain it every day when I get to the park,” he said.
If the knee holds up, he believes playing 140 games is realistic. The real test comes when he plays in the field and is required to plant and pivot for a throw.
“It just feels good to be playing again,” he said.
And that’s not about money.
By Jeff Schultz
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