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LESS THAN AN hour before first pitch, on one of those humid August nights for which Baltimore is notorious, Adam Jones sits on a bar stool of the Roof Deck restaurant behind Camden Yards' center-field wall, surrounded by a circle of 200 fans, failing to hide his apathy. It's the Orioles' second-ever Social Media Night, for which the club's most avid tweeting patrons pay at least $50 for the privilege of asking a member of the team whatever they want. And who better to be the VIP guest of honor than Jones, @SimplyAJ10, the lovable bubble-gum-chewing All-Star with the wry wit, ready smile and 148,000 Twitter followers.
Only so far, up here on the Roof Deck, the mood is a little, well, serious. Is the team feeling any extra pressure with the season-ending knee injury to third baseman Manny Machado? How do you stay focused over the course of a 162-game season?
It starts to get to Jones: the questions, this social media marketing ploy, his role in it. His face, perhaps because of the setting sun, perhaps not, is hidden by sunglasses and curiously solemn. His replies are abnormally curt. Nope ... Really no choice, my teammates rely on me every day, like I rely on them ... I do my part, others do theirs, it's a team game.
The most uncomfortable point follows a seemingly innocuous query: What do you like best about being in Baltimore? Jones pauses and sighs, then answers. "The airport." An awkward silence ensues while the crowd ponders his meaning. They consider giving him the benefit of the doubt -- major league ballplayers do spend an inordinate amount of time getting on and off planes, and folks do rave about BWI for being one of the most manageable, user-friendly airports in the country -- until Jones elaborates.
"It's how you leave."
THE ORIOLES CHOSE Jones for Social Media Night for a good reason. He's been a Twitter darling longer than most of his teammates have been in Baltimore. He started on the site in 2009, pumping out almost 10 tweets a day. He was gregarious and hilarious, quipping about his daily life and posting pics of the food he ate under the hashtag #stayhungry, an ideology that includes, among other things, his love of Popeyes, about which he's tweeted often. In 2012, BusinessInsider.com named Jones one of the "100 Athletes You Need to Follow," and the next year his social media profile expanded to people who didn't watch the Orioles, or even baseball. After an August game in which a fan in San Francisco threw a banana peel onto the field, near Jones, he tweeted: "I want to thank whatever slapd--- threw that banana towards my direction in CF in the last inning. Way to show ur class u jackass." This bluntness was in line with Jones' transparency, whether it was discussing his proposal to his fiancée in Paris under #stayhungrytheFrenchway, or showing how plainly he wanted to be an All-Star this season, offering fans signed swag if they provided him proof of their ballot. (It worked: He ended up starting the game.) Folks ate it up. Today his nearly 150,000 Twitter followers dwarfs the totals of his teammates; no one else has more than 67,000. And a popular local restaurant has named a burger, the SimplyAJ10, after his handle. In Baltimore and outside it, as the Orioles run away with their first AL East crown since 1997, he leads a life people want to know more and more about.
And it's just that sometimes that's exhausting.
FOR ALL THE fervor around his online persona, Jones seldom uses social media to discuss what is perhaps the most viral-worthy part of his story: how he came to love baseball. He grew up in southeast San Diego, a low-income area so historically image-challenged that in the early 1990s a local councilman name George Stevens campaigned against official use of the words "Southeast San Diego," saying the phrase had become a way of unfairly connoting an impoverished, crime-infested district. (The campaign succeeded.) As the second youngest of five children, raised by a single mother, Jones excelled at football and basketball. Then one spring when he was 12, a hoops teammate asked him to give baseball a try. He made the rec league all-star team his first year and fell hard for the game. He'd buy bags of bite-size Snickers from the dollar store, then trek up to the tony North County suburbs and sell them for five bucks apiece, just to cover equipment and registration costs. At Morse High, he made the varsity as a ninth-grader (playing shortstop and pitching), which meant he never had to practice with the JV squad on the "DG" -- the damn gravel -- a "field" that had neither dirt nor grass. The varsity diamond was little better; it had no fence, and cars routinely parked in the outfield. "If a ball rolled under the car, you had to go get it," says Morse teammate Quintin Berry, now an outfielder in the Orioles' organization. "It was terrible."
Despite the dilapidated conditions, scouts showed up in droves to see Jones, who batted .406 his senior year and regularly hit moon shots. The Mariners selected him in the first round of the 2003 draft (37th overall) as a shortstop. After 78 errors in three seasons of minor league play, Jones was switched to center field. Good move: In 2006, Baseball America ranked him as Seattle's No. 2 prospect. That same year, he made his major league debut at the tender age of 20. But in February 2008, Jones was sent to Baltimore, the key piece in a six-player transaction that brought pitcher Erik Bedard to Seattle. The deal shocked him. "The Mariners told Adam they wouldn't have taken Babe Ruth over him," says his brother Anson Wright. "The next week they shipped him out."
