Commentary

The many feats of Chipper Jones

As his career winds down, legendary switch-hitter's numbers are piling up

Updated: September 27, 2012, 5:26 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

All of a sudden, it's here. The End. The finish line. Not just of an unforgettable season, but of a unique and historic baseball career.

And now that he's arrived, at last, at the final week of his surreal journey -- at least the regular-season portion -- Chipper Jones finds himself looking backward, looking forward, looking everywhere at once. It's a crazy time. And a beautiful time.

He has accepted all the lovely parting gifts. He has gotten "a little misty" over the ovations he's received, not just in ballparks where they've spent 18 years booing him but from the opposing players who play in those parks. He has clicked on the aerial photos of the giant No. 10 that has been carved in a sprawling Georgia corn field.

"My first-ever corn field," he said with a chuckle.

A few more regular-season games await him. And an emotional farewell ceremony in Atlanta on Saturday. And then his final October, when Chipper Jones gets to write the last scene of one of baseball's most remarkable scripts of modern times.

And then?

[+] EnlargeChipper Jones
Daniel Shirey/US PRESSWIREOne last postseason for Chipper Jones. One last chance at that elusive second World Series ring.

Then comes peace. And serenity. And satisfaction. And, maybe most of all, a much-needed giant gulp of oxygen, after the most exhausting season of his life.

"I can't wait, to be honest with you," he said, leaning back in his chair in an otherwise-empty clubhouse. "I view the next couple of weeks to a month as a win-win for me, because when it's finally over, if you feel a big gust of wind come across you, it's probably me and the sigh of relief that I'm letting out."

But that's not all The End will bring, you know. What The End also brings, always, is the opportunity for the rest of us to experience That Moment -- the moment of reflection when it all hits you, when you realize what it is you've been watching all these years as the great Chipper Jones has gone about his inimitable business.

Maybe That Moment hasn't set in for you quite yet. But that's why we're here. Somebody has to put this man's incredible career in perspective. It might as well be us.

So that's what we've set out to do -- to sum up where the only "Chipper" in baseball history fits in the annals of the greatest third basemen, greatest switch-hitters, greatest No. 1 picks and greatest winners who ever played. That's all.

To do that, we've enlisted the help of his teammates, his manager, his general manager, his overpowering numbers and, of course, Chipper himself. So ready? Here it comes -- the true meaning of the very special life and times of Chipper Jones:

Feat No. 1 -- .300 from both sides of the plate

The numbers: Jones hitting left-handed: .304/.405/.542. Hitting right-handed: .305/.391/.499.

What it means: There have been 106 switch-hitters in history who came to the plate at least 5,000 times. Only two of them hit .300 or better from both sides. One was Frankie Frisch, whose career ended 75 years ago. The other: Chipper Jones.

Chipper's take: Oh sure, it sounds impressive, Jones admits. "But not a lot of switch-hitters have been doing it since they were 7," he said. "That's 33 years. So if I don't have it somewhat down by now, something's wrong."

He laughs softly at his own quip. But he knows, he says, he couldn't have hung out with Frankie Frisch without the brilliant hitting coaches he had through the years -- without Willie Stargell and Frank Howard to pass along their wisdom when he was young, without Don Baylor to prod him to reach that next level from the right side in 1999, and, especially, without a man named Larry Wayne Jones Sr., the father whose inspired idea this whole switch-hitting thing was in the first place.

"You know, it takes a lot of work," Jones said. "It takes twice as much work to be a switch-hitter as it does to be one-sided. But it certainly paid off. I can't imagine walking up to the plate and facing a Kevin Brown or a Pedro Martinez righty-on-righty, or a Randy Johnson or Cliff Lee lefty-on-lefty. I thank God every day my dad made me turn around in the back yard.

