A tale too often told: The Braves play as the great Chipper sits

Chipper Jones hit a homer in Houston on his first night back. (AP photo)

He's still got it: Chipper Jones hit a homer in Houston on his first night back. (AP photo)

The last home opener of Chipper Jones’ big-league career brought to mind what should have been his first home opener as an Atlanta Brave. He couldn’t play then, either. The year was 1994, and he’d torn his ACL running to first base in a night exhibition against the Yankees in Fort Lauderdale.

Now as then, it was his left knee. (Not that his right has held fast. He had meniscus surgery on that one last summer.) He wrenched his left knee an hour before announcing in spring training that he will retire at season’s end, and there could have been no grimmer twist of fate: Even in trying to say goodbye, the great Chipper Jones had to say “Ouch” first.

That latest injury — a tear of the meniscus — forced the great Chipper to start his final season on the disabled list. Without him, the Braves lost their first four games. He rode to the rescue in Houston, hitting a home run in his first game back, but it was on the flight home the next night that he felt the knee begin to swell. And he said a word stronger than “Ouch.”

Fluid had accrued and would have to be drained. Jones, who’d targeted the home opener as his comeback date, would have to sit Friday. (He’s hopeful, post-drainage, of playing Saturday.) It would be wrong to say that this reversal, in a career littered with so many, was anywhere close to being the most deflating, but it didn’t leave Chipper sunny side up.

Asked if he ever directed harsh language toward his knees, Jones said: “I cursed them all day [Thursday]. It was not a relaxing day off.”

The unhappy totals regarding Jones’ knees: Six surgeries (three on each), six to eight draining procedures, painkilling shots in high double figures. Of all the medical procedures he has undergone, the drainings were the worst. “I’ve left teeth marks in some towels,” Jones said. “It feels like they’re sucking the insides of your knee out.”

We turn from that cheery image to a sobering question: As great as Chipper Jones has been — he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer if he never gets another hit — how much more would he have done with two good knees?

“Hindsight is 20-20,” he said. “How much better would Mickey Mantle have been with good knees? Mickey probably didn’t have an ACL when he retired. The advances in medicine have been so great since the ’50s and ’60s — back then, I dare say I wouldn’t have played as long as I have.

“I’ve probably missed two years’ worth of games because of my knees. That’s a lot of games, a lot of statistics to put up.”

What sort of statistics? “Five hundred home runs,” said Jones, who’s sitting on 455.

More than any other body part, the knee has brought great athletes to their … well, you know. From Mantle to Joe Namath, from Gale Sayers to Bobby Orr, luminaries have seen their Hall of Fame inductions accelerated because they simply couldn’t play anymore. Jones has lasted longer than any of the above — thank the march of orthopedic science for that — but he’s not retiring because his skills have deteriorated. He’s quitting because his body keeps breaking.

From 1995, his first full big-league season, through 2003, Jones played at least 140 games every year. From 2004 on, he has played as many as 140 games only once. When the knees go, the career follows.

Jones: “The knee is the whole basis of who you are [as a player]. You have to have a solid foundation to hit a baseball and hit it with power.” (And for a switch-hitter with two bad knees, there’s no relief no matter which way you turn.)

When he’s able to play, Chipper Jones is still a difference-maker. He proved that in his two games in Houston. (”I did everything physically you need to do on the field.”) Then he boarded a charter and landed with a ballooned knee. When he arrived at Turner Field on Friday, his name was on the lineup card. By 4 p.m., he was contemplating another needle.

“There’s not a day I don’t get out of bed and feel a twinge,” he said. “This body has got a lot of mileage on it, a lot of games, a lot of innings.”

It does, and we around here have been blessed to watch those games and innings. But there are also days like Friday, when we’re forced to wonder how many more splendid innings two good knees (or even one) might have yielded.

By Mark Bradley

120 comments Add your comment

JipWiz

April 13th, 2012
7:16 pm

Who cares

April 13th, 2012
7:16 pm

Karma baby. One doesn’t announce their retirement until they are walking off the field.

