ATLANTA — Flanked by his family, his former manager and a group of teammates he hates to leave behind, Chipper Jones choked up a bit and delivered the news that has been looming for years: It’s time to call it a career.
This time, he means it.
With his 40th birthday approaching and a long string of injuries slowing him down, Jones announced Thursday he will retire after one more season as the Atlanta Braves’ third baseman.
“I have fulfilled everything,” Jones said during a news conference at the team’s spring training stadium in Kissimmee, Fla. “There’s nothing left for me to do.”
Jones, who has spent his entire 18-year career with Atlanta, actually planned to retire after the 2010 season, only to change his mind. As he battled leg issues this spring, he openly wondered if he’d be able to make it through the season.
So, he’ll give it one more year with the Braves, then become a full-time dad to his three children.
“I just want to make it final,” Jones said.
He praised the Braves organization, calling Bobby Cox “the greatest manager any of us will ever know,” thanked team executives John Schuerholz and Frank Wren for building a perennial winner and fought back tears as he turned to his teammates.
“I’ve been thinking about this and the reason I stayed around is you guys,” Jones said. “I played on teams where clubhouse cohesion wasn’t there. That never happened with you guys.”
Around baseball, Jones was praised for this long, consistent career, which included the NL MVP award in 1999, an NL batting title in 2008, seven All-Star games — and, quite possibly, will include an induction ceremony at Cooperstown.
Even fans of the rival New York Mets, who were continually battered by Jones as crowds in the Big Apple tried to rattle him by chanting his actual name (“Larry! Larry! Larry” was a familiar chant at old Shea Stadium), offered up nothing but respect.
Jones already reciprocated by naming one of his children Shea.
“He’s a great ballplayer who has always been a Mets nemesis,” said New York fan John Ring, speaking before Mets’ spring training game in Port St. Lucie, Fla. “I mean, he just tore them apart. He’s been an asset to the game, but as Mets fans, we never wanted to see him in the lineup.”
Mets third baseman David Wright grew up wanting to be like Jones, which didn’t change after they both wound up in the big leagues.
“He’s been one of those guys where I always looked across and tried to take away some of the things from his game and apply it to mine,” Wright said. “He’s been so consistent, so good for so long and been part of a lot of great times. It’s going be a little odd looking across there and not seeing Chipper in uniform, that’s for sure.”
New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, whose 17-year stint with one team is surpassed only by Jones among active players, has always been impressed by the way the Atlanta player carries himself: a wad of tobacco in his jaw and a batting glove always dangling out of his back pocket when he took the field.
“He just looks like a ballplayer, you know? His actions, his mannerisms, everything he does,” Jeter said. “I really can’t say enough good things about him. The way he’s gone about his business, his consistency, how he took care of himself, what he means to the team. He could flat-out hit. He’s a Hall of Famer, for sure.”
He should be a first-ballot selection, according to Cox, who attended the news conference with the only other manager Jones will have in his big league career, current Braves skipper Fredi Gonzalez.
Schuerholz, the former general manager and now team president, and Wren are the only GMs of the Jones era. Stability meant a lot to the third baseman, who never seriously considered leaving the Braves.
“To have two top executives and only two managers at one table after all these years says a lot about this organization,” Jones said. “There have been times when I could have gone into free agency to see if the grass is greener, but it never was.”
While other players came and went, Jones was always the one constant in the clubhouse.
“He was the face of the franchise,” said former teammate Andruw Jones, who’s now with the Yankees. “You don’t see it too much any more. It’s hard for players to stay with one organization.”
No matter what happens in his final season, Chipper Jones will go down as one of the game’s greatest switch-hitters, a player who could hit for average (.304 in his career) and power (454 homers and 1,561 RBI).
Shortly after reporting for what will be his final 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 going to ride it as long as we can.”
That ride lasts one more season.