Senior Baseball Columnist

Grateful Chipper soaking it in all in as Farewell Tour heads for home

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Retiring Chipper Jones has received nothing but love during his final go-around. (Getty Images)  
Retiring Chipper Jones has received nothing but love during his final go-around. (Getty Images)  

They gave him a real Stan Musial jersey in St. Louis. They pulled his bat right off the display wall in Washington, D.C., the bat used to wallop the first home run in the history of Nationals Park, and presented it to him along with a nice photo.

San Diego? A surfboard, which is guaranteed to be quite the conversation piece at his Texas ranch. San Francisco? Spine-tingling standing ovation in his final AT&T Park at-bat Sunday.

"It was unexpected," Chipper Jones says, words coated in his Southern drawl, video replays from this last-call season surely overloading his hard drive. "It was awfully classy of them. That's a place that's been unfriendly over the years. They've got great baseball fans out there in San Francisco.

"They treated me like royalty all week. It was much appreciated."

Time is expiring on The Chipper Jones Appreciation Tour. One more month, and adios. One more postseason, if he and the Braves can squeeze out a few more wins this September than last, and the only thing left will be echoes from all of those boos in Shea Stadium and Citi Field.

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Bang the drum slowly, and wave your goodbyes.

"Whether it's getting booed when I walk up, or getting a standing O when I walk up, it varies in different spots," Jones says. "I'm not well-liked in some corners of the United States, and I'm well-liked in other corners."

He has been presented with enough third base bags to turn the hot corner into the mushy corner. The Yankees. The Nationals. The Reds.

What do you get a guy who has everything when he visits for a final time?

Third base.

Fitting, he acknowledges, because "that's how people identify me."

Well, that and, along with Mickey Mantle, Eddie Murray and Pete Rose, as one of the greatest switch-hitters ever. As Jones rounds the bases this final time, he is the only switch-hitter in baseball history with a .300 career batting average (.304) and 300 or more home runs (with 467, he ranks 32nd all time). His lifetime on-base percentage is .401.

Even at 40, he's still swinging away, batting .301 with 13 home runs and 55 RBI in 74 games.

"The greatest farewell season I've ever seen," says one scout who has been watching players for the better part of four decades.

It's enough to make you wonder if, with a key RBI here and a big home run there, maybe he could be persuaded to. ...

No.

"It's very gratifying," Jones says of his production this summer. "The only thing that bothers me is the fact that I can't go out there for 140 or 150 games. That's one of the reasons why I'm calling it quits.

"Do I think I can go out there and still be productive at 41 next year? Yeah, I'm confident in my ability to still hit and play defense and contribute to a winning team. But it's not fair to my teammates and to my manager who can't rely on me to go out there each and every day. And if I'm only playing 110 games, that puts a lot of pressure on them.

"It's a good time for me to ride off into the sunset. And I also think it's a good time for the Braves to start to make that transition."

This is the rarest of sweet endings, in which the hero actually stays astride the horse while riding into the sunset. Some of what has happened this year, no way the stars, if they weren't smiling, would randomly align this way.

Going 5 for 5 against the Cubs on July 3 ... clubbing a game-winning home run to beat Philadelphia 15-13 on May 2 ... going deep on his birthday, April 24, in Los Angeles ... walloping two home runs on Chipper Jones Bobblehead Day in Atlanta two weeks ago.

"The first one was flying out of the ballpark on Bobblehead Night and I was like, 'You've got to be kidding me,' " Jones says. "The second one was almost like an out-of-body experience."

This is the second significant Farewell Tour for the Braves during the past three seasons, but Jones doesn't compare his own to that of beloved manager Bobby Cox during the 2010 season.

"The adoration for Bobby was like what you would see for Cal Ripken or Tony Gwynn, someone like that," Jones says. "You'd be hard-pressed to find anybody in America to say a terse word about Bobby Cox."

What Jones is discovering as this summer melts away is that whatever venom was directed at him over the years is rapidly receding. There may have been a time when, as he says, he was "not well-liked in some corners of the United States." But as with the Macarena and Beanie Babies, that time was in a different day.

"It's really been eye-opening," Jones says. "Because I'm a villain. I've hit in the middle of the opposing lineup for 19 years. People have had to get me out in a big spot. I've created a lot of ire over the years.

"Now, to go into these same parks and get standing O's and get respect from these people who have been booing me for so long ... it means a lot to me. It doesn't go unnoticed. It's certainly much, much appreciated."

They gave him the numbers "1" and "0" in Boston from the hand-operated scoreboard in Fenway Park. They gave him the "Atlanta" flag that was flying atop Wrigley Field in Chicago.

In Houston, Craig Biggio presented him with a Stetson cowboy hat. In Colorado, Todd Helton presented him with a small camera that can be mounted on a bow. Perfect for Jones' outdoor television show.

The bat the Nationals gave him "is going front-and-center down in the man cave," Jones says. "The Stan Musial jersey was unexpected, and it's going to go right next to my Cal Ripken jersey and Mickey Mantle's."

At every stop now, he is signing autographs for well-wishers outside the team hotel until everyone has his signature. At each ballpark, he is greeting those waiting outside the player' entrance until there are no more to greet.

He is not traveling to these final stops with his family because, well, truth be told, that part of his life has been the sour to the baseball sweet. He's going through a second divorce.

"I'm going through a rough time personally," says Jones, who, with Sharon, has three sons -- Larry III, 12; Shea, 8; and Tristan, 7 (he also has another son, Matthew, 15). "But it doesn't diminish my desire to be a more integral part of my kids' lives."

He will not be a stranger when the final grains of sand run through his hourglass this fall.

"I may bring the kids to a game, a homestand, something like that," he says. "I don't know what I'm going to be doing with the organization, or what capacity that entails. Who knows? I could be around a lot.

"It's something we'll talk about here pretty soon."

Days seem to be fluttering off his calendar in bunches now, like the autumn leaves. He attempts to slow things down. Tries to soak in each standing ovation, each "thank you," every sign that is hoisted in the stands.

The end is near. It is real now.

"It's a win-win for me," Jones says. "My body is toast. I'm ready to stop hurting. My body deserves some time off.

"It's bittersweet, don't get me wrong. I've been playing baseball since I've been seven years old. It's the only thing I know.

"That being said, the walk in here hurts and the walk out of here is going to hurt. And everything in between is going to hurt as well."

Aside from the finale in Atlanta, the most highly anticipated Chipper Moment left on the Braves' schedule is his New York farewell Sept. 7-9. You might have noticed that one of his sons is named "Shea", and, yes. It's that "Shea." As in, "Stadium."

Jones and Mets fans have had a spirited relationship since his first full season in the majors in 1995. They boo, throaty and vociferously, and he revels in it.

"We'll see how the Mets fans are," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez says, smiling broadly. "They love to hate him there. Or hate to love him. I don't know which way it is.

"I'm sure they'll give him a really good ovation. Or a really good boo."

The ultimate will be if Mets fans can finally bring a real tear to his eye, and don't be surprised. He has held it together so far, for the most part, only becoming "misty" -- his word -- in D.C. when two of his favorite ex-teammates, Adam LaRoche and Mark DeRosa, presented him with a framed photo before a game.

"Those guys got to me a little bit," he says.

So will others as the innings tick down and time drifts away and the "Chipper Jones, This is Your Life" moments jockey for a place of permanence inside his memory.

The final regular-season game in Atlanta, also against the Mets, is scheduled for Sept. 30. Bring extra tissues.

"I'm sure the last one in Atlanta's going to be hard for me to get through," Jones says. "I still don't know how I'm supposed to even begin to let people know what they've meant to me in and around the city of Atlanta.

"It's going to be ... I don't even know how to describe it. It's going to be epic for me."

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