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