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Classy Chipper Jones still making an impact

SEATTLE - One of the true pleasures of the sports writing profession is the opportunity to meet someone you have long admired - and find him to be the kind of guy you hoped he'd be.

Doesn't happen often, unfortunately.

It's easy to get jaded when dealing with professional athletes, some of whom seem to consider media interviews as inviting as a colonoscopy.

There are the pros who understand it is part of the job.

Then there are guys like Chipper Jones, who go beyond.

The future Hall-of-Famer couldn't have been more accommodating in a 20-minute interview three hours before the Atlanta Braves took to Safeco Field Tuesday night for a date with the Seattle Mariners.

To spend that kind of time with a writer representing a Portland, Oregon, newspaper - we're not the New York Times, folks - says something about the kind of human being we're dealing with here.

Jones could be like Ichiro Suzuki, who avoids interviews with even the Seattle media as if they were the Asian flu.

Full disclosure: The only pro team I pull for in any sport is the Braves. Picked them up when I was 7 years old - back in the days of Warren Spahn and Hank Aaron - and have followed them since.

For some reason, the Braves are the favorite of several other members of the Oregon media, including Dwight 'The Godfather' Jaynes, broadcaster Darrell Aune and Bob Clark of the Eugene Register-Guard. Through the 1990s and early 2000s, with the likes of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz on the mound and Jones hitting .300 and driving in 100 runs ever year, the Braves were an easy team to like.

Now only Jones remains. At 39 and in his 18th season in the big leagues, the first pick in the 1990 draft is a relic of an earlier era, fighting through injuries in a battle to stay relevant in today's game.

'I'm doing OK,' Jones said, a slight grin crossing his face as he enjoyed a pregame chew. 'I'm old. Things are rickety. But I've played in more games to this point (this season) than a lot of people anticipated I would.'

In his 20s and early 30s, the 6-4, 210-pound third baseman had few worries physically. Not so these days.

'It's a ton different,' Jones said. 'My body lets me know the first step out of bed every morning. You wake up and something different hurts every day. When you've played over 2,000 regular-season games (2,331 through Tuesday, to be exact), not to mention the playoffs and spring training over the last 18 years, it takes its toll. Two major knee surgeries don't help matters.

'I still enjoy coming to the ballpark and hanging out with the guys, and above everything else, competing. The end is near, but I'm going to give it what I've got until that day comes.'

Jones' underwent his second major knee surgery last August after he tore the ACL in his left knee on a fluke play in foul territory against the Astros. After a terrible start to the season, Jones was gathering steam at the plate when he suffered the season-ending - and career-threatening - injury. Did he think about retirement at that point?

'I considered it more before the (surgery) as opposed to after,' he said. 'The last thing I wanted was for everybody's last image of me to be laying out behind third base in Houston.

'I was playing well when I got hurt. I was really coming on in the second half and feeling good. I'd gotten confidence that I could still produce at a high level. So I wanted to come back and give it one more try.'

Doctors told Jones his rehabilitation would be a six-month process.

'The end of six months was the first day of spring training,' he said. 'That was kind of a motivational tool to get ready.

'I didn't want to have people say I couldn't do it anymore, that I'm old, past my prime. Those things may be true, but here I am still hitting third or fourth for one of the better teams in the National League, knocking in some runs and getting some hits when they count.'

Indeed, Jones can still hit in the clutch. His .410 average with runners in scoring position is second in the NL behind Cincinnati's Joey Votto (.435).

Overall, Jones is batting .257 with seven home runs and 43 RBIs in 70 games. Not bad, but not the kind of numbers posted in the heyday of the six-time All-Star and 1999 NL MVP.

I asked Jones if the game is still as much fun as it was when he debuted on Sept. 11, 1993, at age 21 - the youngest player in the majors at the time.

'This game is not fun for me when I'm not producing,' he said. 'Early in my career, it was all fun. I knew at the end of the season I'd have 30 home runs, I'd hit .300, knock in 100, score 100.

'My expectations have gone down as I've gotten older. But still, when I go through periods where I'm not helping the clubs much, I sit back and I wonder if I'd rather be doing something else.'

