Chipper: This gamer has a game

The Cincinnati Enquirer

ST. LOUIS - The foot is fine. It is whiplash that worries Chipper Jones.

The Atlanta Braves third baseman awoke Friday to discover a new addition to his growing inventory of injuries: an annoying pain in the neck.

''I woke up this morning and I couldn't even turn to look at my wife,'' Jones said. ''I was thinking back to what could have caused it and what I may have done. The only thing I could think of was the dive. I hit the ground real hard. It almost knocked the breath out of me.''

In his passionate pursuit of baseball excellence, Chipper Jones puts himself in harm's way on almost an hourly basis. He hurt himself at least twice during the Braves' 8-3 loss to St. Louis in Thursday's second game of the National League Championship Series.

First there was ''the dive,'' an unavailing lunging stab at a seventh-inning bunt. Then, an inning later, Jones deepened his discomfort by fouling a ball off his left foot.

As he dressed for the Braves' off-day workout Friday afternoon at Busch Stadium, Jones wore a heating pad around his neck, a deep bruise below his left ankle, a nasty scrape on his left knee and a remarkably anesthetized attitude.

Whatever pain he was feeling was not nearly as acute as the agonizing prospect of missing a playoff game. Unless he's in traction by the time Bobby Cox turns in his lineup card, Jones will surely find the strength to tough it out this afternoon.

Playoffs are great healer

''There's not too much that doesn't ache,'' he admitted. ''But you know what? Playing in the playoffs is kind of like playing on a drug anyway. You can be just barely able to get out of bed in the morning, but come seven or eight o'clock, man, you're just as loose and limber and ready to go as anything. It's crunch time. You've got to suck it up.''

In only his second season as a big-league regular, Chipper Jones has established himself as the best everyday player on the best team in baseball. And more than that, as a gamer.

Jones missed the first five games of the season, recovering from surgery to remove a bone chip from his right knee, and then played in 157 games in a row. He played primarily at third base, but also served at shortstop and in right field, without evident heed for his own health. Jones is a coach's son, and it shows, down to the time-warp way he wears his stirrups. He is a man who works at his play.

''Many a day I wanted to go into Bobby's (Cox) office and say, 'Skip, I need a day off,' '' Jones said, slipping slowly into his jersey. ''But I didn't do it. I don't want to let any opportunity slip by. I feel it's within my ability to go out there and do a great job, you know? If I'm swinging the bat good that day or I'm feeling good defensively that day, then I can help us win.

''If I was to sit out and somebody else would be in there and not get to a ball that maybe I could have gotten to or not gotten a big basehit in a situation where maybe I'd get a basehit, I just don't want to take that chance. There's too much at stake right now.''

Collinsworth sound-alike

If you listen to Chipper Jones long enough, you are sure to hear Cris Collinsworth. They share the distinctive twang of Northeastern Florida, and an unvarnished joy in just being jocks. Both men convey an uncalculating candor, and an unusual ease under pressure.

(Jones once incurred the estimable wrath of Joe Nuxhall for declining a Star of the Game invitation on the grounds that he had a date, but the Old Left-hander's on-air exasperation was far more entertaining than are most of his interviews.)

But I digress. The essential truth about Chipper Jones is that he is a brilliant young ballplayer with the makeup to match. He plays hard and he will play hurt.

''I'm sure this will probably be gone by game time tomorrow,'' he said, turning his head tenderly. ''I hope it is. It's hard to turn my neck from side to side. But it'll be all right. I ain't missing any games.''

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published Oct. 12, 1996.