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O's trust allows Jones to stand out
Twitter avatars may not be windows to the soul, but they reveal something about the people behind those 140-character witticisms.
Consider Dwyane Wade, the Miami Heat star. His 3.1 million followers see a professional photo: tailored suit, pocket square, designer watch, perfect lighting. He looks like a stud, and he is.
Aaron Rodgers picked a perfectly angled snapshot from his proudest news conference: Super Bowl MVP hardware in hand, Vince Lombardi Trophy in the foreground.
For his, Baltimore center fielder Adam Jones chose a picture from the cellphone camera of Jeff Lantz.
Lantz is not an award-winning portrait photographer, with a deep expertise in edges and shadows and framing. He is the Orioles media relations manager, and he took the photo in an ordinarily lit VIP room behind home plate at Camden Yards. It includes Jones, in a simple Orioles pullover, and a regal 78-year-old wearing a coat and tie.
“The first time I met him,” Jones said Monday, with more than a hint of awe in his voice. “It was at Frank Robinson’s statue (dedication) in Baltimore. I got a ball from him, too. That’s Hank Aaron.
“Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Larry Doby, Bob Gibson … as a black man, I owe a lot to what they did, with what they had to deal with, to put me in a situation where I don’t have to endure that. I’m always grateful for that. I couldn’t even imagine the things they were hearing in the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s. They let their bat do the talking.”
Jones signed a six-year, $85.5 million extension with the Orioles over the Memorial Day weekend. It’s the largest contract in franchise history. And no one needs to tell Jones what it means — the history, the responsibility, the promise. He understands all of that as instinctively as he retreats on a routine fly ball in center field.
Sure, the money is great. That is obvious. He now has the second-highest salary for a center fielder after the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Matt Kemp, and that sounds about right for a man who would finish second or third in American League MVP balloting if a vote were held today.
JACKIE ROBINSON'S LEGACY
- Photos from Jackie Robinson Day
- Everlasting impact on baseball
- Video: Hero's uncommon courage
- Key people in Jackie's life
- Each team's first black player
- Unsung: Negro League stars
- Video: Great in high school
- Tigers' great Horton tells '42' story
- Don Baylor followed Jackie's lead
- Tigers' Hunter: 'What if Jackie quit?'
- Zimmer recalls playing with Jackie
To Jones, though, the contract represents more than lifelong financial security: It is a license, granted by the team, to build a career worth remembering.
Jones, 26, can’t have the same impact as Robinson and Aaron, because the segregation they conquered no longer exists. But he can carve a place in history to call his own, because he has superstar talent and a substance-over-style mentality.
That’s what Tony Gwynn, one of Jones’ mentors, meant when he sent him a text message over the weekend: “Congrats on the contract. Now see how great you can be.”
Aaron, the enduring and dignified home run king, gave Jones similar encouragement the day they met. “I like the way you play the game,” the Hall of Famer told him.
Monday afternoon in Toronto — the city where Jones made his big league debut as a Seattle Mariner six years ago — I asked what he might do, so that successive generations look upon him with some of the amazement he felt when meeting Aaron.
“One thing they’re going to know about me is I played the game hard as hell,” Jones said. “At the end of the day, people remember that. They remember how you played the game.
“I’ve got three hours every day to go out and play as hard as I can. And I do it.”
Jones would like to expand his charitable efforts in Baltimore and in his hometown San Diego. He’s speaking with the Jackie Robinson Foundation about sponsoring a student’s college education. He wants to help inner-city kids purchase baseball equipment. He’s already working with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and YMCA. “That’s my main focus, because I grew up with both,” Jones said. “They’ve helped me be the man I am today.”
Jones is a respected leader, with resounding endorsements from his peers and manager Buck Showalter. The Orioles ought to find that reassuring, given the risk that accompanies any deal of this magnitude. They didn’t merely buy Jones’ statistics, impressive though they may be. They wedded themselves to his character. That is why it was wise.
Case in point: Jones wasn’t in a particularly good mood when our conversation began Monday afternoon, even though he had received his mega-million payday roughly 24 hours prior.
“We lost the series (to Kansas City),” he explained. “That’s on my mind. Obviously, I know there’s been focus on the contract. I’m glad it’s over. I’ve got more important things to focus my energy on … and that’s this ballclub. We’ve got to get back on track.”
The Orioles, even after dropping six of their last eight, are tied for first in the American League East. The business of handling heightened expectations is rather new to them. Their last winning season was in 1997, and they are coming off four consecutive last-place finishes. In Jones, however, they have a winner. Not in the sense that he has won championships in the major leagues. (He hasn’t.) But he strives to do so in word and deed.
Jones is one of the game’s few legitimate five-tool talents, and his performance this season has offered a number of ways to prove it — the .307 batting average, the .935 OPS, the 14 home runs, the 31 RBI, the eight stolen bases. But his refusal to feel overwhelmed by any moment, no matter how big, is one of Jones’ foremost attributes.
Even as his agent and the Orioles exchanged contract proposals worth tens of millions of dollars, Jones put together the longest hit streak by an AL player this season. It reached 19 games in Monday’s 6-2 loss. Jones singled through the right side — in his final at-bat.
Jones told me Monday that he doesn’t get nervous during games. I’ve heard athletes make similar statements before, usually with a false bravado. But when Jones said it, I believed him. There was perspective in his voice — the kind that comes from admiring Aaron for reasons other than those 755 home runs.
Jones later amended his statement, admitting to a few butterflies in his stomach when the Baltimore crowd gave him a standing ovation before his first at-bat Sunday. “That was one of the closest feelings (to getting nervous) I ever had,” he said. “My stomach felt queasy. I got goose bumps.”
The chance at lasting greatness will do that to a man.
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