Jones remains familiar face in Atlanta
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Chipper Jones' baseball world used to be so predictable, so privileged, so filled with pitching. All that has changed. His Braves team no longer makes the playoffs every season, he is not a teammate of John Smoltz for the first time in his career, he has never had Ken Griffey Jr. as a teammate and the game he loves has been stained by steroids.
Asked how he's adjusting to his new life in baseball, Jones smiled and said, "I'm not adjusting very well."
Yet, at age 36, he is in negotiations with the Braves about a contract extension that could keep him in Atlanta for the rest of his career.
He is from the Ripken/Gwynn era, an era when you could tell a player was a player by looking at his face. "Chipper has a great face, you could see it right away," Braves manager Bobby Cox once said.
Jones is not from this era, which features a sense of entitlement from young players who do things such as raising the roof after a home run in the third inning or chirping back and forth between contenders in the National League East: "We're the team to beat." "No, we're the team to beat."
Like Gwynn and Ripken, Jones will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He will retire someday as one of the greatest third basemen in the history of the game. "And he's getting better as a hitter," Cox said.
Jones won his first batting title last year. "I'm no Tony Gwynn," he said, smiling. "I'm not getting eight. But it's nice to throw a .364 up there."
Jones is completely at ease with himself. Actually, he's always been that way, even back in his rookie season of '95, when it seemed as if he'd been playing in the majors for 10 years. He said he is looking forward to playing for the U.S. team in the World Baseball Classic in March. He did the same two years ago and called it "the greatest experience of my baseball life, wearing 'USA' across my chest."
David Wright, another third baseman, is on the team. Chances are, Jones will be asked to be a designated hitter.
"Fine," he said, "that means I get to pinch hit five times a game. The same thing happened two years ago with Alex [Rodriguez] and me. [U.S. manager] Buck Martinez called us in and said, 'I want your bats in the lineup at the same time, so one of you is going to have to DH.' I raised my hand and said, 'I'll do it.'"
Jones laughed, as he often does, but he didn't laugh when asked about baseball's steroids issue.
No. 10, 3B
"Probably the three or four best players that I've ever seen don a baseball uniform have this cloud over [the] top of them," he said. "That's very unfortunate, but I commend A-Rod for coming out and standing up for his wrongdoings, being a man about it, taking it head-on and let people make their judgments. That being said, I think A-Rod, with or without steroids, is a Hall of Famer. Same as Barry Bonds. I think Derek Jeter put it best: Everybody's going to look back at this and say, 'This is the steroid era.' But not everyone is doing it. There are 103 guys out there who are nervous right now, and I'm not one of them."
Jones said he does not like that the Braves aren't favored to win the NL East, as they were for so many years, but he's as realistic as they come in baseball. He knows that things change in the game. He said he is frustrated, but not angry, that the Braves, who were rumored to make a number of moves in the offseason, didn't make make the moves. They had the first shot at Padres pitcher Jake Peavy, but the deal never happened.
"The way I see it, if Jake really wanted to be here, then he would be here now," Jones said.
As for losing Smoltz to the Red Sox, Jones said, "It's very odd, him not being here, it's a lot quieter in the clubhouse. You go to battle for 16, 17 years with one guy, there's a bit of a culture shock for everybody. We all miss him around here. We miss him keeping the clubhouse mood light. I miss playing golf with him. He should have finished his career here."
And as for having a shot at signing Griffey but losing him to Seattle, Jones said, "His legacy was made there in Seattle, and it's fitting that it ends there. I was a little confused at the whole process. He's the one who came to us and said, 'Hey, I'm interested.' We in turn were very interested, and for him to turn around and go to Seattle was very curious. I would have liked to have him playing behind me in left field. I would have liked him hitting behind me in the order. But I certainly understand his reason for going back to Seattle."
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For 12 years, Chipper and Andruw Jones hit next to each other in the Braves' batting order. Now, Andruw is in camp with the Texas Rangers, trying to make the club.
"He's my boy," Chipper said. "He looks great. I hit with him this winter. He's lost some weight. If he can stop trying to hook the ball around the left-field foul pole, he's going to be all right. He has such great power to right-center. If he can try to go that way instead of pulling too much, he'll be back. I think [Rangers hitting coach] Rudy Jaramillo will really help him."
Andruw Jones is gone. Smoltz is gone. Mark Teixeira is gone. So many Braves have left, but instead of complaining, Chipper Jones wants to stay. He said he sees hope in the trade for right-handed pitcher Javier Vazquez and the signing of Derek Lowe. Jones said he wants to win as badly as ever, but even with the signing of Tom Glavine last week, Jones knows the pitching isn't what it was.
To understand where Jones is in his career with the Braves, you must go back to the day he signed as the No. 1 pick in the country in the 1990 MLB draft. The negotiations with the Braves lasted about 30 minutes. He did not have an agent. Jones' father, Larry, took his son upstairs after the Braves made their offer and told him, "You can get more than this." Chipper responded, "I know, but I want to play now." So he told his dad he would make so much money playing this game and did not need to earn all of it in his first contract.
Nearly 20 years later, he has proved himself correct. Young players, and all players, can learn a lot from Chipper Jones.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May. Click here to order a copy.