KISSIMMEE, Fla. – The man in the butter-colored golf shirt, black slacks, white – yes, white – shoes and serene disposition Sunday morning said he’d spent the day before at the local mall, some of it shopping for golf shoes, some of it in the car in the mall parking lot listening to the Braves game.
He said he was going to spend Sunday afternoon’s ballgame in the stands at Champion Stadium beside – for the first time ever, he thought – his wife. (In actuality, he spent most of the game one seat over from the team president. Some habits are a bear to break.) They’d planned a Mediterranean cruise, he said, so they will fly to Barcelona in mid-April. He wondered if he’d be able to get the box scores on the boat, but maybe he wouldn’t look that hard.
Behind sunglasses that appeared issued by the Florida State troopers, he said he’d been here a little more than a week and played five rounds of golf, this job as club advisor treating him pretty well so far.
He’ll be 70 in May, Bobby Cox will, and retirement looks good on him. A little white in the shoes, but good.
That could have been Chipper Jones(notes), too, up until the left knee went in Houston late last summer, and he had his ACL repaired, and then he decided he wasn’t going to be taken from the game on crutches, which led to Sunday in Kissimmee, where he took three at-bats as the Braves’ designated hitter.
He’ll reach 39 a month before Cox gets to 70, but Braves fans were spared the heartbreak of having both leave for good on the same dreary October night. Now Jones does his usual thing, another spring, this one before his 18th season, this time measuring things like whether to slide or not, whether it’s time to load up from the left side at the plate, and whether he should be concerned with what they tell him is normal fluid buildup.
Through his days here, Jones sneaks looks over at Cox, the only big league manager he’d known before a week ago, when Fredi Gonzalez took over the chair in the back office and the top step in the dugout. He watches Cox find stuff to do, find conversations to involve himself in, and find places to be, shuffling through the awkward phase of what to do after the uniform comes off.
“I’m ecstatic that he’s still around,” Jones said. “He does look a little out of place. I thoroughly expect to see him with his spikes on, growling at somebody.”
Maybe lunch with an umpire one of these days.
As it was, Cox told the story of his first spring training game as manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, in 1982. He was, of course, ejected, arguing that his man beat a tag at second base.
“It was Durwood Merrill,” Cox said, gleefully outing the umpire.
“Obviously he was safe.”
He laughed. Forced it, actually.
“He’s been doing it for 50 years,” Jones said. “It’s kind of hard to start doing something else.”
Not even a year ago, when Jones was considering the same switch to golf shirts and white shoes, he’d mused that when he couldn’t get out of bed in the morning for the aches, it might be time to go. His wife, Sharon, had to shove him from behind.
“Still does that, by the way,” he said.
Beyond the $26 million he’s got coming over the next two seasons, there are reasons Jones still does this. The Braves will contend. He believes he can help. He’s having a good time, once he clears the bedspread.
On a perfectly Disney Sunday afternoon against the New York Mets, he struck out on a backdoor slider from Chris Young, lined a single against Oliver Perez(notes), and broke his bat on a fly ball to right field against Boof Bonser(notes). So, he hit from both sides, reached base, timed out a double play-disrupting slide that passed somewhere between dainty and heartfelt (“I really didn’t want to,” he admitted), and the knee lived for another day.
Gonzalez loved it, that Jones ran with some ease, and that in late February Jones did what he had to do, which was to save an out that nobody would remember by dinnertime. That’s also part of Jones’ value in a transition period in which Cox steps away and Gonzalez steps in, 24 guys will adjust because Jones will adjust. A sound baseball man who was underappreciated (by the owner, for one) in Florida, Gonzalez certainly wouldn’t need Jones in that corner locker, but the alternative is better. Way better.
“I’m glad he is sticking around, really,” Gonzalez said. “I’m glad he’s in the clubhouse. That’s a big persona in that locker room.”
It was enough to lose one.
“I don’t know what else I’d be doing at this point,” Jones said. “It is what it is, but I’m a baseball player. This is what I love to do. This is what I’m good at. The bottom line is, if I was ready to go home and not come to the clubhouse anymore, I would have. But, I’m just not ready yet.”
So, he’ll stick around, see what’s left in his knee and his bat. Beyond that, maybe he’ll keep going, do it again. Or maybe this is it, and by next spring he’ll be sitting up in the stands, next to the Coxes.
“It could be,” Jones said, and then added with a grin, “I’ll let you know in six or seven months.”