Now at 40, Chipper proud to play at high level
Milestone birthday offers Braves veteran opportunity to reflect
LOS ANGELES -- As his surgically repaired knees and well-traveled legs continue to generate regular aches and pains, Chipper Jones feels the wear and tear of a 19-season Major League career that began before the Braves secured the third of what became 14 consecutive division titles.
But after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee twice and undergoing six knee surgeries, including three in the past 20 months, Jones can proudly say that he is still competing at the Major League level at the age of 40.
"It's cool for me to know I can still go out and play at a relatively high level," Jones said. "It's not that big of a deal that I'm playing at 40. But when I go out there, I want to be productive. If I didn't feel like I could be productive, I would have hung it up.
"Being 40 and still playing a kid's game is pretty cool. But this is it. So don't get any inklings about 41."
As Jones enjoys what he has already announced to be the final season of his Major League career, the baseball gods seemed to provide him the gift of enjoying this milestone birthday within the same stadium that once housed those stars he idolized while growing up a Dodgers fan in central Florida.
Jones officially turned 40 at 12:04 a.m. ET on Tuesday. This special moment passed as the Braves were playing the Dodgers in the opener of a three-game series at Dodger Stadium.
"As much attention as was paid across my household to how the Dodgers were doing, how Dusty [Baker] and [Steve] Garvey and [Ron] Cey and [Bill] Russell and [Davey] Lopes and [Steve] Yeager and all those guys did ... the first thing I did when I woke up to go to school in the morning was to see how the Dodgers did the night before," Jones said. "It's pretty cool that here we sit 30 years later on my 40th birthday and I'm sitting here in this clubhouse about ready to play a series here in Los Angeles."
Moments later, Jones chuckled and said, "I've got a feeling this is going to be a year filled with irony."
Just 10 days earlier, Jones had stood in front of his locker at Turner Field and talked about the excitement generated by what was supposed to be his last home opener. Then after the television cameras were gone, he revealed that his surgically repaired left knee was too swollen for him to play that night.
Now Jones finds himself simply hoping that he will be able to enjoy the opportunity to celebrate his special birthday on Tuesday while playing for the only team he has ever called an employer and in a stadium that seemed to be a part of fantasy world for a young boy growing up in Pierson, Fla. Jones' left knee might not allow him to experience this opportunity. Since playing on Friday and Saturday in Arizona, he has been sidelined with discomfort in the lower portion of his knee.
When asked if it was important for him to play on Tuesday, Jones said, "It would be nice, but it would not hurt my feelings [if I don't]."
Still, although the Braves can no longer rely on Jones being in the lineup on a regular basis, his presence is still valued and appreciated. Two weeks after undergoing surgery to repair torn meniscus in his left knee, Jones returned to the lineup on April 10 and hit a key home run that led to the season's first victory.
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez and the members of his coaching staff are well aware of the benefits Jones provides while either playing or serving as a mentor to the many young teammates who grew up watching him establish himself as one of the best switch-hitters in the game's history. They showed their appreciation by presenting him with a card on Monday.
"He said, 'How many of your players have you ever given a birthday card?'" Gonzalez said. "I said, 'I haven't had many players who have turned 40 under my watch.' We appreciate him."
Braves first-base coach Terry Pendleton was one of the clubhouse veterans who welcomed Jones to the Major League scene not long after the Braves had selected him with the first overall pick in the 1990 First-Year Player Draft.
Pendleton was there when Jones tore his left ACL days before the young prospect was going to earn his first Opening Day roster spot as Atlanta's starting third baseman. Nearly 20 years later, he is not surprised to see this guy still displaying some of those natural abilities that have put him in position to one day be enshrined with the game's other legends in Cooperstown.
"When I saw him as a kid and then he came back and was healthy, I kind of felt he could play this game this long," Pendleton said. "I used to tell him, 'You better thank your mom and dad for them genes you got.' I just always thought he had the frame to play until this age if he chose to. So I'm really not surprised. I'm surprised he wanted to play this long. But I'm not surprised that he has."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.