Chipper Jones, who will turn 40 years old shortly after the Atlanta Braves open their 2012 season, decided Thursday to announce he will retire at the end of the year, rather than to wait and see how he felt at the end of his 18th major league season.
ATLANTA — Flanked by his family, his former manager and a group of teammates he hates to leave behind, Chipper Jones choked up a bit and delivered the news that’s been looming for years: It’s time to call it a career.
This time, he means it.
With his 40th birthday approaching and a long string of injuries slowing him down, Jones announced Thursday he will retire after one more season as the Atlanta Braves’ third baseman.
“I have fulfilled everything,” Jones said during a news conference at the team’s spring training stadium in Kissimmee, Fla. “There’s nothing left for me to do.”
Jones, who has spent his entire 18-year career with Atlanta, actually planned to retire after the 2010 season, only to change his mind. As he battled leg issues this spring, he openly wondered if he’d be able to make it through the season.
So, he’ll give it one more year with the Braves, then become a full-time dad to his three children.
“I just want to make it final,” Jones said.
He praised the Braves organization, calling Bobby Cox “the greatest manager any of us will ever know,” thanked team executives John Schuerholz and Frank Wren for building a perennial winner and fought back tears as he turned to his teammates.
“I’ve been thinking about this and the reason I stayed around is you guys,” Jones said. “I played on teams where clubhouse cohesion wasn’t there. That never happened with you guys.”
Around baseball, Jones was praised for this long, consistent career, which included the NL MVP award in 1999, an NL batting title in 2008, seven All-Star games — and, quite possibly, will include an induction ceremony at Cooperstown.
Even fans of the rival New York Mets, who were continually battered by Jones as crowds in the Big Apple tried to rattle him by chanting his actual name (“Larry! Larry! Larry” was a familiar chant at old Shea Stadium), offered up nothing but respect.
Jones already reciprocated by naming one of his children Shea.
“He’s a great ballplayer who has always been a Mets nemesis,” said New York fan John Ring, speaking before Mets’ spring training game in Port St. Lucie, Fla. “I mean, he just tore them apart. He’s been an asset to the game, but as Mets fans we never wanted to see him in the lineup.”
Mets third baseman David Wright grew up wanting to be like Jones, which didn’t change after they both wound up in the big leagues.
“He’s been one of those guys where I always looked across and tried to take away some of the things from his game and apply it to mine,” Wright said. “He’s been so consistent, so good for so long and been part of a lot of great times. It’s going be a little odd looking across there and not seeing Chipper in uniform, that’s for sure.”
New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, whose 17-year stint with one team is surpassed only by Jones among active players, has always been impressed by the way the Atlanta player carries himself: a wad of tobacco in his jaw, a batting glove always dangling out of his back pocket when he took the field.
“He just looks like a ballplayer, you know? His actions, his mannerisms, everything he does,” Jeter said. “I really can’t say enough good things about him. The way he’s gone about his business, his consistency, how he took care of himself, what he means to the team. He could flat-out hit. He’s a Hall of Famer, for sure.”
He should be a first-ballot selection, according to Cox, who attended the news conference with the only other manager Jones will have in his big league career, current Braves skipper Fredi Gonzalez.
Schuerholz, the former general manager and now team president, and Wren are the only GMs of the Jones era. Stability meant a lot to the third baseman, who never seriously considered leaving the Braves.
“To have two top executives and only two managers at one table after all these years says a lot about this organization,” Jones said. “There have been times when I could have gone into free agency to see if the grass is greener, but it never was.”
While other players came and went, Jones was always the one constant in the clubhouse.
“He was the face of the franchise,” said former teammate Andruw Jones, who’s now with the Yankees. “You don’t see it too much any more. It’s hard for players to stay with one organization.”
No matter what happens in his final season, Chipper Jones will go down as one of the game’s greatest switch-hitters, a guy who could hit for average (.304 in his career) and power (454 homers and 1,561 RBIs).
Shortly after reporting for what will be his final spring training, Jones marveled that he was still with the Braves with his milestone birthday coming up in April.
“Never in my mid-20s would I have given myself a snowball’s chance to be in camp and have a job at 40 years old,” Jones told The Associated Press. “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 going to ride it as long as we can.”
That ride lasts one more season.
The Braves said Jones hopes to remain with the organization in another capacity after his playing career ends, but it won’t happen next year. First, he plans to spend some long-overdue time with his family.
“I just want to be a full-time dad,” Jones said.
But he’ll always stay involved in the game. While Jones has no desire to go into managing, he has indicated a desire to be hitting instructor some day.
“I have such a passion for hitting,” Jones said last month. “I’m kind of a one-track-mind kind of guy. I can’t have my hands in a bunch jars and be delegating responsibility for a bunch of different areas. I’d much rather stay focused on just one area and be able to do that well. While I think I could manage, I really don’t have the urge to manage. I’d much rather be a hitting coach than a manager.”
Jones, the top overall pick in the 1990 draft, was initially pegged to join the Braves’ lineup four years later as a left fielder. But he suffered a season-ending knee injury in spring training, delaying his debut.
What a debut it was.
Back at his natural infield position in 1995, Jones finished second in the NL rookie of the year balloting and helped the Braves win their first World Series title in Atlanta.
That remains his only championship, even though the Braves kept right on winning the NL East through 2005 in an unprecedented streak of 14 straight division titles. Jones was on teams that lost to the Yankees in the 1996 and ’99 World Series.
After the team slumped for a couple of years, Jones was joined by a new generation of players who led the Braves back to the postseason in 2010 — the final year of Cox’s long tenure as manager. Atlanta lost to the eventual champion San Francisco Giants in a tightly fought division series that Jones missed, having gone down in August with the second season-ending knee injury of his career.
Now, the Braves have one more chance to send Jones into retirement with a second World Series title.
“He’s had 18 remarkable years,” Schuerholz said, “and I hope his 19th is his most remarkable.”
Injuries were an unfortunate hindrance to Jones’ career, preventing him from reaching 500 homers. In addition to the two major knee operations, Jones had to deal with nagging ailments since 2004. This spring, he reported in top shape but his legs tightened, leading him to question whether he could even make it through the season.
“There’s not a day goes by that I don’t take some kind of pill or injection … to help me go out there,” he said.
When Jones was healthy, he was one of game’s most feared hitters. His best season was 1999, when he won the MVP award with a .319 average, a career-leading 45 homers and 110 RBIs. Nine years later, at 36, he won his first batting title with a career-high .364 average, which remains the last of his 10 seasons hitting above .300.
Despite his impressive power numbers, Jones always considered average to be the most important statistic.
“You’re never going to convince me I can’t hit .300-plus,” he said. “Hitting .300 — that’s my benchmark.”