ATLANTA — With his 40th birthday approaching, Chipper Jones announced Thursday he will retire after one more season with the Braves.
The third baseman, who has spent his entire 18-year career with Atlanta, has battled injuries the past several seasons and actually decided to retire in 2010, only to change his mind.
This time, he means it.
The team issued a statement before its spring training game in Kissimmee, Fla., to announce this would be Jones’ final season. No matter what happens, the 1999 NL MVP will go down as one of the game’s greatest switch-hitters, a strong candidate for Cooperstown with his .304 career average, 454 homers and 1,561 RBIs.
Former Braves manager Bobby Cox said Jones should go into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.
“No doubt,” Cox said. “A switch-hitter who has played on winners and done everything he’s done.”
During the early days of spring training, Jones marveled that he was still with the Braves with his milestone birthday coming up in April.
“Never in my mid-20s would I have given myself a snowball’s chance to be in camp and have a job at 40 years old,” Jones told The Associated Press. “But I like to think I’ve kept myself in pretty good shape over the years. The skills are still there to go out and get it done. I don’t know for how much longer, but we’re gonna ride it as long as we can.”
That ride lasts one more season.
The Braves said Jones hopes to remain with the organization in another capacity after his playing career ends, and he has indicated that being a hitting instructor was the most likely option. He has no desire to go into managing.
“I think I’d be better off as a specialty coach,” Jones told the AP last month. “I have such a passion for hitting. I’m kind of a one-track-mind kind of guy. I can’t have my hands in a bunch of jars and be delegating responsibility for a bunch of different areas. I’d much rather stay focused on just one area and be able to do that well. While I think I could manage, I really don’t have the urge to manage. I’d much rather be a hitting coach than a manager.”
Jones, the top overall pick in the 1990 draft, was initially pegged to join the Braves’ lineup four years later as a left fielder. But he suffered a season-ending knee injury in spring training, delaying his debut.
What a debut it was.
Back at his natural infield position, Jones finished second in the NL rookie of the year balloting and helped the Braves win their first World Series title in Atlanta.
That remains his only championship, even though the Braves kept right on winning the NL East through 2005 in an unprecedented streak of 14 straight division titles. Jones was on teams that lost to the New York Yankees in the 1996 and ‘99 World Series.
After the team slumped for a couple of years, Jones was joined by a new generation of players who led the Braves back to the postseason in 2010 — the final year of Cox’s long tenure as manager. Atlanta lost to the eventual champion San Francisco Giants in a tightly fought division series that Jones missed, having gone down in August with the second season-ending knee injury of his career.
Now, the Braves have one more chance to send Jones into retirement with a second World Series title.
“Obviously, we all play for championships,” he said. “I was lucky enough to get one of those. That’s unbelievable.”
Injuries were an unfortunate hindrance to his career, preventing him from reaching 500 homers. In addition to two major knee operations, Jones has had to deal with nagging ailments since 2004. This spring, he reported in top shape but faced leg problems, leading him to question whether he could even make it through the season.
“There’s not a day goes by that I don’t take some kind of pill or injection ... to help me go out there,” he said.
When Jones was healthy, he was one of game’s most feared hitters. His best season was 1999, when he won the MVP award with a .319 average, a career-leading 45 homers and 110 RBIs. Nine years later, at age 36, he won his first batting title with a career-high .364 average, which remains the last of his 10 seasons hitting above .300.
Despite his impressive power numbers, Jones always considered average to be the most important statistic.
“You’re never going to convince me I can’t hit .300-plus,” he said. “Hitting .300 — that’s my benchmark.”