"We used to watch the Saturday game of the week on TV, with Joe Garagiola and Tony Kubek. And after the game was over, we'd go out in the back yard and imitate the lineup. Whenever a left-handed hitter came up in my lineup, I had to hit left-handed. My dad's standing 40 feet away from me with a tennis ball. And I've got a 32-inch piece of PVC pipe in my hand. And he's raring back and chucking it as hard as he can. That's how you learn to hit the fastball right there."

Feat No. 2 -- Walking with the Mick

The numbers: Jones' career on-base percentage: .401. His career slugging percentage: .530. His career homers: 468. All as a switch-hitter, of course.

What it means: The list of greatest switch-hitters in history obviously includes men like Frisch, Pete Rose, Eddie Murray and even Lance Berkman. But only two switch-hitters are in that .400-.500-400 Club. One is Mickey Mantle. The other: Chipper Jones.

Chipper's take: "I think, coming up, I knew what the standard was," Jones said. "I knew that Mickey Mantle and Eddie Murray were the two best switch-hitters of all time. While I never expected to hit 300 to 400 home runs in my career, the goal was still the same. I wanted to be mentioned, when I was done playing, if not with those two guys, then right behind them. And as I've gotten bigger and stronger and more mature mentally in my game, the numbers just kind of piled up. I've been able to play a long time. And now I'm to the point where every homer, every RBI, passes a Hall of Famer. It's been a lot of fun."

[+] EnlargeChipper Jones
Denis Poroy/Getty ImagesNow here's a gift from Trevor Hoffman and the Padres that could come in handy in retirement. Think the switch-hitter is a switch-footer?

The manager's take: One of the problems with our modern-day reverence of on-base percentage, slugging and OPS is that they're awesome metrics -- but lousy measuring sticks. So as men like Chipper play into their twilight, it's the "counting numbers" that become their most magical, and memorable, mileposts. And why not?

When Jones passed Lou Gehrig on the all-time hits list last weekend, for instance, it carried no powerful historic significance. But for his manager, Fredi Gonzalez, it was still a "goose bumps" moment.

"Somebody said, 'Hey when he gets his next hit, make sure to get the ball, because he's going to pass Lou Gehrig," Gonzalez said. "And I said, 'Whoah. Lou Gehrig?' You know, all season, every time he passed a guy, another name, you'd be like, 'Holy crap.' They're all guys you never saw play. But you see them in the history books."

Chipper's take: For Chipper, it wasn't passing Gehrig on the hits list that rattled his personal Richter scale. It was passing his all-time all-time icon, Mantle, on the career RBI list last year.

"When you start passing some of the great Yankees of all time, you really start to sit back and say, 'Wow,'" he said. "But the big one for me was passing Mickey in RBIs. For me, Mickey was put on such a high pedestal when I was a kid, from my dad, it's just hard for me to believe that I could pass him in anything, much less something as important as a run-production stat."

Feat No. 3 -- Topping Schmidt and Brett

The numbers: 1,622 RBIs for Chipper -- and still counting.

What it means: In the history of baseball, only three players ever drove in more than 1,500 runs while spending most of their careers playing third base. Two were George Brett (1,596) and Mike Schmidt (1,595). You can learn all about them in Cooperstown, N.Y. But who's the all-time leader in RBIs by a guy who mostly played third base? Chipper Jones. That's who.

Chipper's take: When Jones is hanging plaques in his own little third-base pantheon, he makes a point to pay homage to Eddie Mathews, "the model by which every Atlanta third baseman is going to be measured." But with all due respect to Brooks Robinson, Wade Boggs, Ron Santo, Pie Traynor and the other great third basemen in history, Chipper's personal Hot Corner Hall of Fame begins with two men: Brett and Schmidt, the dynamic duo that comprises his definition of "the gold standard."

The three of them rank 1-2-3 in some order in a bunch of significant third-base categories. But when Jones found himself zooming past Schmidt and Brett in RBIs in the same week this July, it was one of the most overwhelming experiences of his overwhelming year.

