Rising Star Stays Down-to-earth

Jones, 23, Keeps Selection In Perspective, Says It's 'Pretty Cool' To Represent City

July 14, 2009|By Dan Connolly | Dan Connolly,dan.connolly@baltsun.com

Adam Jones is a running, leaping, bubble-gum-blowing paradox.

The Orioles' 23-year-old center fielder can act the part of today's brash athlete, complete with a here-I-come swagger and matching diamond earrings.

Just as easily he serves as a throwback to a simpler day, when the star ballplayer worked hard, played through pain and listened to the veterans around him.

So it's not surprising that when he talks about his inclusion in tonight's All-Star Game in St. Louis - the first of his fledgling and promising big league career - Jones juggles supreme self-confidence with proper reverence.

"It's like an initiation to stardom for me," Jones said this week. "I guess in everybody else's view this is the first of many, the start of many. I am just looking at this as my first. Hopefully, I'll get a lot of them. But I am going to try and relish my first one."

Moments later, he swaps individual glory for civic pride. Because of this year's uniform change, Jones becomes the first Oriole since 1972 to wear the word "Baltimore" on his chest at an All-Star Game.

"My favorite part about it is we are on the road and instead of wearing 'Orioles,' I get to wear 'Baltimore' on the front," he said. "I think 'Orioles' is representing the franchise. But 'Baltimore' is representing the city. And that's pretty cool."

That's Jones in his essence.

He's about the small and big pictures simultaneously. It's why Orioles officials aren't worried he will become complacent with so much early success. He's the club's youngest All-Star position player since 22-year-old Cal Ripken Jr. in 1983.

"Jones has had to work for everything he's got. It's not been given to him," Orioles manager Dave Trembley said. "I've always felt Jones has got his head screwed on right, which is probably one of his better qualities. He doesn't think he knows it all. He always thinks there is something better he can work on."

Case in point: Several times a month, Jones calls former Orioles infielder Mark McLemore, who played 19 seasons in the majors, and peppers him with questions.

"He is a throwback," said McLemore, now a Texas Rangers broadcaster and a sports-complex developer in Dallas. "He just wants to learn, and you don't see that often with ballplayers today. He wants to get better every day at his game."

McLemore and Jones graduated from San Diego's Morse High two decades apart, but they had a mutual favorite teacher who asked McLemore to keep an eye on the kid. McLemore was with Seattle in 2003 when Jones was selected by the Mariners in the supplemental first round (37th overall), and the two have been friends since.

"I really don't think people realize what he has accomplished in such a short amount of time," McLemore said. "To switch positions [from shortstop to center field] and look like he's been there forever. And then to be able to adjust to big league pitching and do it so quickly."

As his public profile rises, much has been made of Jones' meager beginnings, growing up in a rough section of San Diego, where he was insulated by sports while many of his peers were lost to the streets.

"Any inner city has certain issues, like drugs, and in California there's another element of ignorance, gangbanging, and it's real easy to get caught up in that," said Jones' older brother, Anson Wright, a counselor for troubled children in Arizona. "But he never wanted to be involved with that. He stayed busy with sports; we all did."

Wright's sport of choice was basketball, and he played at the junior college level. His cousin, Adrian Limbrick, who is two years older than Jones, was an offensive lineman at Division I-AA Portland State.

Initially, Jones was a runner.

"He would run miles and miles in elementary school," Limbrick said.

But by the time Jones entered high school, it was clear which sport he preferred.

"He always had a hat and a bat and a glove with him," Limbrick said. "It was like they were glued on his head and fingers."

Jones also had a chip on his shoulder, feeling the need to continually show critics he could succeed.

"I am an ambitious person; if I want something, I go get it," Jones said. "When I came into pro ball, scouts said I wouldn't hit, I wouldn't hit past A ball. But I had the ambition. I didn't need nobody's help. ... I feel better when I prove everybody wrong. I like to go against the odds."

By the time he was included as the centerpiece in the Orioles' five-for-one deal for Erik Bedard in 2008, Jones was heralded as a potential future All-Star.

But this quickly? A .303 average, 12 homers and 47 RBIs while playing spectacular defense in the first half of his second full season?

"We thought he had the numbers to be an All-Star in his second year, but we weren't looking for it," Wright said. "We were all shocked and happy and gratified by it. And he was so humble about it, I couldn't get that excited about it."

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