WALLA WALLA - News reports out of the Atlanta Braves camp last week that this will be Chipper Jones' final big league baseball season contradicted the euphoria that I usually associate with spring training.
What a bummer, I thought to myself, knowing full well that Chipper's decision was hardly a surprise. The future Hall of Famer turns 40 next month, and injuries have been eating away at his playing time for the last eight seasons.
Jones, in fact, underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee earlier this week to repair a torn meniscus. It was the sixth knee surgery of his career, and though he is expected to recover quickly he will begin his final season on the disabled list.
But come what may, Chipper has had a great career. On the field and off, he's been a welcome throwback, from his gifted play to his all-American good looks to that wad of tobacco tucked in his jaw.
"He just looks like a ballplayer," longtime Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said recently when asked about Jones. "His actions, his mannerisms, everything he does. I really can't say enough good things about him. The way he's gone about his business, his consistency, how he took care of himself, what he means to the team. He could flat-out hit. He's a Hall of Famer, for sure."
Bobby Cox, who managed Chipper for 17 seasons before turning the Atlanta reins over to Fredi Gonzalez in 2011, shared a similar view from up close and personal.
"The first time I saw him, I knew he was going to be a star," Cox once said. "He had that face. It's the face of a baseball lifer. And that doesn't mean playing until your 45 or coaching or managing the rest of your life. It means playing the game properly, doing what you're told, doing what's best for the team, adjusting and, of course, winning."
From a personal perspective, part of Chipper Jones' appeal is that he reminds me of another Braves third baseman. Eddie Mathews played the hot corner for the Braves for 15 consecutive seasons during a Hall of Fame career that spanned an organizational odyssey that led from Boston to Milwaukee to Atlanta.
Mathews spent most of those years in Milwaukee, not so far from my Minnesota home, and he was just entering his prime when I was in my pre-teen years and learning to be a baseball fan.
I remember tramping highway ditches for hours in search of discarded soda bottles and spending the deposit money I collected on packs of Topps baseball cards. And no card was more precious than the Eddie Mathews card.
The Braves were my team, and he was my guy.
I was thrilled when Mathews made a diving, backhand stop of Bill Skowron's shot down the third-base line and turned it into the final out of Milwaukee's seven-game World Series victory over the Yankees in 1957. I was devastated when Skowrun hit the decisive three-run home run in the seventh game as New York came back from a three-games-to-one deficit and beat the Braves in the 1958 World Series.
When every big league club was asked a few years back to select its all-time all-star team, I was certain that Eddie would be the third baseman. When Chipper was selected instead, I was taken aback.
Not that it was any of Chipper's doing.
Jones' career numbers, which he will in all likelihood build upon this season, are certainly comparable to Mathews' final statistics. Comparable but not similar.
Jones, who is generally regarded as the third-best switch hitter of all time behind Mickey Mantle and Eddie Murray, is a .304 career hitter. Nine times in 17 full seasons his average eclipsed .300, highlighted by a monster .364 mark in 2008 when he was the National League batting champion.
Mathews, by contrast, batted .271 over his 15 full seasons with the Braves plus two final campaigns split between the Houston Astros and Detroit Tigers. Mathews was a .300 hitter in three of those season, batting .306 in 1959 and 1961 and 302 in 1953, his second season in the big leagues.
However, the left-handed hitting Mathews was the better slugger. He hit 512 home runs in his career, which was the seventh most in baseball history when he retired in 1968 at the age of 37. He has since slid to 21st place, passed up by some bona fide sluggers and a select group of steroid suspects.
Mathews twice led the National League in home runs, slugging a career-high 47 in 1953 and 46 in 1959. He also belted 41 homers in 1955 and 40 in 1954, and during an eight-year run beginning in 1953 he averaged 39 home runs per season.
Jones smacked 45 home runs in 1999, a year in which he also hit .319 and won the National League Most Valuable Player Award. He never hit more than 38 homers in any other season and enters 2012 with 454 career homers, 33rd on the all-time list.
While 500 homers appear to be out of Jones' reach, a 20-plus season would move him five rungs up the ladder on the all-time HR list.
With 1,561 runs batted in, Jones holds a slight edge over Mathews, who finished with 1,453 ribbies. However, Jones accumulated his total over 17 full seasons compared to 16 for Mathews, who managed just 52 at-bats in his 17th and final year.
Jones drove in a career-high 111 runs twice during his career and finished with 100 or more RBIs nine times.
Mathews totaled 135 RBIs in 1953, arguably his best season, when he finished second in the National League to Ray Campanella's 142 ribbies. Eddie also drove in 124 runs in 1960, had two other 100-plus RBI seasons and 90-plus RBIs in five other seasons.
Mathews was a seven-time National League All-Star selection and played in 10 all-star games. Jones is a six-time all-star selection.
So take your pick, the better batting average or superior power. There's not much else that separates these two great third basemen.
One difference in my mind, however, is that Mathews spent most of his career batting in the same lineup with Hank Aaron, one of the greatest home-run hitters and run producers in baseball history. Aaron slugged 755 home runs in his career, second only to Barry Bonds' fabricated 762 total, and he drove in 2,297 runs over 23 fabled seasons.
Hitting sometimes ahead of Aaron in the Braves' three hole, and sometimes behind him in the cleanup spot, Mathews both benefited and suffered from his fellow slugger's presence. While it's true that pitchers weren't inclined to pitch around Eddie with the Hammer in the on-deck circle, Aaron often cleared the bases while Mathews was waiting to hit.
For the record, Mathews and Aaron combined to hit 863 homers in 13 seasons as teammates. That's the most in big league history, surpassing the 859 homers Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig combined to hit in 12 seasons with the New York Yankees.
In final analysis, Eddie's still my guy. But Chipper's not a bad second choice.