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MLB.com Columnist

Marty Noble

Chipper conspicuous by his absence at camp

Chipper conspicuous by his absence at camp

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Baseball embraces its past more than the other sports. We readily recognize that and we know why -- there's more to embrace in this game. These days, each club invites former players to its Spring Training camp as a matter of course. The Braves are not an exception. Tom Glavine is wrapped up with his sons' hockey careers, so he won't be here this year. But Crime Dog already is. Bad Henry was here Thursday. Ralph Garr (sans Wile E. Coyote) is coming, so is Murph and maybe Smoltzie. Links to the past, each of them.

Chipper Jones, four months removed from his retirement, was supposed to be here Thursday. He wasn't. So that made him the missing link. Right? For one day, at least.

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He'd been invited and until Wednesday, he'd been expected to attend, observe and perhaps even participate in some minor fashion in the Braves' first workout. But no. None of which is to suggest Jones didn't have some sort of presence when the extensively revised Bravos assembled a few Andruw Jones throws away from Cinderella's Castle.

"You kind of expected him to come around the corner," Chris Johnson said. Or be around the corner. Johnson is to handle some of the third-base assignment this year; he has the appropriate initials. He was taking ground balls there Friday. "I wanted to turn around and ask [Chipper] some questions. I like to pick his brain."

Nary a No. 10 showed itself in the clubhouse, though. Three spectators did arrive wearing Chipper's and Bo Derek's signature number in Braves red. They had read Chipper was coming and wanted one more glimpse of the guy who manned third base in Dixie for the better part of 19 summers. But probability morphed into possibility and then into nope. The Jones Boy might have been in Nashville, signing his name, or shooting his rifle, or both. Or somewhere else.

So the camp that has two Uptons (BJ and Justin), two Johnsons (Chris and Reed), two Freddies (Freeman and McGriff, three if Fredi Gonzalez is included) had no Jones for at least one day.

"I didn't even know he was supposed to be here," Johnson said, "and I missed him anyway."

The clubhouse will take some getting used to for the returning lettermen because of new colleagues and the absence of one who had become a fixture. The figure who prompted stares from rookies, and young veterans too, wasn't in his familiar setting -- last locker on the right when the primary entrance is used -- Friday.

"He's letting me use it," Dan Uggla said. "Maybe next year it'll be mine."

Equipment manager John Holland always identified Chipper's belongings -- shower shoes, socks, jocks, baseball undershirts -- with a 10 written in Sharpie black. One less thing to do for Holland. But "I wish I had to do it again," he said. "He's missed. We all miss him."

The batting order may miss Jones as well, though the new Upton-Upton-Heyward outfield alignment is apt to provide enough offense to compensate for some of Chipper's missing swings.

Gerald Laird never played with Chipper. The Braves brought in the veteran catcher in case incumbent Brian McCann needs additional time to recover from October shoulder surgery. He missed Chipper in a different way. "The Braves games were on when I got home from school in Southern California -- 4:05 [p.m. PT] starts," he said. "I watched some of these guys play every day -- McGriff and TP [Terry Pendleton]. But there are two guys who did it for me -- Griffey Junior and Chipper. Chipper had an aura, a strut. I loved watching him do damage in the big leagues."

Laird was quite taken with Chipper even when he reached the big leagues. The first time he caught with Chipper batting, he looked up from his crouch and mouthed a silent "Wow!" Laird would have liked to have more opportunities to watch this year.

"Got here one year too late," he said.

And one day too early. Now, Chipper's due in Saturday. He'll dress in the coaches' room. "He'll get the last locker, there," Gonzalez said, "because he's late."

Freeman lockered next to Chipper in three camps and two seasons. Their homes outside Atlanta are separated by two-tenths of a mile. "He one of my best friends," Freeman said. "We're pretty close." So close that Freeman had known for four days that Jones would be a first-day absentee. "Even though I didn't expect him to be here, it was different without him," Freeman said. "And it can't be the same here without him."

Gonzalez knew nothing of Chipper's possible presence in Nashville. So when the man so conspicuous by his absence was a no-show, the manager wondered. "I'll bet he didn't want to be here the first day and take some of the attention away from the Uptons and the other guys," he said. "I don't know that, but I wouldn't be surprised if that's why he isn't here today. But he'll be here tomorrow probably."

And then, as often has been the case here, he'll be conspicuous by his presence.

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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