In final season debut, Chipper didn't miss a beat
After being sidelined three weeks, veteran made immediate impact in return
By Mark Bowman /12/24/12 10:00 AM ET
ATLANTA -- Nobody could have perfectly predicted all of the magical moments that Chipper Jones experienced during the final season of his storied career. But those who understood Jones' stubbornness knew that he was not going to start this final journey with a Minor League rehab stint.
If there was one thing Jones hated more than losing, it was going to a Minor League city to compile a few at-bats and reintroduce himself to the speed of the game before being activated from the disabled list.
But this was one of those instances where it seemed Jones' stubbornness was blinding him from the fact that he may have needed a rehab stint.
During the three weeks that had elapsed since he had last played in a game, the 40-year-old veteran had undergone surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee. It was the third surgical procedure performed on one of his knees within a span of 20 months.
And before injuring his knee, he had totaled just 25 at-bats during the exhibition season.
Still, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez knew what was going to happen when he called Jones into his office at Minute Maid Park on April 9. The intention was to convince Jones to play in at least one Minor League rehab game. The result provided a different plan.
"He feels like he's fine," Gonzalez said that day. "He's a guy with [10,166] plate appearances, you've got to take his word for it."
"I just thought it was a waste of time, because six at-bats in the Minors isn't going to help me be on 95 [mph pitches] when I get back up here," Jones reasoned. "So might as well throw me back in the fire."
So Jones was activated and immediately placed in the starting lineup for the April 10 game against the Astros. In retrospect, this was a fitting place for him to begin his final Major League tour. His parents had always taken advantage of the opportunity to travel approximately six hours from their Texas ranch to see their son play.
With his father and mother sitting directly behind the visitors' dugout, Jones strolled toward the plate to begin the second inning. Other than facing teammate Randall Delgado in batting practice five days earlier, he had not seen a live pitch since March 20, which was two days before he announced he would retire at the end of the 2012 season.
Still, there were certainly no signs of rust when Jones laced Astros right-hander Kyle Weiland's 1-0 pitch back up the middle for a clean single. This was certainly a fitting start for one of the greatest switch-hitters in baseball history, but it was just the beginning of a memorable season debut.
Jones came back to the plate in the third inning and drilled Weiland's 2-1 slider over the right-center-field wall. The two-run homer helped prevent the Braves from starting the season with five straight losses. At the same time, it foreshadowed what was to come during this magical final season.
"It can't be that easy," utility man Eric Hinske exclaimed as Jones rounded the bases that night in Houston.
Gonzalez had a similar reaction.
"I'm glad we didn't make [Jones] go on that rehab assignment," Gonzalez said. "I think today he made a statement that Spring Training is too long. I think next year we'll show up the 20th of March, play 10 games and then say, 'Go get them.' But the stuff he does, nobody else can do."
Even before being taken with the first overall selection in the 1990 First-Year Player Draft, Jones had a knack for making the game look easy. This memorable season debut in Houston served as one of the 763 multihit games compiled during his career. That is nearly five season's worth of multihit games.
In addition, the debut served as just the beginning of a memorable farewell. Five days later, after his knee had prevented him from participating in the Braves' home opener, Jones celebrated his "personal home opener" by hitting another home run.
Having grown up a Dodgers fan, Jones added to the splendor of his 40th birthday by hitting a home run at Dodger Stadium on April 24. One day later, he hit a game-winning ninth-inning single during his final at-bat at Dodger Stadium.
Jones added to his dramatics with an 11th-inning walk-off home run during a 15-13 win over the Phillies on May 2. But he topped that on Sept. 2 when he capped a five-run ninth inning with a three-run walk-off homer that doomed the Phils yet again.
"Nothing beats that," Jones said. "That's as good as it gets for a baseball player, to walk off the field -- especially in that situation, where we were really down and out."
The final walk-off homer against the Phillies proved to be the last career home run for Jones, who ended up batting .287 with 14 home runs and a .832 OPS in 112 games during his final season.
In retrospect, he really did not need that rehab assignment.