Chipper Jones hasn’t forgotten the indelible impression Fenway Park made upon him the first time he visited Boston’s ballpark Aug. 29, 1997. He was a 25-year-old third baseman in his third full season with the Atlanta Braves.
“The first time, I was pretty bright-eyed and bushy-tailed,’’ said Jones from the visitors’ clubhouse at Fenway, poking through the jerseys hanging in his locker. “Now, I’m a weathered old vet.’’
Jones announced March 22 that he is retiring after this season, his 19th in the majors, all with Atlanta. The 39-year-old served as the designated hitter in Friday night’s interleague contest against the Red Sox, batting sixth in the order. He finished 1 for 5.
“It’s just another game, but it wasn’t just another game back in the day the first time I came here,’ recalled Jones, a seven-time All-Star who as a rookie in 1995 helped win the World Series. “I was just trying to take in everything that Fenway had to offer, the ambience. I remembered walking down the tunnel and thinking, ‘This is awesome.’ ’’
What struck him the most the first time he set foot on Fenway’s lawn?
“How big the wall is,’’ Jones said. “TV doesn’t do it justice. When you’re standing up there at home plate, you’re like, ‘Wow, I feel like I could hit a thousand homers or doubles or whatever here.’’
“But,’’ he added with a chuckle, “unfortunately, I’ve run into Pedro Martinez and Josh Beckett and Jon Lester a few too many times here, so it’s not as easy as it looks.’’
Entering this series, Jones had played 22 games at Fenway, hitting .259 with three home runs and nine RBIs.
Jones said his decision to retire has given him an added sense of appreciation for every moment he has left in the game.
“Oh yeah, it’s been a year of reflection all the way around, no matter where I’ve been,’’ said Jones, who during the Braves’ series at Yankee Stadium this week was recognized during a pregame ceremony and given the third base bag as a keepsake. “Whenever I go into a stadium for the last time, whatever good memories there are, they come flooding back . . . It’s really been a grab bag of different type of emotions, thus far.’’
But, Jones said, there are no regrets. Asked why he opted to announce his decision before the season, Jones replied, “I didn’t want to have to answer questions all year about whether or not this was going to be it. Over the last year, year and a half, I had taken so many questions about when is it going to be finally it, when are you going to call it quits.
“I just didn’t feel like I was very confident that this was going to be my last year and I didn’t want to beat around the bush all year and say it was or it wasn’t. I might as well be content with my decision and come out with it, that way the Braves and I stay on the same page.’’
Four days after announcing his retirement, Jones underwent surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee. In his season debut April 10, he went 2 for 4 with a home run in a 6-4 win at Houston.
Jones said he began contemplating retirement two years ago after he tore his right anterior cruciate ligament in August, missing the remainder of the 2010 season.
“I had actually been playing some pretty good baseball right there before I blew out my knee,’’ he said. “I needed to use spring training the following year as a motivational tool to rehab the knee properly and get back.’’
Jones, who signed a three-year, $42 million extension in 2009 with a club option for 2013, wasn’t quite ready to call it quits.
“The thing you hate to do is go into offseason and say, ‘Yeah, I’m done,’ and then get through the offseason, get healthy, and say, ‘You know what? I think I might be able to do it,’ ’’ Jones said.
Jones played in 126 games in 2011 and went to spring training this year with the hope of staying healthy.
“It took me about 10 days and then all the same aches and pains started coming back,’’ he said. “That’s when I sat on it for about a week and talked to my family and my support team and I was really at a point where I didn’t want to do this anymore.
“But I made the commitment to play this year and I’ll do so.
“I feel like when I’ve been in there, I’ve played very well, but I wasn’t ready to commit to anything beyond that.’’
Jones’s teammates supported his decision.
“He was at peace with it and I was really happy for him,’’ said catcher Brian McCann, Jones’s teammate since 2005. “He’s done a lot in the game of baseball and I’m just thankful that I got to play with him.’’