Mark Bradley

April 13th, 2012
7:19 pm

Kudos, JipWiz.

JipWiz

April 13th, 2012
7:24 pm

Thanks, Mark. Did the tour yesterday, saw the press box. Impressive LOL. Enjoy the game!

"Chef" Tim Dix

April 13th, 2012
7:36 pm

TV honoring Furman. Really can’t overdo that.

"Chef" Tim Dix

April 13th, 2012
7:37 pm

JJ needs to go six or more.

Sonny Clusters

April 13th, 2012
7:39 pm

“The knee is the whole basis of who you are (as a player).” That is so profound and so true and so pretty we wish we had said it. Good knees are also important in journalism and in second shift.

Simpson

April 13th, 2012
7:40 pm

He could steal some bases before the knees started breaking too

Sonny Clusters

April 13th, 2012
7:40 pm

Has anybody tried a deer dog yet?

"Chef" Tim Dix

April 13th, 2012
7:41 pm

Tip O the Cap to Clusters

Mark Bradley

April 13th, 2012
7:42 pm

Chipper can wax nigh-poetic, I’m telling you

Mark Bradley

April 13th, 2012
7:44 pm

Scoreboard went blank. Radar gun not working.

Midseason form, I’m telling you

"Chef" Tim Dix

April 13th, 2012
7:45 pm

Good times for JJ

Sonny Clusters

April 13th, 2012
7:47 pm

Thanks, Chef. When we was first told Chipper wouldn’t play tonight we thought we might see that fat third baseman from the Reds but they decided to play Prado over there instead and let Diaz play left. Does that mean he is the first option now for left field? He couldn’t start for the Pirates. We was thinking Chipper is going to go down again in May and they’re going to need an idea of what to do for the rest of the season. Not that they couldn’t have done something about it over the off season.

"Chef" Tim Dix

April 13th, 2012
7:47 pm

As a season ticket holder, a deer dog sounds 33% less appetizing.

Sonny Clusters

April 13th, 2012
7:48 pm

That was some good video today. Has Uggla been coaching you?

"Chef" Tim Dix

April 13th, 2012
7:51 pm

Just don’t believe Prado is the answer in the 2 hole.

Mark Bradley

April 13th, 2012
7:52 pm

It’s rather obvious that no one has been coaching me.

DQBrazier

April 13th, 2012
7:54 pm

I bet a Clusters never had a knee drained.

Zing

April 13th, 2012
7:54 pm

He’s been an absolute treasure to watch… but it happens to us all.

Sonny Clusters

April 13th, 2012
7:56 pm

If, as Chipper postulates, the knee is the whole basis of who you are (as a player) . . . does this mean that having really good knees is a 6th tool and somebody with great knees and the other 5 tools would be considered a 6-tool player? We was wondering.

Sonny Clusters

April 13th, 2012
7:59 pm

Was that a german shepherd running around in the background? Wearing black socks?

DQBrazier

April 13th, 2012
8:01 pm

We were told Ryan Braun is a 6 tool player. Must you that “legal” salve on his knees to keep fresh.

Dawgdad (The Original)

April 13th, 2012
8:04 pm

Gonzo, wouldn’t know.

Great article Marko!

Sonny Clusters

April 13th, 2012
8:05 pm

Oh, crap. Well, it started out well. The left side of the infield is better for Milwaukee. What about the left side for the Braves? Oh, crap again. Back to back.

Dawgdad (The Original)

April 13th, 2012
8:06 pm

JJ not fooling anyone. I guess Spring Training is not just Spring Training.

Paul in NH

April 13th, 2012
8:07 pm

Mark,
Nice column – pity it sounds like a valedictory for Chipper. He has been a great player though.

