- Jeff MacGregor
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Standing behind the batting cage at Citi Field late Saturday afternoon, two things present themselves to notice. The first is that for a 7:05 p.m. Mets/Braves start, the smell of sausage, onions and peppers arrives thick on the field right around 5:30. The second is that Chipper Jones is dipping his back shoulder a little as he swings. An inch or two. He's likely trying to help clear his hips as he turns on the ball. This is the kind of adjustment a player might make as he gets older, or as he works his way back from an injury. Or both. 10 cuts from the right side, 10 from the left, back and forth, the swing still strong and fluid and beautiful. He hits the ball hard. Pounds it, in fact, head down and perfectly still, to all fields in the summer heat and the humid gloom.
Love him or hate him, Chipper Jones is one of the best switch-hitters in the game's history. Now 39 years old and in his 17th season, he is a lifetime student of the true old school. Mock him for the nickname and for the red-faced "Our Gang" smile, mock him for the hustle and for the lip. Disagree with the snuff, sure, or the personal history or the small cross modestly studded with many diamonds, but there's no disagreeing with that swing. You cannot dispute the glove or contradict the arm. You cannot argue his poetry or his numbers or his purpose.
Talent and craft. But 39. Same age as Jorge Posada, currently being waked in The Bronx. Coming off knee surgery. Almost at the end of things. Another year or two.
"He's pretty optimistic about coming back," says Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez. Now's the moment to look for doubt in Fredi's eyes, or falsehood, or for the skip's deepest unspeakable, the preference that his aging superstar step down, step aside, make way for the youngsters coming up behind. There is none. "I think Chipper's really, really a productive major leaguer. He's still a big part of this team, still a big contributor."
There are retired ballplayers everywhere you look at any big league game -- maybe ask them about when to step off, about how to let go gracefully.
"You play until they rip the jersey off your back," says David Wells, not really smiling, on the elevator up to the press box. John Smoltz answers him. "For me it was pretty easy. I went as far as I could go. I didn't want to be mediocre, and I didn't wanna hang around."
Both still figure they could pitch right now. Maybe they're kidding.
"I think we'd be great in this era," says Wells, "A quality start's five innings."
As they step out and the doors close, both agree that the calculus for older players is immutable. "How hard are you willing to work" just to stay even? Just to lose ground more slowly? Just to hold back the inevitable another day?
On Saturday night, the Mets win a strange, out-of-phase, rain-delayed game, 11-7. Jones goes 1-for-4 with an RBI and looks
goodnot bad doing it.
On Sunday morning, the whiteboard reminds the Braves that Mass will be celebrated up on the fourth floor at 10 a.m., and there's an 11:45 a.m. chapel in the media room. The spirit needs tending, even on gameday, even on the road.
Meanwhile, on his stool in the visitor's clubhouse, Chipper Jones' flesh is inventoried by reporters.
"How you feeling?"
"How's the leg?"
"How will you know it's time to go?"
"My body will tell me."
He has arrived at that late-career moment when reporters count on superstars for a summing up and will ask them sideways to write their own eulogies. To do so, they look out past that broad superstar shoulder for a moment, out into the future and the pensive middle-distance, take a deep breath and ask How He Wants To Be Remembered. Or what he'll Miss Most About The Game Of Baseball. Then they'll slip that great red clown nose of a microphone in front of him and nod gravely in agreement with whatever he says.
To Chipper Jones' credit, when this happens he does not punch anyone in the face. Instead, he answers as politely as he can that he's not sure yet, and that's a good question, and that he's still playing the games one at a time. Etc.
Having thus Talked About His Legacy, the knot of reporters eases and there's world enough and time to entertain a few seconds' speculation about whether or not he's dropping that trailing shoulder in order to get around on the ball a little faster. Yes, you can clear your hips quicker that way, and take some responsibility for bat speed and power off a balky leg.
"It's important to be able to adapt your swing to the situation," he says. "Sometimes you need to adapt it to how you feel, too, to how your body feels."
Then he'll walk back to the trainer's room for more heat, more stim, more ultrasound, more massage. There's a lot of medical expertise and man hours and money in maintaining those aging legs. He'll play it for laughs, too, add a little vaudeville to the hobble, make painfully small steps, his teammates chuckling, until watching him shuffle off is like watching the cross-lobby traffic at an assisted living facility.
Because maybe the aging ballplayer needs to make the joke before anyone else can make it.
So, even though he's been killing the Mets dead for two decades, on Sunday afternoon, Chipper Jones is not on the lineup card. He's on the bench. Resting.
He's on the bench resting until the bottom of the sixth inning, that is, when he's called in on a defensive swap. He jogs stiffly out to third. In the top of the seventh, he pops out to short.
But in the top of the ninth inning on Sunday afternoon, the game on the line tied at five apiece, Chipper Jones digs in. He doesn't dip his back shoulder. Rather, leaning forward, he reaches for a pitch, a slider on the outside part of the plate, like a man trying to close a furnace door with a broom handle.
He pulls the ball into right field, and on Monday morning, the papers will note that it was his "27th game-winning RBI against the Mets, the most by any player versus any team during the divisional era."
He runs to first on what seem like fresh legs, on what might be the legs of a schoolboy.
Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.
1hBy Jackie MacMullan