His face and smile are still boyish, his heart is still young and his passion for the game is still there. But his body is aging and his knees have betrayed him. Today Chipper Jones announced that the 2012 season will be his last.
As Braves fans, we've been spoiled for 18 wonderful years. We've had a front row seat watching the genesis of a Hall of Fame career. Chipper holds so many records. Braves records and MLB records. But for me the biggest and most wonderful record of all is that for 18 years, Chipper Jones has worn only one uniform. An Atlanta Braves uniform. No other active player has played for one team as long. Yes, we have been spoiled beyond belief.
When Bobby Cox drafted Chipper in 1990 he saw something in him. He saw something that he didn't see in Todd Van Poppel. Confidence. It was something small, not the confidence, but a simple difference he noticed between the two young players. Chipper Jones made eye contact when speaking to him. Todd Van Poppel didn't. It almost seemed as if Van Poppel was avoiding the eyes of the Braves GM. Bobby Cox knows talent and all the things that make up a great baseball player. He saw it all in Chipper Jones.
Chipper should have been the National League's Rookie of the Year in 1995. I still can't get past the fact that Hideo Nomo was given that honor. A pitcher who had played professional ball for 5 seasons in Japan was named "Rookie" of the Year. No, I'll never get over than one. But Chipper got what he really wanted that year. A World Series Ring. What a season it was for the future face of the franchise. And what a year that was for all of us! Chipper is the last piece of that team still in uniform as a player. He's the final link to that team of destiny.
I knew the announcement was inevitable, but I hoped for the impossible. I hoped that he'd be able to play forever. At the beginning of Spring Training Chipper felt great. He was having a great time and if things went well, maybe he'd play in 2013 too. But the knees started barking and he needed to sit. The conversations that he'd had with John Schuerholz and Frank Wren over the past few seasons were becoming more real. It was time.
Chipper made the announcement this morning and he did it as he wanted to. On his terms. He didn't want it to end as it did for Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. He always swore that he'd never stick around for the numbers or the money. He has too much respect for the game to do that. As always, Chipper Jones is true to his words.
The press conference was perfect. Chipper was Chipper. He was forthright and as emotional as we've ever see him. He thanked everyone who got him to where he is today. His parents, his wife and children, his lifelong friend and agent, his coaches (from Little League to the majors) and his teammates. His teammates. That was the toughest for him.
We don't decide what our legacy in life is. Others decide for us. But what I love most about what Chipper said was regarding his legacy and what he hopes it will be. He hopes to be remembered for being a good leader and mentor. He spoke of his Braves mentors, Terry Pendleton, David Justice and Fred McGriff and what they taught him. He said that if a player remembers just one "nugget" that he's been told, whether it's about hitting, about doing what's best for the team, about being professional or how to lead, then he's done what he always hoped to do.
Baseball fans all over the country have the opportunity to see Chipper Jones for one more season and to thank him. It should be fun to watch...especially in Philly and New York. I think even the most loyal Mets fan has to be a little sad at retiring the "Larry" chant.
If you'd like to listen to the press conference, here is a link to the audio, courtesy of 680 The Fan.