"When you talk about passing those guys in career RBIs in my final season, for guys whose primary position was third base, it was just one of those moments where you're like, 'Wow.' You can't really believe it," he said. "I grew up watching these guys. Never in a million years did I think I'd be mentioned in the same breath with them one day. … It's really crazy. Whenever you do that, you just go home at night and sit in a chair in front of the TV and just say, 'Wow.' Never in my wildest dreams, when I was in my back yard in Pierson, Fla., did I ever think I would be in such elite company."

Feat No. 4 -- More walks than whiffs

The numbers: Here Jones is, after more than 10,000 trips to the plate, still able to say he has piled up more career walks (1,505) than strikeouts (1,409). Hard to do.

What it means: More than 130 active players have hit at least 100 homers in their careers -- but only three of them have walked more than they've punched out. Albert Pujols and Todd Helton are two of them. The other: Chipper Jones.

[+] EnlargeJones
Rich Schultz/Getty ImagesFrom Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and the Phillies, a piece of fine art.

Teammate's take: "A lot of switch-hitters, their swings are different from both sides, but not him," said Jones' clubhouse neighbor, Eric Hinske. "He's just so consistent. The number that sticks out to me is that he's got more walks than strikeouts in his career. To me, that's not even comprehendible."

Chipper's take: "A lot of guys say that's probably the most impressive stat," Jones said. "I've heard a lot of guys saying they can't even wrap their heads around that. But you know, to be honest, I think if I have one regret in the course of my career, it's that I didn't swing the bat more when I was younger. Or else I'd be a heck of a lot closer to the 3,000 [hit] mark. But there's a reason I didn't: Because it goes against everything I believe in as an offensive player.

"When you walk to the plate, you need to go up there and be the toughest out possible. And in order to do that, you have to draw walks. You have to yield to the guy behind you in the lineup from time to time. The fact of the matter is, there are certain points during the season, during a game, that teams aren't going to let you beat them. And if you're smart enough to realize when those situations are, you're going to draw a bunch of walks. I've always thought that."

Feat No. 5 -- The greatest No. 1 overall pick ever

The numbers: 2,724 hits and 468 homers -- every one of them for the team that drafted him with the very first pick in 1990, the Atlanta Braves.

What it means: Only one other No. 1 overall pick ever hit 400 homers for the team that drafted him: Ken Griffey Jr., who hit 417 for the Mariners. But here's what separates Chipper from Griffey and every other No. 1 in history: This guy did everything for the team that picked him. If you don't count active players, you know what the next most hits and home runs is by a No. 1 overall pick who played his entire big league career with the team that drafted him? Ummmmm … would you believe 25 hits and two homers, by former Mariners great Al Chambers? You can look it up.

The GM's take: Maybe Griffey and Alex Rodriguez can stake their claims to the title of Greatest No. 1 Pick Ever. But at the very least, says Braves GM Frank Wren, Chipper is the guy who's had "the greatest value to the organization that picked him. How about that? I think you could make that case, from a standpoint of, he's spent his whole career with one organization, and had a Hall of Fame career, whereas other guys haven't necessarily done that."

And that only happened, Wren says, because Jones "was always wanting to get something done so he'd stay here forever. … And that's allowed him to have a special end to a career that wouldn't have existed if he'd chased the last dollar."

Chipper's take: "I want to be identified with one team," Jones said, emphatically. "I don't want to spend the last two or three years in my career floating around the league, trying to attain a number. I've never wanted to play anywhere else. Atlanta fits my style and my speed. I've gotten a chance to play for Bobby [Cox], who I think is the greatest manager of all time, for 17 of the 19 years. I'm a Southern kid. I was born and bred in the Braves organization. And I want to stay here.

