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Orioles infielder Jemile Weeks taking changes in stride

Early in career, finding ways to give back

By Dan Connolly, The Baltimore Sun

10:53 PM EDT, March 18, 2014

SARASOTA, Fla.

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In early December, Jemile Weeks' baseball career was thrown upside down.

He was traded away from the only organization he had ever known, the Oakland Athletics, and sent to the Orioles for one of the franchise's most popular players, closer Jim Johnson, in what was immediately deemed a salary dump.

Although the 27-year-old second baseman viewed it as a new opportunity, the external pressure was once again descending on Weeks, a 2008 first-rounder who grew up playing in, and around, the shadow of his All-Star big brother, Rickie.

But Weeks didn't have time to get caught up in the hoopla; he was too busy trying to figure out how to feed 1,000 people and how he could borrow a bounce house or two.

"That was the gist of where my mind was," said Weeks, who is competing for the Orioles' starting second base job, but likely will begin the season at Triple-A. "I knew about the trade, but I already know how media and other interactions work, so I really don't pay attention to it. I tend to stay busy."

A month before the deal, his offseason schedule got particularly complicated when he announced at a periodic family meeting — yes, two pro ballplayers and a community-relations professional sister still have occasional family meetings with their parents — that he wanted to host a community event for charity near where he grew up in Orlando, Fla.

Never mind that Weeks had never attempted such an event or that Christmas was a month away. That was what he wanted to do. And so it was going to happen.

"With my own hands, I reached out to people I know and my sister did, along with my mom's church," Weeks said. "I just phoned friends. I got the bounce houses and the food, pizzas and ice cream, and asked for live performances from people I knew."

Simple as that.

On Dec. 21, Weeks and his newly formed non-profit organization, WeFam LLC, hosted "Christmas on the Boulevard" at a high school in Eatonville, Fla., which is known as the oldest black municipality in the United States.

Weeks was expecting about 400 to 700 people for the free, community-building event that featured face painters, an inspirational rapper, dance demonstrations and presentation poet Shawn Welcome.

More than 1,000 people attended, and Weeks and his volunteers — who included his brother and other Orlando-area professional athletes — fed them all. They also gave out more than 700 toys to children.

"It's just something I wanted to do for the community back home," Weeks said.

It's not unusual for athletes to give back to their communities. But it is fairly rare for someone who isn't yet established in a sport to attempt to make such an impact — and do it single-handedly, without fanfare. And accomplish it so quickly.

Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy, for one, wasn't surprised by the gesture. Hardy was part of a double-play tandem with Weeks' brother in Milwaukee for years.

"It's just that kind of family," Hardy said. "It's the way Rickie is and I'm just getting to know Jemile a little bit, but the way he is too. The family is just a great family."

Weeks' father, Richard Sr., spent parts of two decades working for a food bank in Orlando before switching gears to operate collegiate and youth baseball programs. Weeks' mother owned a cleaning company when her kids were young, but she is now a full-time pastor in Orlando. The couple divorced when Weeks was a pre-teen, but the parents raised their children together, stressing faith, family and community.

"My mom and dad always instilled in us that we don't forget where we come from, no matter how high you get in your career or how successful you become," said Kaisha Weeks, the family's middle child, who was a track star at Southern and is now a communications-public relations specialist.

All three of the Weekses' children helped out at the food bank where their father worked. Weeks was about seven when he first understood the importance of giving back. But his sister said he really was hit with that spirit a few years ago — around when he debuted with the A's in 2011.

That was a whirlwind season for Weeks.

A first-round pick by the A's in 2008 out of Miami, Weeks received a $1.9 million bonus to be the organization's second baseman of the future. He made his debut on June 7, 2011 — and went hitless against the Orioles in four at-bats at Camden Yards.

The next day he went 3-for-3 with a double and single against lefty Zach Britton and hit his first major league triple against Johnson. It jump-started a June in which Weeks was named the American League's co-rookie of the month and a season in which he batted .303 with eight triples and 22 stolen bases.

The next year, though, things spiraled downward for Weeks. The club wanted him to change his hitting approach — to hit more grounders and use his speed. It didn't work, he said, and his frustration grew. He was demoted to the minors that August, and didn't get back until last September. It was obvious he was no longer in Oakland's plans. And though that was tough to take, he said he leaned on the faith that has buoyed him since he was a youth.

"It would be tough to go through things that I've already gone through in the game and for me not to lash out or feel angry or attack anybody in newspapers," he said. "It had to be in me to understand that everything is going to take care of itself."

That's why he was excited for a new opportunity in Baltimore. And why he won't let himself be discouraged if he doesn't make the Orioles out of camp.

Weeks entered spring training with a legitimate shot at the second base job, especially if incumbent Ryan Flaherty starts at third base while Manny Machado continues to rehab his surgically repaired knee.

But top infield prospect Jonathan Schoop has batted .400 this spring and appears to have leapfrogged Weeks on the depth chart.

Since the organization doesn't want either Schoop or Weeks to be a utility player right now, the Orioles could go with veteran Alex Gonzalez in that role and send Weeks to Norfolk to play every day.

Weeks has batted just .148 in 27 at-bats this spring, but he has walked five times (.314 on-base percentage) and been successful in six of seven stolen-base attempts. His speed is an element the Orioles don't have on their current roster, so even if he is demoted this spring, he could be in line to help the team at some point this summer.

Perhaps when he was younger, being sent out again would be devastating. But he's putting baseball in the proper perspective.

"At the end of the day, the game doesn't make me," he said. "I play the game. That's how I feel. And I feel strongly about it."

His big sister, the public relations pro, said that's not just athlete-speak. It's the way Weeks lives his life.

"He looks at baseball as an amazing opportunity and a gift given to him, but he also looks at things in the long run because he knows baseball won't always last," Kaisha Weeks said. "Really, the sky is the limit for him. He has a mind for business and for the community. Only God knows what he'll be doing after baseball, but it ultimately will be something impactful."

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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