The heart of the deal

The Baltimore Sun

He has been an Oriole for less than 72 hours, and fans are already envisioning Adam Jones growing up side by side with Nick Markakis and leading the downtrodden organization back to prominence.

Thousands of miles away from his new baseball home, Jones is wondering what his future holds, too. He has already talked to longtime Ravens star Ray Lewis about the linebacker's experiences as a professional athlete in Baltimore. He has met Jim Palmer and knows plenty about Brooks Robinson and Cal Ripken Jr., though he's interested in learning more.

Jones, 22, the center fielder who was the centerpiece of the Seattle Mariners' five-player package for ace pitcher Erik Bedard, has his own story to tell. He didn't start playing baseball until he was 12, and the sport helped keep him out of trouble while growing up in a San Diego neighborhood with a heavy drug and gang culture.

Jones made it out unscathed and undeterred, and, in seemingly no time at all, he became one of baseball's most promising prospects. His meteoric rise has not robbed him of his humility - "I'm just trying to be a piece of the puzzle," he says of his role on his new team - or his youthful exuberance.

Nintendo Wii is the "best invention ever" in Jones' eyes, and his idea of a fun night is playing hide-and-go-seek at his old elementary school.

"He's always down for stuff like that, always out to have fun," said Quintin Berry, a minor league outfielder in the Philadelphia Phillies' organization and Jones' best friend. "I have no doubt in my mind that there is going to be nothing bad said about Adam [in Baltimore]. They are going to love him to death."

On the day the trade was announced, Jones was driving to Las Vegas with his girlfriend. He saw a performance of the Blue Man Group on Friday and went to the Cirque du Soleil the next night.

"It's the last week of vacation," Jones said. "After this, everything is going to be a go."

The waiting ends

Jones is simply relieved this whole ordeal is over. It was his comment to a Venezuelan newspaper reporter, indicating that the trade was final when both sides said it wasn't, that stalled the deal for several days.

Both sides agree that Jones did nothing wrong, but the player paid a serious penalty nonetheless. The premature trade report pushed back his physical examination for almost a week and ultimately forced Jones to forfeit his ticket to the Super Bowl, which was being played close to his home in Arizona.

"They were 48-yard line seats on the Patriots' side," lamented Jones, who instead watched the game from his Baltimore hotel room. "What had to be done, had to be done. It's not the last Super Bowl there's going to be."

Jones is a die-hard Peyton Manning and Indianapolis Colts fan, but if he becomes the player scouts and baseball executives project him to be, that might be overlooked in the city that lost the Colts.

"He's a center-of-diamond prospect, a core player with real star potential," Cleveland Indians general manager Mark Shapiro said. "Those are the guys that are most difficult to compete for in free agency. Those are the hardest guys to get in the draft. So that's the type of player you want the most."

Jones, the Mariners' first pick in the 2003 draft, was initially a shortstop in the minor leagues but moved to center field to accelerate his path to the majors. He pounded Triple-A pitching last year, hitting .314 with 25 home runs and 84 RBIs in 101 games with Tacoma to earn a promotion to the Mariners. He has hit .230 in 139 big league at-bats over two seasons.

Ready for majors

"I think Adam has demonstrated that there isn't much more he needs to accomplish at Triple-A," Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail said. "He's pretty much been there and done that, so he'll get an opportunity to showcase his skills at the major league level."

Jones is flattered by the opportunity, but he scoffs at the notion that he has already secured a starting spot.

"I have to go out there and earn it like everybody else," he said. "I was talking to Mr. MacPhail, and he said that they want to rebuild, and they want me to help in that process. That's an honor. I want to let my on-field play dictate everything."

Meanwhile, Jones continues to seek out more information on the city he will call home during the baseball season. When word came out that the six-player deal was finally completed, Jones fielded a call from one of his brothers, who suggested that he start watching The Wire, the HBO police drama set in Baltimore.

Jones, though saying he has heard great things about the series, reminded his brother that it's a TV show and instead called Lewis and former Ravens cornerback Gary Baxter, both of whom are represented by the same sports agency as Jones. "They had some nice things to say about the city," Jones said.

Berry has little doubt that Jones will be able to adapt.

"He's always smiling. He's just an original character," Berry said. "He's the kind of guy that will go to the mall just to talk to people. It almost gets to the point where you are like, 'Is this guy serious?' He'll just all of a sudden go up the escalator and strike up a conversation. He's so outgoing and willing to talk to anybody, and he'll talk for a while. We never quite understood it, but that's how he is."

Berry grew up in southeast San Diego with Jones and saw firsthand how he avoided trouble and became a baseball phenom.

"We've seen a lot of people that ended their careers because they were either shot down in gangs or got caught up in drugs," Berry said. "He was more around it than I was with the people around his neighborhood. But he's kept his head on straight and not got involved with that. I commend him. Now everybody down here in the 'hood is looking at him and wishing they were in his shoes. It's not by accident. He handled his business the way he should have."

Jones played three sports - baseball, football and basketball - at Morse High. He was a wide receiver on his football team but wound up being essentially a glorified offensive lineman because his team ran a strict option offense and didn't throw much. But that was OK to Jones because the payoff was that he got to punt.

"I couldn't kick the ball to save my life, but it was probably the funnest thing I've ever done," Jones said.

'Momma's boy'

Jones eventually focused on baseball and found it to be a great outlet.

"Growing up, I never had all the things that I wanted, but I worked to build myself a whole life," said Jones, who has five siblings, all of them older than he is. "I want to live a fulfilling life and do something with it. A lot of my brother's friends were involved in gangs, and they'd tell you about it. It's sad. Everybody thinks that San Diego is such a sweet city. That's only for tourists. People don't know the real San Diego."

Calling himself a closet "momma's boy," Jones leaned on his mother, Andrea Bradley, who has persevered through several health problems. Bradley has diabetes and suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia. She uses a scooter to get around but watches all of her son's games on TV and is his most vocal fan.

Jones considers former Oriole Mark McLemore his mentor in the game. The two went to the same high school and were introduced by a teacher they both had. McLemore called Jones when he was drafted by the Mariners, and they still talk on a weekly basis.

Jones also has worked several offseasons with baseball Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, who tried to recruit him to go to San Diego State, where Gwynn is the coach.

Jones instead signed as a 17-year-old with the Mariners and quickly rose through their system. He was the Mariners' minor league Player of the Year in 2005 and 2007.

"It's been like a blur," Jones said. "All this has passed by so quickly. I bettered myself, but I have a work ethic that allowed me to do that. Pure talent only gets you so far. I'm still learning that."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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TOMORROW

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WEDNESDAY

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