Chipper Jones Can See the End of Career

Friday, February 25th 2005, 6:27 pm
By: News On 6

KISSIMMEE, Fla. (AP) _ Chipper Jones may have that youthful-sounding nickname, but he knows the end of his career is closer than the beginning.

He's not frightened by it. In fact, there's a part of him that already embraces the idea of being known as a full-time dad instead of the Atlanta Braves third baseman, who longs for the day when he'll spend most of his time at his beloved Texas ranch instead of Turner Field.

``I'm a realist,'' said Jones, who turns 33 the first month of the season. ``I know that I'm probably on the downside of my career. That doesn't bother me.''

Hold off on the rocking chair. Jones isn't ready to retire, not with two _ and possibly four _ more years on his lucrative contract.

But his body tells him every day that he's no longer that skinny kid who joined the Braves a decade ago, nor the fearsome hitter who was National League MVP in 1999. He's coming off an injury plagued season in which his average sank to a career-low .248.

``My career has gone by pretty fast, but it's taken a toll on my body,'' Jones said Friday, sitting at his locker after a spring training workout. ``I spend a lot of time in the chiropractor's office. It's harder and harder to get out of bed. It's harder and harder to stay in shape.''

He still loves the game _ the competition on the field, the camaraderie in the clubhouse. But he's got three young children at home and another due in October, which is usually when the Braves are wrapped up in the playoffs.

``I'm sure there will come a time when my wanting to see them develop, do more things with them, will supersede the baseball part,'' he said.

Jones doesn't feel he has anything to prove as a player, despite last season's disappointing numbers. He started the year in left field, but a nagging hamstring injury cost him 25 games and prompted the Braves to move him back to third base.

``It was a nightmarish year,'' Jones said. ``But I had to keep things in perspective. My body was not at full speed. Whenever you have little things that are hurting, you tend to make up for it in other areas. Then you develop bad habits. Before you know it, you're really scuffling.''

While the hamstring never completely healed, Jones bounced back to put up the sort of power numbers he's always good for _ 30 homers and 96 RBIs, though the latter figure snapped a streak of eight straight 100-RBI seasons.

``He almost knocked in a 100 runs, even with as bad a year as he thinks he had,'' manager Bobby Cox said. ``I think he'll pick up this year where he left off and play like he always has.''

Jones is certainly more comfortable at third base, where he spent most of his career before agreeing to move to the outfield after the 2001 season so the Braves could sign Vinny Castilla.

After two full years in left, during which Jones never got truly comfortable, he was forced back to third last season by the ailing hamstring. The Braves knew he would keep tweaking the injury _ or worse _ if he kept making those long outfield runs.

Jones was thrilled to return to his old position, and there's been no more talk of moving him back to the outfield.

During batting practice Friday, Jones never looked more comfortable in the field. He kneeled down, let out a yawn and twisted his head one way, then the other. Suddenly, Julio Franco hit a liner toward third. Jones thrust out his glove and snared the ball, holding it aloft for all to see.

``It's not any secret,'' he said, ``that I'm a lot more comfortable being in there closer to the plate.''

A few years ago, Jones endured an embarrassing public scandal _ an affair with a waitress who became pregnant, breaking up his marriage. He put things back together with his second wife, Sharon, and seems genuinely touched by the responsibilities of fatherhood.

``I'm really into being a dad,'' Jones said. ``It's awesome when we take the kids out of to the ranch during the offseason. Those things bring me a lot of joy.''

Of course, baseball is hardly conducive to a stable family life. Jones finds it harder and harder to accept all the things he's missing at home _ the first words, the first steps, the first day of school.

``I can't tell you how many phone calls I've gotten from Sharon,'' Jones said. ``She'll tell me how Trey got one of my bats in the bedroom while I was on TV and started swinging it. She'll tell me how he jumps up and down when I hit a home run.

``I'm glad they all enjoy that part of my life, but I'd much rather be there myself, teaching them how to hit, going through it with them.''