Chipper Jones knew it was coming.
After all, everybody knows the clock is ticking on the future Hall of Famer’s career, and people want to know how much longer he’ll let it tick.
The longtime Atlanta Braves standout shared with an audience of nearly 500 on the floor of the University Center at Mercer’s “First Pitch Classic” banquet that his body is charge of that decision.
“I’m just not ready to say that this is the last year,” said Jones, who is signed through this year with an option for next year based on a certain number of games played. “As I sit here right now, this has been the first spring training in about four spring trainings that I’ve been able to prepare my body for 200 games.
“I’ve been (previously) rehabbing an injury. I’ve had five knees surgeries; I’ve had two ACL replacements. My knees are shot.”
And he’s ready to join his teammates Feb. 24 when position players report.
“I’ve been able to get myself ready this year and not have to worry about rehabbing an injury,” he said. “So, I’m looking forward to it. This year will tell me if it’s time to go.”
The crowd got something to talk about a few minutes before Jones took to the podium.
Mercer head coach Craig Gibson said a special award was being given to Whitney Harden, who made her way to the stage clueless as to what waited.
Seconds later, Mercer pitching coach Brent Shade proposed, and she accepted.
“I told Coach (Tuesday) I needed to talk to him for a minute,” Shade said. “He said, ‘Uh, OK.’ I think he thought I might be resigning.”
Jones took over and spent about 13 minutes in speech mode, reliving parts of his career and life and some of his experiences, most of which had been well-documented.
He has a history with Macon. He played here early in his career, got married to a Wesleyan student when he was 20 and then played with or against a few former Mercer players. And he is on the board of trustees at Stetson, an A-Sun rival of Mercer.
“I wouldn’t recommend getting married at 20,” he said. “I don’t think most people are ready to get married at 20. I know I wasn’t.”
He and his second wife have four sons. And he offered a funny scouting report on all four: the athletic stud, the computer geek, the one he expects to get into some trouble and the future middle linebacker.
Jones touched on growing up in Florida, being sent to a private school a few hours from home and that transition, his religious awakening on Dec. 7, 1997 and battling through the typical struggles of minor league baseball.
“Now, enough about me, I’m tired of talking about me,” he said. “I want to talk about what you guys want to talk about.”
He engaged in a Q&A with the audience for another 30-plus minutes. He said he could tell in the pre-dinner autograph sessions that some of the youngsters were itching to ask him questions, and no doubt more than a few adults, as well.
Jones touched on a variety of topics and shared a number of stories:
Does he like deer hunting or baseball better?
“I don’t think deer-hunting season is long enough, let’s put it that way,” he said with a smile. “I think we need to shorten the baseball season I’m not gonna answer that.”
On a card show with Mickey Mantle back in 1992.
“I finally asked him, I said, ‘Does this get old? What am I getting into?’ ” he asked, inquiring about such duties. “He said, ‘Chip, I have a recurring dream. I’m standing at the pearly gates, and I’ve got this nervous look on my face. And God comes walking up, and He just looks at me, stares at me for about 10 seconds.’ And He goes, ‘Don’t worry, Mick, I’m gonna let you in, but can you sign these dozen baseballs first?’ ”
What’s his forecast for the 2012 Braves?
“A lot better than last season,” he said. “Aug. 24, we had the third best record in the game of baseball. I don’t think any of us will deny that we had a 95- to 97-, 98-win club last year. That being said, we didn’t get it done in September.”
And he thinks the pieces are in place to avoid a repeat.
“Is Martin Prado going to hit .260 again? Not gonna happen,” he said. “Is Brian McCann gonna hit under .200 the last two months of the year? Not gonna happen. Is Jason Heyward gonna hit .212? I’m going to be responsible for that not happening.
“Is Dan Uggla gonna hit, not show up (offensively) for the first three or four months of the season? It’s not gonna happen.”
Jones has grown up in the public eye, from being a first-round draft pick of the Braves to mentions of being a first-ballot Hall of Famer. So millions have seen -- and commented on -- his successes and his errors. And he’s fine with all that.
“While I wouldn’t change anything in my life, I’ve had a lot of hard lessons along the way, which have molded me into the person that I am now,” he said. “I’m a lot better person today sitting here at 39, on the cusp of 40 years old, than I was 15 or 20 years ago.
“It’s being able to sit back and learn from your mistakes and be able to grow from it. And I feel like I’ve done that.”