published Tuesday, April 2nd, 2013

Mark Wiedmer: Chipper Jones in jeans for this opener

Former Atlanta Braves third baseman Chipper Jones throws out the first pitch for an opening day baseball game between the Braves and the Philadelphia Phillies in Atlanta.
Former Atlanta Braves third baseman Chipper Jones throws out the first pitch for an opening day baseball game between the Braves and the Philadelphia Phillies in Atlanta.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

With the start of another Atlanta Braves baseball season less than 15 minutes away Monday night, Chipper Jones briefly sounded like a man reconsidering his retirement.

"Hard to be out here on this field and not be in uniform," the 40-year-old future Hall of Famer told the Fox Sports South television crew while wearing half his old uniform, his No. 10 jersey (shirttail out), with a faded pair of blue jeans.

"Opening day has always been one of my two or three favorite days of the year."

But Jones also quickly ended the dreams of all those Braves fans hoping he might reverse his decision that made last year the last of his 19 major league seasons, all of them remarkably spent in the Big Peach.

"While I'll miss today and tonight," he said with a grin, "I won't miss tomorrow."

Tomorrow comes swiftly for the boys of summer. Unlike pro football, there is no rest for the weary. No recovery for the aching and aging. After spending significant portions of the last couple of seasons out of the lineup with injuries, Jones understandably called it quits.

Not even a brief wooing by the shameless New York Yankees money machine could shake his resolve to relax.

"Standing out there watching them take ground balls, I don't really miss it," Jones told reporters at spring training in late February. "I see somebody hit one off the end of the bat and I know how that feels, how your fingers just go completely numb, and I don't miss that. When they're conditioning at the end of the day, and they're huffin' and puffin' and I'm sitting over there with a grin, I don't miss that."

Not that he misses nothing about his former life, and some of that figures only to get worse as the weather warms, another pennant race begins and each crack of the bat opens a small crack in Chipper's heart.

"I miss the camaraderie with the guys and the coaches," he said that day in Florida. "I miss the everyday banter. And I'd be lying if I said I wasn't going to miss from 7 to 10 [each night] when the games start. But all the other stuff you endure during the course of the season, I'm over."

Only time will tell if the Braves can get over the playoff hump without Chipper's lifetime seasonal averages of 24.6 homers, 85.4 RBIs and .303 at the plate.

But after watching Jones deliver a fairly perfect ceremonial first pitch to catcher Brian McCann to open the game before a standing-room-only crowd at Turner Field, his former teammates began their first game in two decades without Chipper on the 40-man roster in fine fashion against the Philadelphia Phillies.

A two-run, first-inning homer from Freddie Freeman started the night in style. A second-inning solo blast from the mystery known as Dan Uggla moved the advantage to 3-0.

And when the Phillies pulled within 4-3, the Braves roared back in front by a 7-3 margin after six innings, one of those runs coming off a Justin Upton solo homer.

Perhaps that's why third-year Braves skipper Fredi Gonzalez, when asked what he thought of such roster additions as the Upton brothers, answered, "They're really good."

Yet despite the relative ease of Monday's 7-5 win, logic dictates that at some point over the next 161 games the Braves need to be really good to overcome the absence of Jones, whose jersey number will be retired on June 28.

That's when his No. 10 will join those of nine other Braves greats: Hank Aaron (44), Eddie Mathews (41), Dale Murphy (3), Phil Niekro (35) -- who proclaimed "Play ball" over the loudspeaker to begin Monday's game -- Warren Spahn (21) and former Jones teammates Greg Maddux (31), Tom Glavine (47) and John Smoltz (29) and retired manager Bobby Cox (6). All major league teams retired No. 42 to honor Jackie Robinson.

"A tremendous honor," Jones said at the start of spring training. "There's a lot of great names, a lot of great numbers up there on that facade, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't dream of one day trying to get No. 10 up there."

Then he said something we all seem to say more often than we'd like: "It all happened so quick. It was 19 years, but it seems now like it went by in a flash."

Perhaps never more so than when your former teammates roll to a win in their first official game without you.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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