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(AP Photo)
It's with a heavy heart that I will say goodbye to my muse after the conclusion of the baseball season.

Atlanta Braves third baseman Chipper Jones announced his retirement Thursday, effective at the end of the 2012 baseball season, marking the end of a truly remarkable era.

Chipper Jones, as a former teammate said Thursday, is the face of the Atlanta Braves. And he is truly the epitome of a franchise player. As he enters his 19th season in the Major Leagues -- all with the Braves-- Jones exemplifies what it means to be a winner, a champion. As a lifelong fan and supporter, it is fitting for me to pay homage to his exceptional legacy and the indelible mark he's left on the game of baseball.

I was one of the many legions of Braves fans that didn't grow up in the state of Georgia. Instead I watched every game on TBS with my beloved grandmother back in the day when the station carried the broadcasts. My love and passion for baseball stemmed from the many nights I watched Chipper Jones man third base so effortlessly for the Atlanta Braves.

He was an All-American boy-next-door from DeLand, Florida, drafted by the Braves with the first overall selection in the 1990 draft. Then-general manager Bobby Cox chose Chipper over the popular choice, pitcher Todd Van Poppel. From that day forward, Cox and Jones forged a father-son like bond that remains intact today.

Chipper joined a Braves dynasty already in the making. Atlanta had already won two division titles from 1991-92 before Jones made his Major League debut on September 11, 1993. But due to a season-ending knee injury in 1994, Chipper didn't start for the Braves until 1995.

Instantly, he won the hearts of the Braves faithful. His larger-than-life persona, infectious personality and sweet stroke at the plate caused swarms of admirers to laud him at ballparks around the league. He also elicited boos and chants of ‘Laaa-ry' by impassioned, rival fans (most notably those in Queens) whose teams were tortured by his bat.

Whether you loved him -- or loved to hate him-- Chipper was a relatable hero. He wasn't flashy, pompous or outspoken, but he did exude an unshakable confidence that resulted in one of the most impressive rookie seasons in recent memory.

Though Jones narrowly lost the 1995 Rookie of the Year Award to Los Angeles Dodgers pitching phenom Hideo Nomo, he did accomplish something other Braves icons Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Greg Maddux and David Justice failed to do in the years that preceded him: He helped lead the Braves to their first -- and only -- World Series championship in 1995.

From there, Chipper's career was off and running. He played an instrumental role in helping the Braves extend their division title streak to an unprecedented 14 straight victories. The Braves dynasty and Jones' part in it helped to define an era of baseball in a positive, profound way that was otherwise marred by controversy.

Chipper was the exception -- not the norm -- for superstars in his day. He played the game cleanly and consistently in an era where performance-enhancing drugs and steroids were prevalent. Jones was never a subject of suspicion and his statistics and records were never called into question. Not many players can say they impacted a franchise and a sport the way Chipper Jones has. His 18 years with the same team leads all active major league players. The Yankees' Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera rank second with 17 years.

The next stop in his illustrious career will be Cooperstown. Jones is, without question, a Hall of Famer - - arguably a first ballot selection. He won the National League's Most Valuable Player Award in 1999, and was in the top 10 in the voting five other times. In 2008, he was crowned the NL Batting Champion with a .364 batting average. He was selected to seven All-Star games and twice won the Silver Slugger Award.

Chipper's career numbers are staggering: .304 BA with 454 home runs, 526 doubles, 1,561 RBIs and 1,455 walks in 2,387 games. Most notably, his 454 home runs rank third all-time among switch hitters, behind Hall of Famers Mickey Mantle and Eddie Murray.

Chipper's storied career has been significantly impacted by numerous injuries in his later years, yet his dedication to his teammates and the Braves organization often pushed him to try to play through the pain -- no matter how severe.

As Jones nears his 40th birthday on April 24, age has finally caught up to a man who never wanted to put a timetable on his retirement. After watching him struggle to keep up with the fastballs he's seen this spring, I know he is making the right decision. Jones will never abandon his team or his word. That's not the kind of man or teammate he is. That's not what a winner would do.

But knowing when to walk away, knowing when to hang up those cleats -- takes guts, strength and courage -- qualities Jones has possessed since he ascended to the Majors as a wide-eyed rookie all those years ago. Jones was asked in his press conference following the retirement announcement what he wanted his legacy to be.

"All of us want to be known as a winner," Jones said. He then mentioned how he tried to honor both the name on the front and the name on the back of his uniform. You don't find players much classier than that.

Jones doesn't have to worry about his legacy. He made sure of that when he decided to retire on his own terms. He was never the athlete that chased the money and he wasn't going to be the one who stayed too long out of greed.

The Braves are working to have Jones re-join the organization in some capacity. It's been such a happy marriage for 23 years, since the day he was drafted, I can't imagine #10 being away too long. He's expressed interest in becoming a hitting coach someday. For a man that had mastered the craft, I think it would be an ideal post-baseball job for him.

Chipper Jones is a champion, on the field and at heart. Major League Baseball is losing not only a great player, but also a tremendous teammate and an extraordinary ambassador for the game. I am thankful I had the privilege to watch Jones shatter records -- along with the hearts of New York Mets fans in the 1990s-- firsthand. His work ethic, leadership, humility, dedication and passion for the game inspire me and transcend the sport.

Thank you Chipper, it's been an unbelievable ride.

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