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Heck of a goodbye for Chipper
KANSAS CITY, Mo.
This wasn’t another alleged conspiracy, the equivalent of the fastball that Chan Ho Park supposedly grooved to Cal Ripken Jr. in 2001, enabling Ripken to hit a home run in his final All-Star Game.
Kinsler . . . just . . . couldn’t . . . get . . . there.
“I felt like I had cement blocks on my feet,” Kinsler would say later. “I wasn’t the quickest and most nimble on my feet at that moment.”
Kinsler had just entered the game for the AL, but wasn’t quite loose. In the tunnels underneath Kaufmann Stadium, Kinsler said, there wasn’t much room to run.
Jones busted down the line, then broke into a wide grin as he reached first, knowing the ball probably should not have rolled through the hole and into right field.
“I was thinking beat it out all the way,” Jones joked. “Forty years old, an infield hit in the All-Star Game. It’s actually the way I scripted it.”
What did he think was so funny?
“I knew that when I turned around I was going to see (Derek) Jeter and Adam Dunn on the top step laughing at me for busting down the line trying to beat that out,” Jones said. “True to form, they were giving me guff.”
One of the Braves’ beat writers remarked to Jones that Kinsler did not appear to give his best effort on the ball.
“Did he pull up?” Jones asked with a smile. “I don’t know. It’s much appreciated. I’m 1 for 1.”
Kinsler said nothing of the sort took place.
“That’s not the case. I would never do that,” Kinsler said.
Then he smiled, too.
“It worked out that way, though.”
Hey, a hit is a hit. If Jones couldn’t quite go out with a flourish — think Jeter’s home run for his 3,000th hit last season — his final All-Star experience was still close to perfect.
All the great ones should go out this way, taking one last victory lap at the Midsummer Classic, giving a pregame speech to their teammates, receiving a standing ovation from fans and players alike.
Of course, not all the great ones are like Jones — or Ripken and Jeter, for that matter. Only a handful of future Hall of Famers spend their entire careers with one team, perform with class and integrity, set an example for generations to follow.
The Royals’ George Brett came from that mold, of course. And there was Brett late Tuesday afternoon, seeking out Jones behind the batting cage, enthusiastically welcoming him to Kansas City.
Through a bizarre quirk of interleague scheduling, Jones had never visited Kaufmann Stadium. He had met Brett a few times at spring training, but never spoken with him at length.
When I asked Jones to identify the exchange that was the most meaningful to him during his two days in Kansas City, he did not hesitate to answer.
His conversation with Brett.
“George was one of my guys when I was growing up,” said Jones, who went to high school in Jacksonville, Fla. “Obviously I came up as a shortstop. I was a huge Cal Ripken fan. But I had it in the back of my mind that third base could be in my future one day.
“George Brett and Mike Schmidt were the quintessential MVP candidates, the best players in their leagues when I was growing up. If you pattern your game after guys like George Brett, you’re going to be a pretty good player.”
Brett thinks Jones is a pretty good player, too, and told him as much at the batting cage.
“I wish I had seen you play more,” Brett said.
After Jones left the game, I interviewed him on our broadcast. When I asked him if his All-Star experience been more emotional or fun, he responded without hesitation, “Fun.”
As it turned out, his two days in Kansas City were about looking forward as much as they were about looking back.
Jones brought three of his four sons, ages 6 to 14, to the event (the other was sick and could not make the trip.) None had been to an All-Star Game. It was Jones’ eighth All-Star appearance, but the first time he played in the game since 2008.
A year ago, Jones was named to the All-Star team and wanted to take his boys to the game in Phoenix, but scrapped those plans when he underwent knee surgery. This year, too, he was going to bring them whether he made the team or not.
“That was the most important thing for me. That was the one reason I wanted to be here,” Jones said. “Any father would love to create a life memory for their kids.
“My boys at some point are going to tell their kids, ‘You know what? I was at the 2012 All-Star Game. I saw those guys play. I met ’em. I got an autograph from ’em.’ That’s something not many dads can do.”
On Monday, when Jones met privately with the FOX broadcasters, I asked him if it struck him as odd that his oldest son was only five years younger than the Nationals’ Bryce Harper, who at 19 is the youngest position player in All-Star history.
“Yes,” Jones said. “My 14-year-old is pretty good. He’s going to be a pretty good player. But I daresay I wouldn’t put him in the category of Bryce. Bryce is a man-child. (Mike) Trout is, too.
“I think it’s great that you have the two of these guys who are destined to be the face of the game for the next 15 to 20 years, I really do.
“You’ve got the five-tool guy in Trout who can steal bases and be one of the most dynamic leadoff hitters in the game. And you’ve got Harper, who has the big outfield arm and huge power — huge power. He’s going to hit 40. And they’re playing on good teams in good markets. They’re going to be all over the TV all the time.”
Just as Jones once was on TBS, something that numerous young All-Stars noted over the past two days.
They all grew up watching Chipper.
And soon, he will be gone.
In our meeting with Jones, he said he was looking forward to retirement, explaining, “I’m definitely ready to start the next chapter of my life.”
He said he might work in television, consult for the Braves. He reached the break hitting .318/.396/.480, with six homers and 33 RBI in 49 games. Only eight days ago, he went 5 for 5. But there is no turning back. His decision is final.
“To be honest, I don’t want the lifestyle anymore,” Jones said. “I don’t want the schedule, the major league schedule anymore. I’ve been living out of suitcases for 23 years.”
Jones announced during spring training that this would be his last season. He wasn’t thinking about a farewell tour, he said, he just wanted to end all the questions.
And of course, he’s getting a farewell tour, anyway.
The fans in Kansas City cheered him loudly during pregame introductions on Tuesday, and gave him a standing ovation as he stepped to the plate in the sixth.
A moment. His moment. He wanted nothing more.
“I was just grateful for one at-bat,” Jones said. “I told Tony (La Russa) that. I had no expectations coming here to play. There were four third basemen on the roster (Pablo Sandoval, David Wright and David Freese were the others).
“I kind of had it in the back of my mind, and it worked out exactly that way — that Tony would find an at-bat for me late in the game. I’m extremely thankful for it. I wasn’t about to get caught looking when I went up there. I wanted to swing the bat.”
So, swing the bat he did. And his slow five-hopper, well, it will look the same as a screaming line-drive single in the box score.
Afterward, a reporter asked Jones the last time he had run that hard down the line.
Nineteen seasons flashed before Jones’ eyes.
“Every night,” he said. “Every night.”
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