Chipper Jones of the Atlanta Braves kneels behind second base during a pitching change by the Washington Nationals at Turner Field.
In less than a month, Chipper Jones will walk away from the game despite hitting well enough to continue and continuing to avoid fatal encounters with hazardous bridges.
There's nothing wrong with quitting while you're ahead. Cary Grant walked out on the movies after his 1966 film "Walk Don't Run," not wanting to grow old in public. Harper Lee wrote on of the great American novels, To Kill a Mockingbird, and, as far as we know, never picked up her pen again. George Lucas looked upon "Star Wars" as a perfect trilogy and never went back to them despite vast monetary enticements that... Oh.
See, it's a good thing sometimes to stop, even at the peak of your powers (and I was a bit hyperbolic; the miserable cutting, slapdash direction, mugging humor, and marketable talking teddy bears mean the original trio contained a couple of lovely twins and a mutant step-sibling). Atlanta Braves third baseman Chipper Jones, presently making his farewell tour of the National League, is taking that thought seriously: after knocking two singles in Tuesday night's loss to the Rockies, he is now hitting .304/.383/.500, rates not terribly far off from his career averages. Jones seems to be saying, "If this be decrepitude, let us make the most of it."
No one wants to go out like Pete Rose. By this I refer not to his being eternally damned for betting on baseball, but as a thickset 45-year-old in skintight uniform pants with just enough remaining skill to hit .250 in singles as a first baseman, playing only because as manager he could write his own name into the lineup.
Jones isn't yet Rose, but despite this year's strong encore he's hardly at the peak of his powers. Increasingly fragile as the years have gone by, he last played in 150 games in 2003, and has made it to 140 just once since then, averaging 123 games a season from 2004 to 2011. Additionally, the three seasons bookended by his 2008 batting title season and this one were right out of the aging superstar's catalog-if Jones' eventual Hall of Fame plaque will honor the accomplishments of Chipper, these nigh-identical .268/.371/.444 (overall) seasons were clearly authored by Larry.
Other players have left the game with their abilities intact, not always by choice. One of the great outfielders was through after a .382/.444/.589 season which included a league-leading 20 triples, but of course Shoeless Joe Jackson didn't retire by choice. You might say the same of the 35-year-old Ed Delahanty, who was hitting .333/.388/.436 when he got drunk and wandered off a bridge. Jones' fellow switch-hitter Mickey Mantle retired after a .237/.386/.398 season. That seems terrible given that he was a career .302 to that point, but it was 1968, the year of the pitcher and a lot of other terrible things, and Mantle's 143 OPS+ exceeds Jones' 136 of this season.
There aren't many seasons like Mantle's, or even Delahanty's, because in the pre-union, pre-free agency days, the game lacked sufficient financial rewards for a player to have a choice about retirement. More often, they were forced out when judged to be finished, then played their way down through the minors the same way they had once played their way up, wringing every last paycheck out of the game. Jones walking away a after quality season demonstrates the freedom that affluence has conferred on athletes.
No doubt the social stigma now attached to drunken bridge-walking has also played a part in delivering Jones safely to the end of his career. Thanks to school health classes, we all know that this is something one should just not do unless a really intimidating amount of peer pressure is involved, and perhaps not even then unless there is a girl to impress.
One hates to see Jones survive both the swirling cataracts of injury and misadventure to arrive at 40 as a still-vital player and yet leave the game without considering, say, a year of designated hitting, but better still that we don't get to see what would inevitably occur should he linger too long, something like Rose's 1980s, Willie Mays's 1973, or Steve Carlton's 40s. The lesson is clear: always leave ‘em wanting more Chipper, not less Larry... And leave a beloved trilogy alone.