When going out on your own terms isn’t an option

Chipper Jones‘ season came to an abrupt end after a brilliant jump throw down the third-base line at Minute Maid Park last Tuesday, when he landed awkwardly and somehow ended up tearing his left ACL. 

Even worse, Chipper had previously indicated this could be his last season of all — a season that is already going to see legendary manager Bobby Cox hang it up, and a season that has the Braves primed for the postseason. 
Now, Chipper won’t see what’s possibly the last year of his career all the way through.
Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan knows what that’s like. 
Ryan (pictured below in his 1993 getup) proclaimed prior to his 1993 campaign with the Rangers — his 27th in the big leagues — that he’d be retiring by the end of the year. But his career ended two starts early, when Ryan’s arm gave out on Sept. 22 and was then placed on the shelf for, well, the remainder of his life. 
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“The fact that I knew it was my last season, I announced that and had every intention of retiring, and the fact that it happened prior to the end of the season, it was a little more disappointing,” Ryan told me in a phone interview on Thursday. “But that’s one of the things about professional sports that you have no control over.”
We want our heroes to go out the way we want to remember them: on top. And athletes want nothing more than to finish on their own terms. Most of the time, though, neither are possible. 
But how much does it really matter in the long run? 
Years later, do we really have a bloated Babe Ruth limping away with the 1935 Boston Braves embedded in our memory; or a dead-armed Whitey Ford not being able to pitch past May in 1967; or Wade Boggs not finishing out the final month of his 1999 farewell tour with the Rays because of his own knee injury? 
Probably not. But the players never forget. 
“I think what you want to do [as an athlete] is be consistent and perform to the level of what your expectations are of yourself,” Ryan said. “Yeah, [Chipper] would like to be productive all the way until the end of his career, and that’s the way I felt. My last season wasn’t as productive as I hoped it would be, but a lot of that was due to injury, so I think it just confirmed for me that I had made the right decision.”
We’ll wait and see how performance and injury impact Jones’ decision for the 2011 season — will it solidify his sentiment that he’s indeed finished, or will it motivate him to give it another shot and try to go out the right way? 
Since indicating in June that he might retire at season’s end, the 38-year-old switch-hitter (pictured below walking off the field for possibly the last time with Braves trainer Jeff Porter) has batted .307 with a .907 OPS, providing reason to believe he could perhaps be a productive player beyond this season. 
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Then came the knee injury. And now, if he goes through with retirement, will come the most difficult part of all: Moving on with life after baseball. 
Ryan knows what that’s like, too. 
“It took me two years to get over being a Major League Baseball player, and I was totally shocked by that, because I played so long, and I had so many things I wanted to do in my life that I was looking forward to,” the Rangers’ current president said. “But you have to realize, though, that you’ve been a ballplayer your entire life and your entire adult life, and so you live that lifestyle, you live that routine, you have that discipline. And now, all of a sudden, you wake up one day and that’s not the case, and there’s an adjustment period.”
— Alden Gonzalez

* More on this subject coming soon to an MLB.com near you. 

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