Humble Jones Gives Orioles a Face for the Future

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Welcome to the anti-Dodgertown.

Charm and ambience are in short supply at the Baltimore Orioles' spring training complex. Enter the clubhouse on a sleepy morning in March, and the first thing you notice is reliever Chad Bradford soaking in a cramped metal tub that passes for a whirlpool. An hour later, outfielder Jay Payton is getting the kinks worked out on a massage table in the middle of the room.

Modern accoutrements and personal space? Sorry. The last time this facility got a decent upgrade, Anita Bryant was in her heyday as the Florida orange juice queen.

But snippets of optimism can be found if you look hard enough. There are rumblings that the Orioles will move up Interstate 95 to the Dodgers' old camp in Vero Beach in 2009. The new president of baseball operations, Andy MacPhail, has the vision and the authority to finally rebuild the organization the right way. And the Orioles have an exciting, star-potential outfielder in camp in the non-Nick Markakis division.

His name is Adam Jones, and the Orioles spent the better part of two months this offseason prying him loose from Seattle. After an endless barrage of rumors, premature headlines, dickering and CIA-caliber intrigue, Baltimore acquired Jones, reliever George Sherrill and three minor league pitchers from Seattle for left-hander Erik Bedard in early February.

If the camp buzz means anything, the effort was worth it. Jones looks great in uniform at 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds. He once hit 96 mph on the gun as a high school pitcher, and his pegs from center field come in with a searing, businesslike quality and accompanying "hiss."

In batting practice, Jones displays the same strong wrists and raw power he used to hit 25 homers and slug .586 for Seattle's Triple-A Tacoma farm club last season. His speed is also a constant and a weapon in several ways. As the quintessential "long strider," Jones is capable of chasing down balls in the gap and stretching singles into doubles and doubles into triples.

All that's left now is finding a comfort zone amid the discomfort. Ten straight losing seasons have produced an air of cynicism and restlessness among the veterans in the Baltimore clubhouse, with more upheaval just around the corner. The normally congenial Brian Roberts is skittish around reporters these days amid a flurry of Cubs-related trade rumors, and Payton might not be far behind on his way out of town.

So here comes Jones, with his earrings, a trace of cockiness and those Baseball America cover appearances. It's only natural to think he'll strut through the door, oblivious to first impressions, and do or say something to make the veterans roll their eyes, right?

Guess again. Jones is only 22, yet he's sufficiently in tune with clubhouse protocol to keep his profile low and ease in slowly.

"I'm a big fan of Adam," said first baseman Kevin Millar. "He's got a confidence and talent about him that you respect, and he doesn't come in here yipping and yapping like he's been around for 15 years. There's no prima donna in him, and that's what you look for."

Said Payton: "He's a smart kid, and he gets along with everybody. His personality is to be in the thick of it. He was kind of quiet the first couple of days here, but he's one of the boys now."

Jones' appreciation for the game's subtleties is readily apparent. When he hits a routine comebacker to the mound, he hustles down the line with the urgency of someone desperate to make the team. Manager Dave Trembley took note Sunday when Jones stepped to the plate with a runner on second base and nobody out against Washington and tried to hit the ball to the opposite field. Jones failed to advance the runner, but at least his heart was in the right place.

Orioles coach John Shelby, who works daily with Jones in the outfield, sees a young player with the discipline to address his shortcomings. Jones was a shortstop until 2006, so he's still learning how to approach fly balls over his head and knucklers hit directly at him.

"The one thing I love about him is, when you talk to him, he's all ears," Shelby said.

Jones describes himself as a born "observer," and he's not averse to turning the mirror inward. He takes offense to quick and easy characterizations, and he debunks them with refreshing candor.

"I hate it when people say, 'Look at all the stuff you've done,'" Jones said. "Well, I did it in Triple-A. When I got an opportunity in the big leagues last year, I hit .246. I didn't do everything I could with the opportunity I had.

"I don't like it when people hype me up too much, because all hype does is make for a bigger fall when you don't succeed. I knew I'd get attention when I came here, and I don't mind answering questions. But sometimes I just like to fit in. You have to honor the veterans in this game. Baseball is one big circle, one big family, and the younger brother always has to honor the older brother. That's how I look at it."

Lots of prospects today grow up with expensive batting gloves, private hitting lessons and swelled heads from all the attention, but that's not Jones' world. He was born and raised in idyllic San Diego, but it wasn't the La Jolla, Delmar, Coronado Island paradise you read about in travel brochures. Jones lived on the city's gritty southeast side and saw his share of crime during the day while falling asleep to the accompaniment of police sirens at night.

Jones credits his older brother, Anson Wright, with keeping him humble and focused on his studies and the right path in life. He signed a letter of intent with San Diego State and was prepared to play college ball until Seattle chose him with the 37th overall pick in the 2003 draft and gave him a signing bonus of $925,000.

During Jones' ascent through the minors, scouts and talent evaluators tossed out comparisons to Eric Davis, Torii Hunter and Mike Cameron. He's a fast and gifted, African-American center fielder with power, so the knee-jerk assumptions apply.

"They put all the brothers in the outfield," said Payton, only half-jokingly.

So what do the comparisons tell us? In large part, history shows that it's hazardous to expect too much, too soon.

When Cameron was 22 years old, he hit .249 for Birmingham in the Double-A Southern League. Hunter was in his second tour with New Britain in the Eastern League, and Davis hit .224 in a third of a season in Cincinnati.

Jones has 43 strikeouts and six walks in his brief exposure to the big leagues, and he's been successful on only 65 percent of his stolen base attempts in pro ball. Those are two obvious areas in need of improvement.

Still, the Orioles don't see much point in coddling their investment. If there was a temptation to send Jones to Triple-A Norfolk for a refresher course to begin the season, he squashed it by hitting .324 in his first 13 Grapefruit League games. With Jones in center field and Markakis coming off a 23-homer, 112-RBI season in right, Baltimore has two nice building blocks for the next several years.

"From a purely analytical standpoint, Adam has accomplished everything you can accomplish in the minor leagues," MacPhail said. "He's been to Triple-A — been there and done that. Eventually he's going to have to get exposed to major league pitching day in and day out."

Jones has already gone to school on Baltimore's baseball tradition and the city's passion for sports. Shortly after the trade, he spoke with Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who shared the same agent. In a standard rite of passage for hot young prospects, Jones recently switched agents and is now represented by Casey Close and Greg Landry of Creative Artists Agency, the same group that represents Derek Jeter and Ryan Howard.

He's ambitious in his baseball goals. Ask Jones what he wants from the game, and he quickly ticks off his objectives -- a long career, financial security for him and his family, respect from his peers and at least a couple of championship rings.

"I'm not trying to be a savior," Jones said. "I'm not trying to come in here and hit 80 home runs. I'm here to play hard and show some excitement and use all the tools I have. I have them for a reason."

As Shelby observes, "the sky is the limit" over the next 10-15 years. As of today, Jones is a walking symbol for hope in Baltimore. That's something the Orioles haven't had a whole lot of lately.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.