Jones remembers finding out about the trade on his way to Las Vegas and calling his older brother. Man, I'm going to Baltimore, he said, dejected by the thought of going to a hapless franchise that hadn't had a winning season in a decade, not to mention a city three time zones away from everything he'd ever known. Yeah, said Anson, but you're going there to play every day.
From 2008 to 2011, the Orioles never won more than 69 games, finishing last in the AL East each year, but Jones flourished. A five-tool stud who'd been chosen an All-Star in 2009 (the Birds' lone representative), he led all AL center fielders in assists in 2010 and again in 2011, when he was one of only five AL players with at least 25 home runs and 10 stolen bases. In May 2012, six months before he was slated to become a free agent, the Orioles signed him to a six-year, $85.5 million deal, the largest in team history. Jones said after signing: "I want to make my mark on this city."
He already had. By then, his Twitter profile was legendary. Enamored with this man who gave so freely of his time, fans asked him to give more -- to meet them before games or after, for just a few minutes, of course. Jones' all-in attitude toward social media mirrors the deep commitment he's made to his adopted hometown. He's championed the local Boys & Girls Clubs (the organization played a huge role in his childhood in San Diego). He's bought a home in Baltimore, become a father in Baltimore. And in the clubhouse, Jones is the de facto captain of an Orioles team that's headed to the playoffs for the second time in three years. "Since I got here," manager Buck Showalter says, "nobody's played the game harder for nine innings, 162 games, than Adam Jones." That's not just clubhouse cliché-speak: Jones' 26 infield hits through mid-September ranked second in the AL -- a remarkable accomplishment for a middle-of-the-order thumper who's become the first outfielder in O's history with 25 homers in four straight seasons. Not even Frank Robinson did that.
Just as important as his leadership is his durability. Jones has missed just three games since signing his extension, a feat no AL player can match -- and a big deal in Baltimore, where Cal Ripken is a deity and folks still use 2131 as their passcode for ATM cards. Says Showalter, "Jonesy could be mayor someday if he wanted to be." Of course, even mayors need a break from campaigning every now and then.
SOONER OR LATER, those who use social media grow to hate it. Its neediness (look at what's happening now!) and insatiability (why aren't you tweeting?) are draining. Worse, it demands a manicured, curated identity: It's a story of ourselves we're telling, and stories require editing. For athletes, that self-portrait is even more distorted as social media becomes a platform for the "brand." For Adam Jones, it's worse still, and for even more basic reasons: It's difficult to capture a Whitman-esque man, containing multitudes, in 140 characters.
This is all why, a couple of weeks before Orioles Social Media Night, its social media star lets loose on the notion of Twitter, five long years after he took to it. "What I put out there," Jones says, "is 1 percent of what I even care about. I'm not going to allow social media to dictate my life."
It's worth noting that nothing negative had happened to Jones on Twitter, no unreasonable tweet that got him in trouble with the team, media or fans. But during the half-hour dugout conversation, he clearly doesn't want to discuss the vehicle that has spread his fame. He is a husk of his normal self -- the one who pies his teammates after each home win and has twice in the past three years been the Orioles' nominee for MLB's Heart and Hustle Award. His tone is flat, his smile gone. He makes almost no eye contact, as if the mere mention of social media has ruined his day. "I understand what it means in today's marketing world," he says, "that having a large reach can present you with options outside of baseball. But all you need is to be accused of something on social media. And that makes me not like it. People are just waiting for the bad to happen."
Two weeks later, on Social Media Night, the bad happens. And it happens for a lot of reasons. Jones is, as always, a busy man this day. Three hours beforehand, as teammates relax in the clubhouse, playing cards or checking their phones, Jones shoots a promotional video for the Leon Day Foundation, a local charity named for the former Baltimore Black Sox and Negro Leagues Hall of Famer. The shoot goes over its 15-minute allotment, leaving Jones to dart into the clubhouse and throw on his uniform for the annual team photo, for which he is three minutes late. The photo runs right into batting practice, which runs right into ... Social Media Night.
Out there on that leather bar stool, now only 45 minutes before game time, Jones looks and sounds a lot like someone who's reached a breaking point. Social media has (once again) created more work for a man already overworked. So he recoils. The face of the franchise sits there, flatlining, then proceeds to tell a throng of Jonesophiles that his favorite thing about Baltimore is the airport.
The next day, The Baltimore Sun runs a story in which Jones says that the airport comment was a joke. Maybe it was. But one thing is certain: As the Orioles opened a double-digit lead in the AL East, Jones didn't post to Twitter for the next two weeks. It was the longest he'd gone without a tweet all season.