"The marriage between the Braves and myself has been a good one. It's been one with give and take on both sides. So I've never wanted to wear another uniform. And they've shown me throughout the years, by never even letting me get remotely close to free agency, that they want me here. And that means a lot to me. I wouldn't feel right going to the American League and DH-ing, just to get 3,000 hits or 500 homers. … Do I think I could stick around for another two or three years and get 3,000 hits or 500 homers if I really wanted it? Yeah. No doubt. Because I still have the ability to be productive. But that would mean me probably having to go somewhere else. And it means more to me to spend 19 years in one organization, in one uniform, and nobody else seeing me in a different 'uni.'

"It'd just be too weird," he said. "It'd be weird for me. It would be weird for everybody who came out to watch. And heck, if I played for another team, I'd be running back and forth to the clubhouse checking how the Braves were doing. And I certainly could never see myself playing against an Atlanta team. That would just be way too difficult. … I saw guys like [Tom] Glavine and Smoltzy [John Smoltz] do it, and I know it was hard for them. I know how difficult it was for them to play in our venue and play against us, to try and beat us. It's just something I wouldn't want to do."

Feat No. 6 -- 427 games over .500

The numbers: Since the day Chipper Jones moved into the Braves' lineup to stay, on Opening Day 1995, they've won 427 more games (1,658) than they've lost (1,231). That would not be a coincidence, ladies and gentlemen.

What it means: We've done the math. There are only two active position players who can say their teams are at least 400 games over .500 in their time as regular players. One is (shocker) Derek Jeter (551 over). The other: Chipper Jones.

There have been so many cool things that have happened to me this year. The fans' appreciation and [opposing] teams' appreciation, that's been unbelievable in and of itself.

-- Chipper Jones

Chipper's take: He knows this is a feat he didn't achieve alone. He knows he was just "one-ninth of the equation" every day he took the field. He knows the Braves "surrounded me with a ton of good players along the way." He gladly names many of their names. But that doesn't mean he wasn't part -- maybe even the most important part -- of a special team, at a special time.

"I'm proud that I'm the last guy standing from the old regime, that I'm still here and we're still competitive," Jones said. "We're still winning games. And I'm contributing to that. I think that when people talk about you, you want to be talked about as what? A winner. Ultimately, that's what it comes down to. People want to be known as a winner -- and as a 'ballplayer,' because the people inside the game know what the term 'ballplayer' means. You can't argue with the success that we've had here during my tenure."

Yeah, he's heard all the garbage about how those 14 division titles the Braves won were tarnished by the fact they won "only" one World Series. But even as he gazes back on those years in the rearview mirror, he sees nothing he feels he ought to apologize for.

"To be honest, '96 is the only one I look back on and have any regrets," Jones said. "That's the one I think we had the best team. I think we showed it the first two games [of that World Series] and then didn't show it from then on out. Every other year, I think that we got beaten by a better team at that particular time in the season. So yeah, it's 'only' one. But man, the body of work over that 14-year span, I don't think it'll ever be duplicated. I really don't."

Feat No. 7 -- The best farewell season ever

The numbers: In the final season of his career, at age 40, here's the stat line of the great Chipper Jones: 106 games, 427 plate appearances, .295/.382/.470. Oh, and there's also this: He leads his team -- a team headed for the postseason, by the way -- in OPS (.852). Amazing.

What it means: There have been many, many great players who played into their late 30s and early 40s. Pretty much none of them had a final season to rival this one. With the help of the Elias Sports Bureau, we looked at all Hall of Fame position players since 1900 who finished their careers at age 37 or older. Exactly one of them had a say-goodnight season that resembled Chipper's grand finale. That would be a fellow named Ted Williams, who hit .316/.451/.645 in 1960, at age 41 -- but in only 390 plate appearances. So it's Ted … and Chipper. Two guys who didn't just know when to turn out the lights. They also knew how. Did they ever.

Teammate's take: He's been an MVP, an eight-time All-Star, a consistent run-production machine and a man who hit third or fourth in every one of the 92 postseason games he played in. But there has been something especially magical about Chipper Jones' final season. And everyone around him is savoring the magic act.

