ADAM JONES FIRST saw the impact professional athletes can have on young hearts and minds when he attended a Boys & Girls Club camp with his brother, cousins and neighborhood kids as an elementary schooler in San Diego.
Cliff Levingston, a guest instructor at the camp, was a San Diego native who earned two NBA championship rings as a member of the Chicago Bulls. Levingston averaged only 4.0 points per game in Chicago, but the campers regarded him as basketball royalty because of his affiliation with a certain tongue-wagging, basketball icon.
"We knew he played with Michael Jordan,'' Jones said, "so we always asked him, 'Are you ever gonna bring Michael Jordan here?' It didn't matter. Obviously, he played with Michael Jordan, so we thought he was the crème de la crème. He was to us, because he was one of the few guys in the history of mankind to accomplish such a feat.
"You saw him give back. He never played for the Clippers. He never got to play for his hometown team. But you saw him giving back to his neighborhood, his area and his community.''
From the moment Jones arrived in Baltimore after a 2008 trade with the Seattle Mariners, he embraced the Cliff Levingston model and augmented it with some personal credos: Take the field every day, unless an appendage is hanging. Run out every ground ball as if it matters. And in time, when you have the opportunity and the stature, immerse yourself in the community and try to make a difference beyond your team's place in the standings.
Over 1,496 games and 11 seasons, Jones has had a profound impact 2,600 miles from his boyhood home. The Orioles, who hadn't made the playoffs in 10 straight seasons before Jones' arrival, reached the postseason in 2012, 2014 and 2016. Jones has made five All-Star teams, he has won four Gold Gloves and a Silver Slugger Award as an Oriole, and he ranks fifth in franchise history in home runs and sixth in total bases and RBIs.
The statistical milestones only touch upon what Jones has meant to Baltimore. He routinely plays through injuries and has brought a relentlessly competitive edge to the Orioles' clubhouse. He has also been a spokesman during periods of racial strife in the city and followed through on his desire to reach out beyond the retro-brick confines of Camden Yards.
As the Orioles flounder and Jones moves another day closer to free agency, the tug-of-war between reality and sentiment is coming to a head. When a team is 8-20 and in drastic need of a fresh start, is there room on the roster for a 32-year-old veteran whose bond with the fan base is one of his most valuable attributes?
The Orioles are 13 games out of first place in the American League East, and now it's a matter of bracing for the fallout. Manny Machado is a lock to be traded before the July 31 deadline, and relievers Zach Britton and Brad Brach could follow him out of town. The uncertainty extends to the front office. Manager Buck Showalter and executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette are in the last years of their contracts, vice president Brady Anderson's profile is ascending and owner Peter Angelos' sons, John and Louis, have assumed more active roles in team operations. It's hard to know what the big decisions will be without knowing precisely who'll be making them.
Jones' 10-and-5 service time rights give him the leverage to veto any trade this summer. Instead of dwelling on future possibilities, he approached this season with blinders and the standard free-agent mantra: I worry about only what I can control.
"I'm an unselfishly selfish player,'' Jones said. "I want to win games over my own personal goals. Now that I'm in my free-agent year, the goal is obviously to put up the big numbers, but I'm still not gonna change the way I play the game. I'm not going to change playing the game the right way and playing for my teammates. I'm going to do what has kept me in the big leagues for over a decade.''
JONES IS FUNNY and readily approachable on his best days. At other times, he's more inclined to sit quietly at his locker. Regardless of his mood, he has a knack for getting to the heart of the matter. Amid the perception that Baltimore is now his home, Jones quickly notes that he leaves the city for his native San Diego in the offseason.
"It's cold in Baltimore in the winter time,'' he said.
Nevertheless, his roots are big enough to encompass two coasts. His wife, Audie, is the daughter of former NFL tight end Jean Fugett and grew up in the Baltimore-Washington area. The couple's two sons were born in Baltimore, and Jones has been more than a bystander to the frayed social dynamic in the city.
In 2015, when protesters turned violent in response to the death of Freddie Gray and Baltimore was under a state of emergency, the Orioles and Chicago White Sox played a game in an empty Camden Yards for security reasons. Jones spoke during the pregame news conference and provided the perspective of a black athlete in a city being ripped apart by racial divisions.
Jones made national news last May when he told USA Today that a fan at Fenway Park threw a bag of peanuts at him and that he was berated with racist taunts. Invariably, when baseball talk gives way to discussions about race and societal concerns, he's part of the conversation.
