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GRANT PARK | Chipper Jones hopes for healthy 2012 with Braves | News

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GRANT PARK | Chipper Jones hopes for healthy 2012 with Braves

ATLANTA -- The kids at baseball clinics clamor for hitting secrets from Atlanta Braves third baseman Chipper Jones, a likely Hall of Famer.

They want him to dissect every hinge to his swing and talk about the path of the bat to the ball, weight shift, hands and all the other minutiae of hitting.

Jones shakes his head at the technicians, as if they are making it all too complex, and tells them what is really important about hitting: 20-15.

That's his vision, even now, two months from turning 40 years old.

"The first thing you have to do is you've got to see it," Jones said.

Usually, there is a collective "oh" throughout the flock of kids, a letdown that there is not a deeper truth to a career .304 hitter over 18 seasons.

But it is that simple trait -- eyesight -- that partly explains how Jones can be an impact player again for the Braves this season.

He has a rebuilt left knee, a sometimes-balky right knee, an occasionally strained side and hamstrings that might tighten up, but he sees the ball, which means he can hit it and do so from both sides of the plate.

Jones says he feels strong enough going into the 2012 season that it might not to be his last. He is in the final year of a contract that will pay him $14 million, and the Braves have an option for 2013 of roughly $7 million.

"As long as I stay healthy and I'm having fun, I'm going to keep going," Jones said last week. "As I sit here with three weeks to go before spring training, I am not ready to say that this is it."

Having Jones healthy and in the lineup is good news for a team that starts 2012 with a chip on its shoulder. Braves veteran utility man Eric Hinske says the club won't soon forget its collapse of 2011, when it saw what looked to be a sure wild-card spot snatched away by the St. Louis Cardinals.

"I don't think anybody is going to forget about it," Hinske said. "I think we've going to remember it and don't want to feel that feeling again. We had a great five months last year, but the last month was not good. We're still mad about it."

Jones will be one of the most influential Braves. The whole lineup slumped last season in September, when Atlanta went 9-18 and Jones hit .275.

Ideally, Jones would hit third and five-time All-Star Brian McCann fourth. But can the Braves trust Jones to get back in a groove? He insists he remains a gainful hitter and a capable fielder in his 19th season.

"I still feel that I can go out and play a solid third base, which I did last year," said Jones, a seven-time All-Star. "And I still feel like I can be productive in the middle of the lineup. If it's the three-hole or the five-hole or the six-hole, it doesn't bother me where I hit."

For a while this off-season, there was a fear Jones might be a $14 million hood ornament. He was having trouble swinging right-handed and using his legs to spin and generate bat speed.

Then came a near-disaster in the Kansas woods in November, when Jones fell into a hole while hunting, heard a pop in his knee and had to limp a mile out of the woods. He flew to Atlanta for an MRI, which was negative. It was just scar tissue, he said. It was then that Jones figured an athlete with his history ought to swing in the hammock for a few weeks.

"I guess the six weeks staying off of it, getting back into the groove in January ... I had all my faculties, all my abilities since January 1," Jones said.

When asked about retirement, which he pondered in 2010, Jones said, "I think if I struggle with the knee injuries again and I'm not having any fun, and if the team's struggling, obviously, I'll make that decision when it hits me. My body will tell me when that day comes. It'll be cut and dried."