Adam Jones looks on during a game at Camden Yards. (Patrick McDermott, Getty…)
Steve Ruiz recalls it clearly, shopping in a sporting goods store with his son, Jett, and another 13-year-old who played on Jett's baseball team.
Jett rushed down the aisles, handling the bats and gloves. But his friend hung back.
Ruiz approached the youngster.
"Get whatever you need, Adam," Ruiz said.
Adam Jones' eyes grew wide. His choices that day were practical ones — a jockstrap and cup.
Clutching his purchases, Jones turned to his benefactor.
"I'm gonna pay you back, Mr. Ruiz," he said. "I'm gonna be in the major leagues someday."
Thirteen years later, Steve Ruiz can still hear the conviction in Jones' voice.
"He was so insistent, so sure of himself," he said. "I remember saying, 'Good for you, Adam.' I remember thinking, 'Gosh, I believe him.' "
On Tuesday, Jones — who leads the Orioles in hitting, home runs and RBIs – will suit up for his second All-Star Game. At 26, and entering his prime, he's a cornerstone of the club's rebuilding plans. In May, he signed a six-year, $85.5 million contract extension, making Jones, who grew up poor in San Diego, the second highest-paid center fielder in the big leagues and the richest Oriole ever.
The one who used to wear baggy hand-me-downs, and borrowed clothes, now models menswear for a national designer. The one who could never afford one car now owns three. And while those who know him say that, from the start, Jones was mischievous, fanatically competitive and freewheeling, he has grown into a celebrated athlete who remembers those who helped him reach the top.
There was the English teacher who mentored him in high school; the families who took him in as their own; and even the inner-city street gangs, who gave Jones wide berth once his prospects to break out of the hood became obvious.
"No one gets anywhere by themselves," Jones said this week. "I count my blessings. I know where I want to go, but I'll never forget where I came from.
"Would I have made it without help? I don't know. But I'm glad that my story is the way it is — and it's a good story to tell."
Jones was raised in southeast San Diego, in a dreary neighborhood beset by violence and drugs. The youngest of five children, he spoke briefly about his relationship with his mom, Andrea Bradley, whom he shields from the media.
"Moms is moms," Jones said cryptically. "She cared about my grades, but didn't come to many games."
Efforts to reach Bradley, who suffers from arthritis and diabetes and who lives in Phoenix, where Jones bought her a home, were unsuccessful.
Nor does Jones mention his biological father, or even his name, except to say that he lives in Los Angeles and spent 22 years in the Navy.
"I didn't grow up with him on a day-to-day basis, but he has been more than a shadow in my life," he said. "I know that he's proud of me."
His was a transient youth.
"Mostly, Adam looked out for himself," said his cousin, Adrian Limbrick. "As a kid, he sold candy, door to door, to make money to buy lunch at school."
Growing up, Jones sometimes stayed with Limbrick, or his grandmother, his brother or his best friend, Quintin Berry, now an outfielder for the Detroit Tigers. High school teammates, Jones and Berry shared a bedroom, where they played video games and talked long into the night of baseball, girls, baseball, life and, well, baseball.
Those times gave Jones a familial stability that he cherished, said Rhonda Berry, Quintin's mother.
"Even now, when he comes for a visit, Adam will bring people by, show them around our modest house, then point with pride and say, 'This is my room.' You can tell he feels at home here," she said.
Jones was 12 before he gave baseball his all. Little League wasn't his thing.
"The game is still boring as hell," he said. "But I found it intriguing. There's a mental toughness to the sport that goes beyond all others."
His family saw signs of Jones' promise, said his step-brother, Tommie Wright.
"We were walking to the local Boys' Club one day when Adam, maybe 11, picked up a rock and chucked it as far as he could," Wright said. "That rock sailed over quite a few row houses before it went through someone's window. He threw it so far that we never heard the window crash."
The owner of the broken glass eventually chased the boys down, and Jones had to tell his family what he'd done.
"Adam got quite the spanking for it," Wright said, "but that was an early sign of what was to come."
Soon after, Jones tried out for a San Diego travel team, the Redwings, who announced they'd found their right-handed pitcher.
"He was the definition of raw talent," said Jett Ruiz, the team's catcher. "Adam had a fastball," which would hit 96 mph in high school "a slider and breaking balls that sank all over the place. Then he started switch-hitting. What a tremendous freak of an athlete. He didn't really know what he was doing. He was just out there having fun."