SARASOTA, Fla. — Each time Orioles outfielder Jai Miller crosses the plate after hitting a home run, his eyes turn upward and both of his hands point to the sky.
It's a routine he's been doing since he was a teenager, one of many ways he tries to honor his mother and grandmother, both of whom he watched die in a car accident when he was 13 years old.
But Miller's greatest tribute comes every day he's on a baseball field as he continues his nearly decade-long journey of trying to stick in the major leagues. He's spent his adulthood mostly toiling through the minors, and now at age 27 and in his fourth organization in as many years, Miller hopes this season finally holds his breakthrough opportunity.
"I know the type of standard my mom expected out of me and the level she held me to," Miller said. "There were no excuses with my mom. It was never about just getting by. That's what she taught me.
"She meant everything to me. She was the mom, the best friend, the coach in different sports. I think about her each and every day."
Lori Miller was a single mother dedicated to raising her son to be the best. And the best way to keep him out of trouble on the streets of Montgomery, Ala., was to keep him busy, so she immersed Jai in school and sports. Jai was a natural athlete, excelling in basketball, football and baseball.
A former basketball player at Tuskegee University, Lori was always thinking about opportunities for her son, and on Dec. 11, 1998, she picked him up from basketball practice with the hopes he could meet the basketball coach at Murray State, which was playing at nearby Alabama State.
They never made it there. As Miller remembers it, another car swerved into their lane, forcing them off the road. Lori Miller's Chevy Trailblazer careened off the interstate and flipped into a ditch. Neither Lori nor Jai's grandmother, Winona Brown, who was in the front passenger seat, were wearing seatbelts. They were both ejected from the car. Jai was in the back seat behind his mother, wearing a seatbelt.
"When it happened, the whole adage you hear about in the movies, everything slows down, that's pretty much how it happened," Jai Miller said. "It was super slow motion. You just feel so helpless, because you see what's going on and you can't do anything about it. While it was going on, I seriously thought it was a dream. It just didn't seem real."
Both his mother and grandmother died in the accident, but Jai was not injured.
"It's crazy because I just walked away from it," he said.
The next school year Jai moved to Selma, Ala., with his grandfather, Randall Miller, who became his legal guardian. He dedicated himself to his mother's memory. He was as a 4.0 student, he was the Alabama Gatorade Basketball Player of the Year as a senior, and he earned a scholarship to to play both football and basketball at Stanford.
"I lost my only daughter," said Randall Miller, a 74-year-old owner of a funeral home in Selma, "but I also gained a son. He literally became my son. That part of it was a blessing."
Miller had never played travel baseball or participated in any showcases, but he drew the attention of major league scouts in an Alabama All-Star game, and the Marlins made him their fourth-round pick in 2003.
"I think his mother always wanted Jai to become a professional athlete," Randall Miller said. "He was all set to go to Stanford, but he had to opportunity to play professional baseball, and I think he thought that's what his mother would have wanted."
The minor-leagues were a struggle. Miller was a gifted athlete, but his baseball inexperience showed. He never hit higher than .233 in his first four pro seasons.
"I know years ago, when I was struggling and trying to figure a few things out, it was definitely a trying time," Miller said. "It was the first time I struggled in any sport. It really tested my resolve and I just didn't want it to beat me."
Orioles infielder Robert Andino came through the Marlins farm system with Miller. The two were minor-league spring training roommates and played together in low-A ball in Greensboro.
"He was raw athlete then," Andino said. "He's still a little raw now, but once he figures it all out, watch out."
Orioles executive vice president for baseball operations Dan Duquette also believes in Miller's upside. Duquette, who acquired Miller from Oakland for cash considerations after theA'sdesignated him for assignment in the offseason, liked the fact that Miller can play all three outfield positions. Miller also had his best season last year inTriple-A, hitting 32 homers with 88 RBIs, 16 stolen bases and a .368 on-base percentage before receiving a brief major-league call-up when rosters expanded in September.
Miller's strikeout numbers, however, are a major reason why he hasn't been able to stick in major league stints in Florida, Kansas City and Oakland. He struck out 179 times in 464 plate appearances last year in Triple-A.
This spring he's trying to show the Orioles he can work quality at bats. Through the spring's first 10 Grapefruit League games, Miller was hitting .333 and led the Orioles in both extra-base hits (5) and RBIs (7), but recently he has struggled, going hitless in his last 13 spring at bats.
"That just comes with time and learning yourself," Miller said. "As you develop as a hitter and you develop physically, because I'm way more stronger at 27 than I was at 19, just at-bat after at-bat, you understand what guys are trying to do to you. You know what you do well and what you may not handle as well. You just have to stick with it."
Miller still faces a tough road to making the Orioles' Opening Day roster. In December the team signed veteran Endy Chavez, who is hitting .500 this spring, to be the team's fourth outfielder. And the idea that the Orioles will carry another player who is exclusively an outfielder is unlikely, especially considering infielders Wilson Betemit and Ryan Flaherty have also played in the outfield this spring.
Despite playing in just 28 major-league games in his career, Miller is out of minor-league options, which means if he doesn't make the team, he'd have to clear waivers before the Orioles could send him toTriple-ANorfolk.
"You have to keep in mind that Jai hasn't played a lot of baseball," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "He's a fabulous athlete. Being out of options kind of hurts players. As much as it's there to kind of protect them, it hurts some players like him because it's tough to get them to a place unless they clear."
But Miller isn't one to give up — the memory of his mother and grandmother keeps him focused on a big league career.
Back in Selma, Miller is revered. There's a new high school baseball tournament there named after him. And Jai, who still lives with his grandfather in the offseason, makes sure he visits the graves of his mother and grandmother on their birthdays and on Christmas.
Miller also carries his memory of them onto the diamond, as each of Miller's fielding gloves has either his mother or grandmother's name printed on them.
Baseball may be just a game, but for Miller, he's playing for a higher purpose.
"I think she's smiling down from above," Randall Miller said of his daughter, "as proud as could be."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun