BOSTON -- Chipper Jones remembers the water sloshing around his cleats as he walked through the tunnel from the visitors clubhouse.
The rain had collected into a large puddle he had to navigate before reaching the field. When it rains, you need waders to get down to the dugout, he said.
Once up the steps, he took in the sights of Fenway Park. He paid attention to the small nuances -- the ramps that he says give the stadium that old school feel, the advertisements posted on the right field wall that remind him of minor league ballpark, and the historic Green Monster that loomed over left field.
Its a different culture in and of itself, he said. As a southern kid, its a fun place to come and hang out and experience the city. The ballpark is a rarity. Its not something you see every day. When you play Major League baseball, you expect to go into these real modern, immaculate, huge facilities, and this is one of the two old cozy ones where tradition outweighs the pressures of modernization. I love it.
The southern kid actually grew up watching the Red Sox. Jones maternal grandparents were from Boston and shared their passion for the team with him. Even though Jones lived in Florida, the Red Sox were still close to home.
I grew up somewhat of a Red Sox fan because of my grandparents, he said. They loved Carl Yastrzemski and Carlton Fisk and Freddy Lynn and Dwight Evans, Jim Rice, and all those guys. I grew up watching them quite a bit and listening to my grandfather yell at the TV. Theres a connection there, so theres always been an intrigue for me to come here.
This weekend Jones made his final trip to Fenway Park as he plans to retire at the end of the season, his 20th in the Majors. The Atlanta Braves third baseman has played 50 games against the Red Sox over his career, with 24 of them in Boston.
When Interleague play began in 1997, though, Jones admits he wasnt overly excited about the change. An old school fan of the game, he looked forward to events like the All-Star Game and the World Series as a unique opportunity to see the leagues battle. But after coming to Fenway Park over the last 15 years, he appreciates the match ups.
I was never a big proponent of interleague play, he said. I think it takes away from some of the luster of the All-Star Game. When I was growing up, I always looked forward to watching the All-Star Game because you had the best from each league never having seen each other before. Obviously it takes away from some of the luster of the World Series because if us and Boston makes it to the World Series, youre going to have three games during the course of the summer to go back and reference.
Some intrigue when I was growing up was, you had the big bats in the American League and the big pitching staffs in the National League. Much like it was in 95 when we won it. Everybody was so intrigued. (Greg) Maddux, (Tom) Glavine, and (John) Smoltz against the big bats of the Cleveland Indians, one of the best offenses ever. So intriguing. Thats lost some of its luster with Interleague Play.
But its hard not to get excited to come here never having been, never having played. Interleague gave me the opportunity to come here. Weve never played Boston in the World Series so I never would have had the chance.
On Saturday the Red Sox presented Jones with the number 10 from the scoreboard wall. It was one of many gifts he has received in what has become a farewell tour around baseball.
After over 20 years, 2,426 games, 2,653 hits, and 459 home runs in 8,735 at bats, Jones is ready to walk away from a career that began when his name was called by the Braves with the first overall pick in the 1990 amateur draft. During that span he has won a World Series Championship, National League MVP honors, the National League batting title, two Silver Slugger Awards, and has been selected to the All-Star Team seven times.
I can do one thing better than 99.9 percent of the people on the planet, and thats play baseball, Jones said of why he has continued playing this long. And its what Ive dreamt about doing since I was four or five years old. But Ive been living out of a suitcase for 23 years playing pro ball and Im ready to start the next chapter in my life. Im really tired of the travel and the every day ins and outs of being a Major League baseball player. I want to get away from it.
"I want to do some things that Ive never done. Ive never been on a Spring Break vacation with my family. Ive never been on a summer vacation with my family. I see baseball games and flag football games sparingly. And these are all things that I want to do.
At 40 years old, Jones can still play ball. He doesnt doubt his ability. But he has established a career that will likely earn him a place in the Hall of Fame. Stretching out his time in a uniform, he worries, could tarnish his lasting mark.
Jones also remembers when former teammates Glavine signed with the Mets and Smoltz joined the Red Sox. It was important to him to close out his career on a high note with the Braves.
Turning 40 had a little something to do with it, he said. 40 is a nice round number. I think 40 years old in baseball years is like 100 in human years. Its just a situation where like I said, 23 years is a long time to be doing anything. Ive been in the big leagues 19 years and the game is speeding up on me. Its hard to slow it down.
When you start playing, the game is really, really fast. Then when you get into your prime, the game slows down, almost for the real good ones, like slow pitch softball. And then as you get older, third base gets farther from first base. The pitchers mound gets closer to home plate. The game starts speeding up on you. And thats whats happening. I just dont want peoples last impression of me to be failing miserably before I call it quits.
I still have a job every day if I want it at 40, Im still able to play at a relatively good level, and this allows the Braves and I to kind of stay on the same page and kind of part ways amicably. I learned a lot from Glavine and Smoltz when they left and some of the PR hits that the Braves and those individual players took along the way. And I just dont want to put the organization through that.
After announcing his plans to retire during Spring Training, Jones has been able to spend this season appreciating his final games while becoming increasingly excited about the future that lies ahead for him after baseball. The father of four sons ages six through 14 looks forward to having weeks and months, not All-Star Breaks and homestands, to spend with his family.
With all of the articles and interviews that have been published about Jones, he wants above anything else for people to realize his true passion.
My private life and my life away from baseball has been well documented, he said. Im on TV even in the offseason with hunting shows and what not. People are still able to see me. They know what my likes and dislikes are. But I think that in the end, I want people to know that I want to be as good a father as I have been a baseball player for the last 20 years. In order for me to do that, I have to stop playing. A lot of people dont know that because they think that Ive eaten, drank, slept baseball for the last 23 years, and thats not the case. When I had kids, my priorities changed a lot. Thats the reason why I have about three months left in my career.
There is always a possibility Jones could return to Fenway Park in his retirement. But as he leaves on Sunday afternoon, he is in a good place walking away from another ballpark he will never play another game in. Departing from 4 Yawkey Way means he is one step closer to returning to Atlanta.
Thats why I know Im ready, he said. Because were on the sixth day of a six or seven-day road trip and I cant wait to get home because we have off Monday and I get to spend the day with them. Im very content.