MLB veteran Chipper Jones said he never imagined when he was in his 20s that he’d still be playing at the age of 40, but sure enough Jones is about to enter his 19th season.
KISSIMMEE, Fla. — After another of those spring training workouts that are increasingly tough to get through, Chipper Jones pulls off his jersey to reveal an undershirt that says, “Slow it down, boys.”
Sounds about right for a guy approaching his 40th birthday.
Even with a boyish nickname and a still-youthful-like passion for the game, there’s no getting around the fact that in less than two months — April 24, to be exact, a few games into his 19th season with the Atlanta Braves — Jones will reach the age that is like 65 to everyone else.
Retirement will be staring him in the face.
WHO: Detroit Tigers vs. Atlanta Braves.
WHAT: 2012 spring training opener for the Braves.
WHEN: 1:05 p.m. Saturday.
WHERE: Kissimmee, Fla.
“Never in my mid-20s would I have given myself a snowball’s chance to be in a camp and have a job at 40 years old,” Jones said Wednesday. “But I like to think I’ve kept myself in pretty good shape over the years. The skills are still there to go out and get it done. I don’t know for how much longer, but we’re gonna ride it as long as we can.”
Jones doesn’t need to look at his birth certificate to remember his age. His body tells him every day.
“There’s not a day I wake up that something doesn’t hurt,” Jones said. “There’s not a day goes by that I don’t take some kind of pill or injection, whether it’s an anti-inflammatory or a pain killer or cortisone, whatever it may be, to help me go out there on the field.”
He’s not ready to discuss the r-word, which he came so close to carrying out two seasons ago. He’s got two years left on his contract, and the plan for now is to play it out at third base.
“Mentally, I believe I’ve got two years left,” he said before chucking and adding, “But mentally and physically are two different things.”
It gets tougher and tougher to make it through the offseason workouts, to get through the daily grind of game after game after game. He never had any need to soak in an ice bath until a year or two ago. Now, it’s a regular part of his routine.
“This could very well be my last spring,” Jones said. “So I’m cherishing every chance I get down here, soaking it all up. The baseball clubhouse, the baseball fraternity, is a unique one. It’s been my second home, my second family for 23 years now (since he was drafted No. 1 by the Braves out of high school). When I do finally decide hang it up, I’m gonna miss that camaraderie.”
He’s already plotted how he wants to go out. Or, more specifically, how he doesn’t want to go out. He was there for the ugly departures of longtime Braves stars Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, who received pink slips rather than retirement parties.
Both wanted to play on with Atlanta, only to learn their services were no longer desired.
Jones had frank talks with general manager Frank Wren over the winter, wanting to make sure that he was still a useful member of the team rather than an over-the-hill player trying desperately to hang on.
“I’ve always said as long as I’m productive, I would play. I still feel like I am,” Jones said. “When the day comes (that I’m not), hopefully I will realize it before they do. The last thing I want is what happened to Glav and Smoltzie, where it becomes a P.R. thing. I’d much rather bow out gracefully.”
A year ago, despite being sidelined for essentially a month by minor knee surgery, he managed to hit .275 with 18 homers, 70 RBI and post his highest slugging average (.470) since 2008. He wound up playing 126 games, about what the Braves are hoping for this year even if he doesn’t spend any time on the disabled list.
“Those are fine numbers,” manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “To me, if you said he would duplicate those numbers right now, I would take them. But the main thing is to keep him healthy, keep him there the whole year. There’s one number I don’t want. I don’t want him to spend any days on the DL. That’s the key.”
Former Braves manager Bobby Cox, who retired himself two years ago, stopped by Champion Stadium on Wednesday to watch the Braves go through their drills. He marveled that someone about to turn 40 can still play a physically demanding position such as third base.
“To be playing a corner, it’s not easy to still be able to hit and do everything else,” Cox said. “But Chipper has always been in unbelievable shape, and he’s got that baseball attitude.”
The knock against Jones, the one that could keep him out of the Hall of Fame, is that he’s injury prone. He missed an entire season early on, sidelined by a serious knee injury sustained in spring training before what was to be his rookie year. A numbing string of ailments, both serious and minor, have cropped up pretty much every season since 2004.
“I feel a little slighted in that I missed so much time with injuries during the course of my career,” Jones said. “I’ve probably missed two full years of games due to injuries and stints on the DL.”
If he hadn’t been sidelined so much, Jones is confident he would’ve reached the benchmarks that pretty much ensure entry into the Hall of Fame: 500 homers and 3,000 hits. As it is, he’ll likely come up just short, heading into this season with 454 homers and 2,615 hits. Still, he’s won a World Series, an MVP award and a batting crown. He’ll certainly be in the mix for Cooperstown when his career is done.
“I feel like I probably would’ve gotten those numbers had (the injuries) not happened,” Jones said. “But I’ve done all I can do. I’ll walk away with my head held high, proud of the career I had, regardless of what other people think.”
Notes: LHP Mike Minor will start for the Braves in their first exhibition game Saturday against Detroit. Gonzalez wouldn’t disclose his pitching plans beyond that. … RHP Tommy Hanson took another concussion test on Thursday and could pitch a round of batting practice the following day. Hanson is unlikely to pitch in the first run through the spring rotation, but the Braves still expect him to be ready for the start of the regular season.