Adam Jones Is A 10
Why neither the Orioles nor the city of Baltimore can afford to lose him
By Michael Anft
"The Guys" meet most mornings at the Dunkin Donuts on Reisterstown Road, well inside the city line. The half-dozen, ball cap-wearing geezers in their 70s typically klatch over coffee, current events or what's happening in their lives. Baseball? It doesn't come up much.
Like many African Americans, they remember the time when blacks dominated the league's Most Valuable Player awards and the pride that came with it. But even for many blacks with long memories and an appreciation for the game, baseball is essentially over. It might as well be soccer or cricket. Nowadays, about 9 percent of all people that attend Major League Baseball games are black -- only 1 percent more than the number of African Americans out on the field.
"It's getting back to the point where it was around the time Jackie Robinson came up," said Verdell Adair, 76, one of The Guys and a former teacher and vice principal at Lake Clifton High School. Decades ago, he attended Virginia State University along with Oriole star Al Bumbry. "Whether there is a great deal of interest in the community or not has to do with whether people can identify with the players. Most of the players of color these days are from other countries. There's a lack of enthusiasm in the black community."
When the subject of conversation turns to Orioles center fielder Adam Jones, one of the organization's few non-Hispanic African-American players, the tone changes a bit. The guys know who he is and seem to understand that the Orioles' hold on Jones, now in his fifth season as a Bird, is not ironclad. He may cease to be an Oriole at the end of next season, if he isn't traded sooner.
The team punted on the prospect of inking its star player to a long-term deal last winter. Early during the arbitration process, Jones signed a one-year, $6.15-million contract instead. Andrew Parrotte, 73, wearing an O's cap, thinks of the future and shakes his head.
"He'll go somewhere else for the big money," he said. "Look at all the pitchers we've lost because they wouldn't pay."
Thomas Fletcher, 79 and wearing a Yankees hat, said: "If he's qualified, then you should pay him. It's plain as day to me."
That seems simple enough. It's not as if the Orioles are the 1950s Red Sox, ignoring the prevailing winds of change and excluding people from playing a game because of their skin color. The team has black field coaches in the majors and minors. After 14 years of losing, no one would dare call the organization racist.
The Orioles are desperate for talent, no matter where it comes from -- Korea, Taiwan, Venezuela or inner-city San Diego. Major League Baseball has run an inner-city youth baseball program for years and has encouraged the hiring of black managers and front-office honchos. Yet there have been dubious results so far; currently, there are only two of each.
Yet the matter of 26-year-old Jones, last year's Most Valuable Oriole and nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award for his ongoing charity work, has race at its core. Jones is well aware of his lonely status as an American black player. He has embraced the role as a model for the city's black youngsters.
He works with African-American leaders to deliver civic messages and gives his time to rec centers and charities. He participates in MLB's urban youth program in Baltimore's near East and West sides, showing up incognito to see how the young players are progressing.
One could reasonably argue that Jones' value to the city and the team is not just that of setting career highs in 12 separate on-field categories last year. Certainly, Jones and his Los Angeles-based agent, Nez Balelo, are willing to entertain the notion.
"In a city that is 64 percent black," Jones said, "there is some obligation, some responsibility for an athlete to give back to that community."
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake regularly counts on Jones to help her with youth programs, anti-animal abuse campaigns and organizing the city's high school baseball championships.
"The biggest thing Adam does is regularly offer to help," Rawlings-Blake said. "As far as being actively engaged in the community, it's hard to find an athlete with his level of commitment."
Even Orioles general manager Dan Duquette, who has yet to nail Jones down with a long-term deal, realizes his center fielder is multi-dimensional on and off the field.
"Adam understands the impact he can have on the community," Duquette said. "We appreciate that contribution. He's a terrific ambassador for the team."
So, if No. 10 is his team's most valuable player and more than a solid citizen, can the Orioles, seemingly reluctant to dole out lengthy contracts, afford to lose him? If they do, would they ever have a chance of drawing black Baltimore, among others, back into the baseball fold?
Growing up, Jones led the life of a typical urban athlete. His saga epitomizes what baseball and the black kid that wants to play it are up against. Originally a basketball player in a poor to working-class neighborhood in southeast San Diego, Jones discovered the diamond at 12, becoming a scrawny shortstop who would have needed help to play ball on the summer-long teams that now define the successful player's landscape.
"For African-Americans, the opportunity -- the economics -- often isn't there," Jones said. "Even a lot of rec leagues in cities charge $100 to $150 now. I didn't have much growing up, but I was never really needy. It would have been hard to afford those fees, though."
Jones sped past obstacles with the help of his community and family. Former San Diego Padre Tony Gwynn spotted Jones, then a switch-hitting high school sophomore, early on. The Hall of Famer is now the coach at San Diego State.
"Adam was one of the first local kids I recruited," Gwynn said. "He committed to us as a senior, but he was a pitcher back then, throwing 96 miles per hour. When he started throwing that hard, we kind of knew we wouldn't get him."
The Seattle Mariners drafted Jones during the first round of the 2003 draft and signed him. Gwynn and Jones have maintained a mentor/protégé relationship since then.
"He and I mostly talk baseball, but Adam knows about the shrinking percentage of African-Americans in the major leagues," Gwynn said. "He wants to represent the African-American ballplayer well. When he gets out in the community, he wants to be seen in a good light, to do the right thing."
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Issue 173: May 2012