FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Orioles center fielder Adam Jones is well aware he's the only African-American among the 73 players in camp at Fort Lauderdale Stadium - on a team that represents a predominantly black city - and he views it as both a sign of the times and a call to action.
"It doesn't bother me," Jones said yesterday, "but I'd like to see more black athletes playing baseball."
In that, at least, he isn't alone. Baseball commissioner Bud Selig has made it an industry priority to increase the number of African-American children involved in baseball, and Major League Baseball makes grants to supply equipment and build baseball fields in urban areas through the RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program. Jones said now that he has become more established in the major leagues, he plans to get more involved in the RBI program and try to help change the fact that the national pastime ranks third as the sport of choice for aspiring young black athletes.
"I would love to do that," he said. "I grew up in a YMCA and a Boys and Girls Club. We still talk about how much fun we had. I didn't know how baseball appealed to young people. I just started to like it randomly. I never really watched it on TV until I started playing.
"Most kids were playing basketball and football. I don't know why I chose baseball. I guess because I was just better at it. I love baseball."
He's clearly an elite athlete with the speed and strength to be successful at just about any sport. The only question left is whether he'll be able to fully express all that talent on the baseball field. If he does, he could be an important role model for a new generation of black baseball players in the Baltimore area.
"If he realizes his potential, there will be a tremendous number of young kids who will want to be like Adam Jones," said Orioles coach John Shelby, who has probably spent the most time mentoring Jones since the trade that brought him to Baltimore a year ago. "He has the makeup, not only baseball-wise, but as a young man. He can be a real good role model with his talent and the type of person that he is.
"I don't see why a young African-American wouldn't want to be like Adam Jones, wouldn't want to wear a T-shirt with his name on it and be an outfielder," added Shelby, an African-American.
And, in Baltimore, it still might be a tough sell when there are so many NBA players from the area. The kids in the inner city are much more likely to identify with Carmelo Anthony than anyone who plays for the Orioles, but Jones has a chance to get their attention.
"That's probably one of the major factors why a lot of kids don't play baseball," Shelby said. "When I grew up, there were a lot of African-American players and I knew who all of them were. Now, if you look at Baltimore, there is going to be Adam Jones. He's going to be the only one. He's the one they can look up to."
Shelby is the first to acknowledge the other reasons it has become a major challenge to lure the top young black American athletes into baseball. The world has changed since baseball was the clear sport of choice for the generation of athletes who followed Jackie Robinson into the major leagues. There are many more options for today's young black athletes, and some of them make more sense on a pretty basic level.
"One of the reasons they don't continue to play is the expense of the sport," Shelby said. "You've got to buy your own bats and gloves, and all those things are expensive. If you play basketball, all you need is a ball and a court. You go to college and everybody's getting a full scholarship in football and basketball, but there are only 11 1/2 scholarships in baseball. Even at the lower ages, my 13-year-old got invited to play on a summer travel team and it costs $2,000. There aren't many African-Americans who are going to be able to pay that. I don't want to pay it. I'm not going to pay it."
If all that isn't incentive enough to pursue basketball and football, the NBA and the NFL provide instant opportunity for the top athletes coming out of college. The top draft choices move right into the starting lineups and can immediately become major celebrities. The top baseball prospects get paid well, but they often have to spend years working their way up through the minor leagues before they get to compete at the highest level of the sport.
The Orioles are just happy Jones chose to accept that challenge. He was the centerpiece of the package the club got for pitcher Erik Bedard, and he was just beginning to make good on his tremendous promise when his first season in Baltimore was interrupted for a month by a foot injury. Now, he's ready to start over and seems much more comfortable with himself and the team.
"Last year, he was a guy who was traded for Erik Bedard," manager Dave Trembley said. "This year, he feels he's Adam Jones, center fielder of the Baltimore Orioles, and not just somebody who was traded for Erik Bedard."
Jones has no regrets, even in those moments when he looks around the clubhouse and realizes he has made a different choice from most of his African-American athletic contemporaries.
"I'm not tripping on it," he said. "This is the path I've chosen."