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Marty Noble

Chipper's been a delight to watch all these years

Noble: Chipper's been a delight to watch

Chipper's been a delight to watch all these years
PITTSBURGH -- Punctuation is a wonderful tool. Without it, we'd all be masters of the run-on sentence fragment, a title George Steinbrenner retired in 1987 in a 567-word release he had dictated that included two periods and one question mark. Punctuation tells us when to pause (semi-colon) or stop (period), whether the preceding words constitute a question -- "What, a game?" -- or a statement -- "What a game!" Colons suggest more is to follow, and commas, used properly, separate words that don't play well together.

Punctuation marks in the hands of the world's foremost grammarians would be challenged by the circumstances that existed Wednesday involving Chipper Jones. By his own account, his appearance in the Braves game here stood as his final appearance in the big leagues. So give me a period, and let's call it a career. But the 2012 Braves have a date with the Cardinals on Friday evening in the first-of-its kind, Wild Card v. Wild Card game. So let's make that a colon, because at least one more game follows.

And no one can say for certain that the one-game entry into more traditional postseason play will be Jones' final game. So a question mark is required somewhere. Another colon might replace it Friday night. Additional commas will become necessary if the Braves run the table or merely reach the World Series. And at this point in his 40th year and 19th big league season, so much that is said about Chipper Jones warrants an exclamation point.

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It's been that kind of career and that kind of summer/autumn for him. He has been drained and fascinated by it. He has smiled as much as he has breathed. Tears have formed as well. He has found it "tough to stay focused" with all that swirls about him. He anticipates the good parts of a return to postseason and eliminates thoughts of the demands that will challenge his energy.

"It'd be cool if we won it," he says. "And I'll be very glad when it's over, no matter how it turns out."

He is between the end of career and beginning of the postseason and amid all the celebrations and salutes that have been crowded into his most recent five weeks. "I'm spinning, been spinning for weeks," he says.

This much, we know for sure, Chipper's almost finished; not as a productive player -- he singled as a pinch-hitter in his "last" at-bat in the sixth inning Wednesday. So the Cardinals better be prepared.

But months ago, he identified 2012 as his final act, and nothing he has experienced this summer has revised his sense of self, least of all the permanent pains in his legs. "There's something camping out between my legs that sends a stabbing sensation to both knees," he said hours before that single put his career hit total at 2,726, two more than Roberto Alomar and the 57th most in the history of the game, and his career average at .303. He also scored a run, advancing 90 feet at a time, of course.

Before the hit, Jones was saluted for the ninety-twelfth time in a period of weeks. His image had been recognized instantly in the fifth when he moved to the on-deck circle. But he didn't bat. His introduction in the sixth was a command sent to a gathering of 20,615 that prompted many to rise, applaud and cheer. The line separating home and away was thinly drawn Wednesday at PNC Park. So what if Pirates starter A.J. Burnett had located his one offering to Chipper in a spot where Bob Buhl (see Braves history) would have smoked it.

Folks in the stands -- and they included Chipper's folks, Lynne and Larry -- were delighted by what they had witnessed. Cheers followed their son into the dugout.

Scores of fans had come, wearing uniform jerseys -- Clemente, McCutchen, Stargell, Alvarez, Mazeroski and Garrett Jones. But the Buccos could keep up with the Jones. A completely unscientific canvas found 23 Pirates jerseys and 31 Chipper Jones 10s in the lower deck before the game.

One homemade oak tag sign equated the Braves third baseman with Bo Derek and Nadia Comaneci. "Perfect 10s," it said.

The 31 Chipper disciples included five of six 20-somethings who had traveled from Ohio in an SUV that clearly had featured a champagne breakfast punch. Once the SUV was parked -- not particularly straight -- the six wore out the Chop Shop chant. "We're actually big Browns fans," one of them said. "Two of us are Braves fans, but Chipper is our favorite non-Brown of all-time."

Elsewhere, three generations of Jones devotees had come from Indiana. Only grandpa was dressed in civies. His son, who had played third base in high school, and grandson were Bravely attired. "I wanted my son to be able to say, 'I saw Chipper Jones play,'" the father said.

People used to say that sort of thing about DiMaggio and Musial.

* * * *

So ended the regular-season victory lap for the 1999 National League MVP, the 2008 batting champion, Braves lifer and the foremost switch-hitter the game has seen since Pete Rose and Eddie Murray. The in-park receptions from New York to San Francisco have been, at the least, energized demonstrations of respect and reverence for Chipper. The gifts from the clubs have been, in his words, "cool" and "appreciated." What retired third baseman doesn't need a half dozen third-base bags?

"Overwhelming" is the word Jones has used repeatedly during the farewell tour. "There are other words, but 'overwhelming' is what it's been. I had no idea."

Respected and revered; Chipper is comfortable with those characterizations, but he wouldn't use the latter. And he squirmed at the suggestion that he had become a beloved figure. "That's for Cal [Ripken] in Baltimore," he said. "He had that squeaky [clean] image. Not me. You never heard a bad word about Cal no matter where he went. I got booed in a lot of cities."

Not lately though. Whatever wrath existed in the cities the Braves visited this year was directed at others -- McCann or Uggla or Heyward or Freeman or Kimbrel or Hudson. Jones was tefloned rather than targeted, even in Flushing, N.Y., where he had been Public Enemy No. 10 for more than a decade. The sing-song "Lar-ry, Lar-ry" that Shea Stadium created was delivered at Citi Field without a New York edge in September. And "Yo Chippuh" was heard on the streets outside the Braves' midtown hotel when he ventured out as he never did when the city intimidated him.

As charming, pleasant and fulfilling as the other receptions have been for Chipper, his parents and all the folks carrying tomahawks in their hearts, they have been nothing akin to the reception for Chipper at Turner Field on Wednesday night. Lynne Jones' forearms lost count of the goose pimples that formed as people embraced her boy.

She characterized herself and her husband as "ultimate Little League parents," with an appreciation for a boy's skills they hadn't expected others to share. But they've learned. Still, they expected little more than "a gold watch and "nice career, kid" for their son.

"I understand he's had a good career," Larry said. "But by no means did I ever realize his career justified what we've seen, the way people and the Braves and other teams have treated him. It's been amazing."

Chipper expressed similar thoughts before the game. He politely protested when he was included with recent retirees who have or appear to have Cooperstown resumés. He mentioned Ripken again, referring to him as the "Iron Man." His other references were to "3,000-hit Craig Biggio" and "350-wins Roger Clemens." He was sure it would be "arrogant" to include himself in the grouping, though he may have fewer obstacles in his path to the Hall of Fame than Biggio or Clemens.

"I don't spend my days thinking about it," Jones said.

Perhaps, when retirement has taken effect, he will. Of greater immediate import is being "one-ninth of the equation" that could make the 2012 season more than his last. It can't be his best. It could be as rewarding as any, though. His mother acknowledged that World Series rings would make handsome bookends. The Braves won the Series in 1995 when Chipper was a rookie.

"They would," Chipper said.

Period -- for now.

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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