Jones has four sons, ages 13, 10, 6 and 5.

'They're all avid baseball lovers,' he said. 'I miss them. My family has sacrificed so much for my career.'

But Jones isn't ready to give it up quite yet.

'All it takes is getting a big hit in a tight spot, hitting a home run or making a defensive play that helps us win a ballgame to rekindle those fires again,' he said.

Jones is mindful of preserving a legacy as one of the great players of his era. He doesn't want to be one of the players who hangs around the game too long.

'It's something I think about every day,' he said. 'I've had some examples, whether it's Smoltz, Maddux or Glavine - guys who were once great and their last two or three years really struggled.

'I don't want to have that happen. That's one of my fears. I have nightmares about it. I don't want to have people saying when I'm 40, 'Chipper should have retired three years ago.' As long as I help this club win, I can avoid hearing that.'

Jones leads major-league players in tenure with a current club. All of his 18 seasons have been with the Braves, and he is signed through next season. Near the end of their careers, Smoltz, Maddux and Glavine all moved on to different teams.

'I saw what those guys went through, the battles they had with the (Atlanta) organization,' Jones said. ' 'Do we sign him? Do we not sign him? Trade him? Let him go?'

'It was a tug of war I want to avoid. As of today, I plan on honoring my contract. That could be my time to bow out. We'll wait and see.'

Jones played his first 17 years for Atlanta under another eventual Hall-of-Famer, manager Bobby Cox. His successor, Fredi Gonzalez, calls Jones 'my biggest ally.'

'Much as you want to keep things the same, you have to be your own guy (as manager),' Gonzalez said. 'We've changed some things, but Chipper has been right there with us and made it seamless. What could have been a difficult transition for me, Chipper has made it pretty easy.'

Jones has given the Braves 'a presence,' Gonzalez said. And he has been a role model for young players.

'The way he plays the game, he is giving you all he's got,' Atlanta's first-year skipper said. 'He has played after getting a shot in the knee or getting hit. We have a couple of 21-year-old guys who need to see that.

'If you're going to last in the major leagues, you're going to have to play when you're banged up a little bit. He has always played with pain and stayed in the lineup. He is not an outspoken guy, but the guys see what he goes through to stay in the lineup. He has played a lot of innings and games on bad knees and bad legs.'

Teammates such as Brian McCann, Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward have learned much about being a pro from Jones.

'Being a mentor to some of these young kids is important to me,' he said. 'I want to pass the torch. There are some good guys in this clubhouse who are ready to take it and run with it.'

Jones has a lot of things to be proud of in his career, including a lead role in Atlanta's remarkable run of 14 straight division titles and the 2005 World Series championship. There were eight consecutive 100-RBI seasons, 14 straight 20-home run campaigns. He ranks 35th on the career list with 435 homers.

Then there is his recognition, with Mickey Mantle and Eddie Murray, as the greatest power-hitting switch-hitters in baseball history. Jones is the only switch-hitter with a career average of better than .300 (currently .305) with 400 or more home runs.

'They were the two names I grew up idolizing and wanted to be associated with,' Jones said. 'I knew if I got to the end of my career and was mentioned with those two guys, I would have achieved everything I want to accomplish in the game, at least individually. Eighteen years into my career, I can say that. I'm very proud of that.'

When Jones feels his swing is off, he'll consult with his father, Larry Sr.

'I'll sit down with my dad once in a while to iron things out,' he said.

One of the great things about playing a kid's game is, once the kid is older, he can still enjoy it - though in a different way.

'It's funny,' Jones said. 'When I was younger, if I didn't get two hits in a game, I was ticked. Now, if I go out and drive a run or score a run or play flawless defense or start a rally, it doesn't matter how many hits I get.

'Am I helping the club win? That's what I'm basing my successes and failures on at this point.'

The key to that is Jones' health. The left knee, he said, is 'rock solid.' It's the right knee that is bothering him now.

'A torn meniscus gives me some problems,' he said. 'I got two shots in the knee four or five weeks ago, and it's been better. I'm hoping I can make it through the season.'

I'm crossing my fingers, along with a lot of other folks.