"These are things that athletes, particularly of my color, face sometimes throughout their careers,'' Jones said. "They're presented with the choice to either let something go or to challenge it and speak up on it. I chose the route to challenge it and speak up on it. But with that, I want to educate myself on both sides. I don't want to just speak brashly on something I don't know anything about, which a lot of people do through the outlets that we have.
"If someone says something ignorant to me, the wrong thing to do is retaliate, because it's a lose-lose situation for me. My thing is trying to understand the whys. Why do you still want to say that? Let's have a dialogue. If you don't like me because I'm black, that's fine with me. If you don't like me because I play for another team, I understand that, too. But let's talk about it, as opposed to just blurting something out, and you just get away with it.
"There's a lot of hate going on these days. A lot of wrongs. A lot of rights. A lotta lottas. But one thing we've gotten away from in society is sheer dialogue and conversing. It's tough to get that accomplished when everybody's head is down looking at a device, but I would hope we can bring that back.''
Jones has almost 550,000 followers on Twitter and uses social media to spread his message of "Baltimore Helping Baltimore.'' When he isn't posing for candid photos with fans, he's expressing support for the Baseball Assistance Team or reminding people to wear purple on behalf of the B'more for Healthy Babies initiative.
"There's no other black athlete of my, if you want to say caliber, in Baltimore. I've been there for a while. When Ray left, he was the longest-tenured athlete there. Now it's me and Joe Flacco and [Marshal] Yanda. When it comes to the black issues of a black city like Baltimore, it's probably going to fall into my hands and not their hands."Adam Jones, on his role in the Baltimore community
"He's very comfortable giving his two cents on social happenings,'' said Darren O'Day, an Oriole since 2012. "That provides fans a glimpse into his mind, and I think people in Baltimore have connected to that. Because he's so friendly and active on Twitter, he's willing to come and engage fans. He's comfortable commenting on social issues that other guys might not be. Other guys might say, 'I'm not a politician or a social leader.' That's endeared him to people in this area.''
Jones has gradually assumed a more prominent role in Baltimore since Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis retired in 2013. The city has a 63 percent African-American population -- the fifth-highest of any city in the United States, according to the 2010 census -- and he feels a responsibility to make his voice heard.
"There's no other black athlete of my, if you want to say, 'caliber' in Baltimore,'' Jones said. "I've been there for a while. When Ray left, he was the longest-tenured athlete there. Now it's me and Joe Flacco and [Marshal] Yanda. When it comes to the black issues of a black city like Baltimore, it's probably going to fall into my hands and not their hands.''
In a much quieter way, Jones' charitable endeavors have endeared him to the Baltimore community and earned him recognition throughout the game. In 2015, he received the Marvin Miller Man of the Year Award from the MLB players' association, the Brooks Robinson Community Service Award from the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association and the Governor's Service Award from Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan.
When Jones signed a six-year, $85.5 million extension with the Orioles in 2012, he earmarked $75,000 annually for the local Boys & Girls Clubs -- $20,000 of which goes to college scholarships for needy students. Jones and his wife judge the competitions and keep tabs on the scholarship winners. In email and text exchanges, they encourage the students to maintain their grades, file their applications on time and make sure to reach out if they need guidance.
Jones' financial contributions have allowed the Boys & Girls clubs to build three science-and-technology centers and renovate a gym in Baltimore's O'Donnell Heights neighborhood. In addition, Jones has raised about $180,000 for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metropolitan Baltimore through his annual #StayHungry tailgate parties at Ravens games.
"They've been pretty badass, to say the least,'' he said.
While Machado's pending free-agent odyssey is a national story, many Baltimore fans are more preoccupied with Jones' next career move. Eight times a year, Jones distributes Orioles tickets to the Boys & Girls club kids. They sit in the front row in center field at Camden Yards, and he makes sure they get autographed balls and a personalized wave between innings. The kids consider Jones a role model and an inspiration, in much the same way that he viewed Cliff Levingston as a youth in San Diego.
"No offense to Brian Roberts or Nick Markakis,'' said Matt Death, vice president of corporate partnerships for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metropolitan Baltimore. "But since Cal Ripken, I don't know that there's another Oriole that represents Baltimore the way Adam does. A lot of our kids know Adam before they know the Orioles. He's the connection and the guy they look up to. When we say, 'Hey, we have tickets. Let's go see Adam,' they immediately get excited for it.''