"For me, the way he's playing, it's the best I've seen him play since I've been here -- and he's won a batting title since I've been here," said Jones' friend and protégé, Brian McCann. "But for some reason, this year it seems like he's come up with more big hits than ever. He's been in the middle of everything. … It's like he can see the finish line, and he's giving it all he's got, and it's great to see."

The manager's take: It hasn't merely been the numbers that have made this year so cinematic, though. "He's just got a way of rising to those moments," Gonzalez said. "There have been so many of them. Like he missed the first six or seven days of the season because of his knee [surgery]. When he was ready to come back, I was begging him to go down [on a rehab option] to get some at-bats. He said, 'Just give me some BP. I'll be fine.' I said, 'You sure?' He looks at me and says, 'I'm sure.' Then he goes out there, his parents are in the stands, and he doubles first at-bat, hits a home run next at-bat. And as he's going around the bases, Hinske is yelling at him, 'It can't be that easy.'"

[+] EnlargeJones Sign
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty ImagesNot even Mets fans can knock Larry Wayne Jones off his game.

Chipper's take: The star of this show listens as we recite these numbers and pass along how his teammates describe him. What all this tells him, Jones says finally, is that "I've been productive when I've been in there."

"But the 'when I'm in there' is the catch phrase," he said with a laugh. "I can't go to bed at night anymore and say for sure whether I'm going to play the next day. And that's not fair to Fredi. It's not fair to the guys on the team."

That, however, just explains why he's retiring. It doesn't explain why he has still been the best player on his team -- even as he's cruising toward the exit ramp.

"It's just extremely gratifying to have not heard throughout the course of this year that 'you should have retired two or three years ago,'" Chipper Jones said. "And anything less than going out and hitting around .300 and doing some of the things that I've done this year, I probably would have heard that."

Without the year he's had, "we'd probably be back in the pack, fighting with the Dodgers and the Brewers and those other teams just to get in [the playoffs]," Jones' manager says. And no one on his team would argue.

In fact, best we can tell, only the computer programmers would. According to baseball-reference.com, Jones has been worth just 2.7 wins above replacement, making him merely the fourth-most valuable player on his own team. But there are certain things, in life and in baseball, that you can't measure with decimal points. And Chipper Jones' grand-finale magic act is one of them.

"There have been so many cool things that have happened to me this year," he says. "The fans' appreciation and [opposing] teams' appreciation, that's been unbelievable in and of itself. And there have just been so many cool things that have happened on the field:

"My first five-hit game at home [July 3, against the Cubs]. I've never done that before. … A couple of walk-offs [two homers that won games the Braves once trailed by six runs] at home. Man, that's the apex. … Home run on my [40th] birthday. … Home run in my first start of the season, with my parents in the stands. … Two homers on my bobblehead day. … Just some really, really cool moments where, as the balls are flying out of the park, I'm running down to first, saying, 'You have got to be kidding me. Did that just happen?'"

Seriously. Even in Hollywood, it would be hard to make up a story this good. Wouldn't it?

The No. 1 pick who batted third in the lineup in his very first start in the big leagues, spent the next 18 seasons chiseling his Hall of Fame plaque, and now will call it a wrap by batting cleanup in one last epic postseason baseball game -- for the team that drafted him? You have got to be kidding. Did that just happen? In real life?

"It's movie-worthy," says Chipper Jones, at his Spielbergian finest. "Movie-worthy."

And he's not kidding. But don't start casting "The Pride of Atlanta" quite yet, friends. Don't forget, this man and his team aren't done. So who knows what sort of astonishing October magic trick the big cinematographer in the sky has in store for him?

There are no guarantees, of course. And no one knows that better than him. But how come we just have a sneaky feeling that we haven't seen the last You Have Got To Be Kidding Me Moment before the great Chipper Jones can finally let out that giant sigh of relief and say, "That's a wrap."

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com