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September 5, 2012

Painting the Black

Chipper, Loyalty and the Two-Way Street

by R.J. Anderson

Will Chipper Jones have played his final game come October 5th? We know Jones and the Braves conclude their regular season schedule in Pittsburgh on October 3rd. Given how the standings are shaping up, and the new single-game Wild Card round, Jones could play in back-to-back elimination games, a scintillating proposition for those who seek out history by watching the firsts, lasts, and other notable milestone of a player’s career. Jones’ career could end on October 3rd, 5th, or maybe not until the following week, or the week thereafter. The unpredictability of it all creates great drama; and so, we’ll hear lines uttered reminding us that this could be Jones’ final at-bat, or his final home run, or his final error. All as a way to emphasize the moment—to say, this matters!

Jones retiring does matter, of course. As the final on-the-field link between the present and the glory days, Jones means a tremendous amount to the Braves and their fans. Play in one city for as long, and do it as well, as Jones has, and local idolatry is a given. What’s telling about Jones’ legacy is not how Braves fans feel about him, but rather, how opposing cities are treating him. From gifts to standing ovations, the pomp and circumstance honoring Jones is everywhere, even in New York. The outpouring of appreciation toward the future Hall-of-Famer seems two-folded: one part hat tip for his impressive numbers, one part for embodying the ideal franchise player.

Loyal has become a go-to-adjective in describing Jones. He never has and never will play for a big-league team besides the Braves. But in business—and baseball is foremost a business—loyalty without production is useless, and Jones’ ability to stick with one franchise from start to finish says as much about his production as his character. Although past Atlanta greats Dale Murphy, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz spent their final years in decline with other teams, Jones prevented the Braves’ eyes from wandering by consistently producing. Loyalty is a two-way street.

The two worst offensive seasons of Jones’ career came in 1995 and 2009, according to True Average. Jones has two built-in excuses for 1995: 1) he was 23 years old and 2) he had missed the previous season due to a knee injury. The 2009 season is harder to hand-wave, but Jones signed a three-year, $42 million extension prior to the season opener, ensuring his place on the roster for the duration of the deal.  Here’s the kicker: Jones’ TAv in either year would rank top-15 among third basemen this season. Even when Jones was bad by his own standards, he was pretty good.

Jones’ trek from hotshot prospect to team leader felt like a natural ascent. His father, a former coach and teacher, raised a hard-nosed competitor, as a Sports Illustrated feature from 1995 detailed. When you read accounts of Jones doing extra work in the cages or the video room, or playing through this injury or that one, you cannot help but wonder if his father’s no-shortcuts attitude helped carve the man’s ambition. Jones flexed his leadership muscles by publically questioning Jason Heyward’s swing and health last season. From anybody else, the comments sound petty. But Jones knows more about hitting than anyone and had to shed the soft label himself. Consider the sarcastic opening to Jones’ player comment in Baseball Prospectus 1996: “These players today, they're too soft. Can't come back from an injury the way they used to.”

There’s a story about Bobby Cox’s earliest opinion on Jones shared in Scouts Honor that sounds too good to be true. Cox, then the general manager, liked Jones as a ballplayer. He wondered, though, if Jones had the requisite toughness to succeed. One day, supposedly a week before the draft, Cox got a report from a scout. An opposing player had begun yakking at Jones’ pitcher. Being the sophisticated ballplayer Jones was (and remains), he responded by punching the player in his face. This delighted Cox and led the Braves to select Jones with the first-overall pick in the draft. Jones even signed his first professional contract with a broken hand endured from the punch. (For the sake of Jones mythology, we’ll ignore Todd Van Poppel’s signability issues and pretend this was the tiebreaker.)

Twenty-plus years later, Jones is standing on second base. The Braves trail by one and there are two outs in the inning when Paul Janish hits a ball to center field. Jones rounds third and heads to the plate. The ball beats him there. What does Jones, 40 years old and weeks from retirement, do? What do you think?

The same traces of competitiveness, toughness, and unselfishness that define Jones’ play have led to him sacrificing personal preference for the betterment of the team. When the Braves had a chance to acquire Vinny Castilla, Jones signed off on the move, and did so forcefully. Jones, the franchise’s face at third base, slid to left field to accommodate the new acquisition. Years later, Jones renegotiated his deal and took a $14 million haircut over a three-year span to free up budget space. (For his troubles, Jones did have his option years turn into guarantees.) Jones’ team-first attitude was prevalent throughout his career, according to John Schuerholz’s book Built to Win. Even now, Jones is thinking about the team. During an interview on a FOX Sports telecast, Jones said he would consider playing on were his knees in better shape. However, as it were, he felt leaving the rest of the organization hanging on his every ache and pain would be wrong.

Walking away now helps the fans, too. We as a culture romanticize going out on top in athletics more so than any other industry. No one roots for the latest Oscar- or Grammy-winner to retire. If Denzel Washington’s knees are achy, you get him a stunt man; there is neither an editing technique nor a CGI modification that would give Jones back his old range. Physical decay is more visible in sports. Were Jones to continue playing, he would lead to the discovery that we are all mortal. By going out on top, as it could be, Jones is saving us the awkwardness.

Let us not make Jones out to be a superhero, a deity, or anything more than human. His body and desire have betrayed him just as they have betrayed the lot of us. Perhaps that knowledge works in Jones’ favor. He comes across as down-to-earth. Replace Jones’ baseball knowledge and aptitude with that of, say, a mechanic and you could confuse him for your neighbor. In that sense, he shares a lot with one of his influences, Dale Murphy.

No one knows for sure when Jones will take his final swing. We do know that he’s had a career other ballplayers will envy and attempt to emulate. You get the feeling he couldn’t be more thrilled.

R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here

Related Content:  Atlanta Braves,  Chipper Jones

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