The excitement runs both ways. Several years ago, when Death was working in Baltimore's community relations department, he accompanied Jones to an appearance and saw the big kid lurking inside the Orioles' star center fielder.
"We went to a gym, and the kids were shooting around, and Adam wanted to join and play basketball with them,'' Death said. "I had to pull him aside and say, 'If you roll your ankle, no one is going to yell at you. I'm going to get yelled at. So you can sit here and talk with the kids, but stop playing with them.'''
IN AN AGE of advanced analytics and meticulous player evaluations, do teams take things such as charisma, fan appeal and other intangibles into account?
"Absolutely,'' Duquette said. "I think the club considers all the ways that a player can impact their team. In Adam's case, he's done a really good job of committing to the community. He's done a lot of nice work on the field and in the greater Baltimore area. I think clubs have to take a look at the total package and what a player brings to their team and their franchise.''
That personal connection is balanced with changing financial circumstances, competitive windows and declining expectations as players age. When Albert Pujols left the St. Louis Cardinals for the Los Angeles Angels through free agency in 2011, it was the definitive sign that no relationship between a city and a baseball icon is sacred. The Pirates incurred a similar fan backlash when they traded Andrew McCutchen to the San Francisco Giants in December.
As Jones approaches free agency, his biggest selling point is durability. In the six years since he signed his contract extension, he has appeared in 944 games -- eighth-most in the majors. Showalter entered this season with a desire to reduce Jones' workload, but he knows he'll get an argument each time he posts a lineup card without Jones' name on it. He also learned early that Jones isn't the kind of player who has to be reminded about busting it out of the batter's box or hitting a cutoff man.
"His example of how to play the game has meant more than anything,'' Showalter said. "The first day I got here, I knew he was going to be one of if not my best players, and he had to play the game right or we had no chance. Your best player has got to play the game right.
"He came with a mantra of how he was going to play the game. I might have nudged him here and there, but I didn't have to very much. He wants to win. He loves to win. And he wants people around him who want to win.''
Any multiyear investment in Jones comes with caveats. He's a free swinger with a .317 career on-base percentage, and he isn't getting more selective with age. This year, Jones has two strikeouts and 28 walks, a .248 on-base percentage and a .653 OPS heading into May.
"He's never going to be appreciated more than he is in that town. He's not a Hall of Famer. But if he finishes his career there, he'll be at the top of the charts in every category because of his longevity. He'll go down as one of the best players in Oriole history." A major league GM, on Adam Jones' legacy
Jones has dealt with hip issues, and the metrics suggest he'll have to move from center field to a corner spot in his next contract. He has amassed an aggregate minus-22 Defensive Runs Saved in center field, and this year, he ranks 33rd in baseball with a minus-6.
The landscape is also daunting. Charlie Blackmon signed a six-year, $108 million contract extension with the Colorado Rockies in advance of free agency. But he's a year younger than Jones and logged a 1.000 OPS and finished fifth in last season's NL MVP race. Jay Bruce, another power-hitting outfielder with a profile more similar to Jones, signed with the Mets for three years and $39 million in December.
"It wouldn't shock me if Adam is the type of guy who gets to free agency and is a little disappointed,'' a major league general manager said. "On the flip side, he's never going to be appreciated more than he is in that town. He's not a Hall of Famer. But if he finishes his career there, he'll be at the top of the charts in every category because of his longevity. He'll go down as one of the best players in Oriole history.''
If the Orioles decide to rebuild, they could keep Jones around as a veteran mentor. But it's hard to envision Jones giving up on his desire to chase a ring and babysitting a young roster destined to lose 90 games a season.
So as the Orioles muddle along in last place, the questions will continue to linger: How much is a decade of goodwill worth? Jones has given the Orioles everything he has since his first day with the team. But has this mutually beneficial relationship run its course?
"In this age of guys switching teams all the time, I think there is some value in having someone who has been with a team 11 years,'' O'Day said. "As an owner, you're trying to run a business. You're trying to make money, and he's a relatable face to the fans. Fans know when they come to the park, they're going to be able to see Adam Jones play. They're going to see him blow bubbles as he's catching fly balls and goof around during games. There's probably some monetary value to that, too.''
On the fringe of Baltimore's Inner Harbor, the Orioles and their longtime franchise face have reached a crossroads. It has been a memorable run for Adam Jones in Baltimore. But no one said it would last forever.