Mark Bradley

April 13th, 2012
8:12 pm

I thought Jurrjens was throwing very well. (Couldn’t tell how hard. Radar gun not working.) Then Sea Bass and Kotteras hit the ball over the fence.

DQBrazier

April 13th, 2012
8:16 pm

Gonzales Gonzales got us again

Bill

April 13th, 2012
8:27 pm

Fastballs down the middle will always kill you..JJ better get it together are Braves are toast.
I can’t stand to watch Diaz play LF..damn makes me sick. Pirates paid part of his salary to go to Braves..what a joke. Oh well you get what you pay for…Go Braves.

Bill

April 13th, 2012
8:30 pm

When Chipper is 55 years old he wont be able to walk..it he!! to hurt like that.

DQBrazier

April 13th, 2012
8:33 pm

Matt Diaz ladies and gents

dawgs2004

April 13th, 2012
8:36 pm

Well that rump spot on the dugout bench got got a little deeper from all those games of sitting on the bench hurt.

Sonny Clusters

April 13th, 2012
8:38 pm

A Braves executive told us they were going to focus on attractions like Bark in the Park rather than paying somebody $6 million and know they was going to lose the $6 million. A decent corner outfielder with some pop would go good right about now. Prado is a real champion moving around every other day from left to 3B. Some players wouldn’t do that. If we was going to Bark in the Park we’d want to take a big dog like that german shepherd in the video.

DQBrazier

April 13th, 2012
8:42 pm

A “Bark in the Park” should not be held in a stadium.

1eyedJack

April 13th, 2012
8:45 pm

Somebody needs to put his socks on for him this season, and maybe sneeze for him too. Seriously though, he could go 4 for 5 without a knee.

Sonny Clusters

April 13th, 2012
8:46 pm

Is it too early to start talking about a statue of Chipper Jones at the ballpark? The AJC left the Henry Grady statue downtown when they went to Dunwoody. The Braves might get a deal on it and add some tattoos and call it uh, Chipper. Fits with their budget.

Sonny Clusters

April 13th, 2012
8:47 pm

He is the best pure hitter on this team and has been for a long time. Too bad his knees and toes and stuff are so bad because he can still hit better than most.

Mark Bradley

April 13th, 2012
8:49 pm

I think a statue of Chipper would be in order.

Bill

April 13th, 2012
8:50 pm

Sonny Clusters

April 13th, 2012
8:51 pm

Since he’s a Buck Commander they might just get a taxidermist . . .

Bill

April 13th, 2012
8:54 pm

Bark in the park = Diaz..worse LF in baseball.

1eyedJack

April 13th, 2012
8:59 pm

Sonny, I think I’ll agree with Alan Alda here when he said you never, ever have something you love stuffed. Maybe they could do something with that Henry Grady statue, as long as he ain’t holding a book or something.

David Granger

April 13th, 2012
9:03 pm

Chipper’s a fine player when he’s healthy. You can say the same thing about Greg Oden (and Sam Bowie, for that matter). Was hoping he’d have a healthy year his last season….alas, just not meant to be.

Mark Bradley

April 13th, 2012
9:04 pm

Let’s not liken Chipper to Sam Bowie. I mean, get real.

Sonny Clusters

April 13th, 2012
9:08 pm

Did Henry Grady have a lot of tattoos? Retrofitting the HG statue may be just what the organization will want to do since money is tight and they’re playing Matt Diaz in left field. The statue will need a spot for a deer antler tattoo.

Bill

April 13th, 2012
9:09 pm

Home Run McCann….

DQBrazier

April 13th, 2012
9:09 pm

I would like statues of unique Braves such as Gene Garber, Zane Smith, Jose Alverez, and last but not least, Juan Berenguer.

1eyedJack

April 13th, 2012
9:11 pm

I just had a Big Mac attack. Whoa! Maybe we shouldn’t trade Diaz for the Henry Grady statue after all.

Sonny Clusters

April 13th, 2012
9:11 pm

Oh, we was wrong! Diaz just hit a home run!