Approaching 40, Chipper isn't slowing down
Jones anticipates a healthy 2012, with an eye toward '13
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Let's get the serious stuff out of the way first.If Chipper Jones remains healthy this season and a games-played vesting option kicks in for 2013, he'll undoubtedly play again next year. "You can make that assumption," said the veteran Braves third baseman, seated in front of his locker just prior to the first full day of workouts at Champion Stadium on Saturday. Does that mean, yes? "You can make that assumption," he repeated. A vesting option of $9 million kicks in if he plays in 123 games this season or averages 127 over the course of 2011 and '12. Jones participated in 125 games this past season. He doesn't think the 123 mark is very daunting. Can he do that? "Oh yeah," he said. "I played in  last year with knee surgery at the All-Star break. Yeah, I can do that."
Last year, he needed an arthroscopic procedure on his right knee to repair a torn meniscus. Back to the circular discussion about how many years and games he has left in his battered body."I'm going to retire. It's coming soon," Jones said. How soon? "I don't know," he added. "It's going to be no sooner than the end of this year, let's put it that way. I will not retire at the All-Star break. Write it down. Book it." All this is now straight. He'll return next year if he's healthy and a vesting option kicks in. If not, he won't retire any sooner than the end of this season. Let's hold him to it. Braves fans have to feel pretty good about that. Now on to the more frivolous topics: Jones' arm and face were still toasty red, the result of a fishing excursion earlier in the week in the hot Florida sunshine. "I'm paying for it," he said. No sunscreen? "Nah, sunscreen is for babies," he said. And then there was the offending picture taken earlier this week, seeming to show that Chipper now has a love handle on his right side, below a gray Braves t-shirt, which was pulled down well below his shorts. An Atlanta TV station ran with it, saying that Jones had reported to camp overweight. Jones good-naturedly snarled and scoffed. He said he hadn't personally seen the picture, even though it went viral on the Internet. "I called my mom last night and she said, 'Yeah, it's not a very flattering picture,'" Jones said. "But what are you going to do? Trick photog." Jones maintains he is not overweight. "No, I'm actually about six or seven pounds lighter than I've been in about 15 years, coming into Spring Training," he said. "I tried to lose some weight and take some pressure off the knees a little bit. Lo and behold, this is the first year I've ever had to answer questions about my fatness." It comes with age and the territory. Back to some more seriousness. Jones experienced a relatively pain-free offseason, when he didn't have to contend with various knee issues. Even before that, he was dealing with deteriorating power production at the plate. He hasn't hit 20 or more homers in a single season since 2008 or driven in 100 or more runs since 2007. His slugging percentage has been below .500 and his OPS has been below 1.000 since 2008. It is clear that Jones, like most star players nearing 40, is trying to beat back a natural decline. "I've spent so much of the last few offseasons trying to rehab a specific injury," he said. "It took away from my ability to work out so I can get myself ready for a long season. This year, I was able to get in the cage, to throw, to run, to lift without the worry of wondering whether my knee was going to hold up. I'm looking forward to better results because of that." Finally, there was the way the 2011 regular season ended for the Braves -- on the last night of the season with a 13-inning loss to the Phillies, allowing the Cardinals to sneak away with the National League's Wild Card berth. The Braves led the Cardinals by as many as 10 games on Aug. 27, and squandered the entire lead. "It just snowballed on us," Jones said. "There's no other way to explain it." The Braves had long been at home in late October by the time the Cardinals went all the way to the World Series, coming from behind again to defeat the Rangers in seven thrilling games. Jones still can't believe it happened. "Beyond a shadow of a doubt, [the Cardinals] shouldn't have been there," he said. "We should have been there. I told [Rangers infielder] Michael Young that the Rangers were going to kill them." Jones said he didn't harbor much remorse about the collapse for very long. Ballplayers have to be able to live in a state of denial about some significant things. "Me? I flushed it away," he said. "Not right away, but after a week. As a ballplayer you have to have some denial in your blood. The best players fail 70 percent of the time. That's a lot of failure. You have to learn to deal with losses. Denial is how you deal with it, even if it's something as traumatic as what happened in September." Denial is a way to deal with a lot of issues. For Chipper Jones, add age, sunburn, weight and retirement to that list.
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.