A little more than eleven years ago, a bad Orioles team that was staring down a necessary rebuild made a trade. Erik Bedard went to Seattle, and coming back to the Orioles were five players, headlined by 22-year-old outfielder Adam Jones. Though we had no way of knowing it then, this was the start of a beautiful friendship.
Today, Jones’s time with the Orioles is officially over. It’s been clear for months that the new regime would not be bringing him back, but until Jones finally signed somewhere else, I couldn’t help but wonder whether they might still find space for him on this team. Even though I knew better, I hoped for it, too. Alas, he’s off to Arizona, and for the first time in more than a decade, O’s fans must face a Jones-less reality.
This is a hard prospect to face. Jones has been the greatest Oriole of the 21st century to date. It’s looking like that will remain true for at least another decade. He was the face of the franchise without question throughout the whole of the 2012-16 era of success. That we’re back in the dark times now makes that era even more special. It didn’t have to work out so well, but it did. Jones is a big part of the reason why.
It’s no coincidence that the best-hitting season Jones ever had was the first season in almost 15 years that the Orioles were any good. He was legendary that year, with clutch home runs almost every time you turned around. The team needed a star to rise and Jones was that star.
Everyone knows that the #1 moment in Camden Yards history is Cal officially breaking Lou Gehrig’s record of consecutive games played. Everyone knows that the #2 moment is the Delmon Young double. Third belongs to Adam Jones.
You know the game. It was September, 2012, with the O’s playing a meaningful game after Labor Day for the first time in forever. The Cal statue was being unveiled, the Orioles were playing the Yankees, and with a win they would be tied atop the AL East. The O’s had a big lead early, Pedro Strop blew it late, and then Jones stepped up to the plate in the next half-inning with the tie-breaking home run that turned the nervous energy in the stadium into an atmosphere of delirious exuberance.
I wasn’t there for 2131 and I wasn’t there for the double. I was there for Jones hitting that home run. It’s the loudest I’ve ever heard the crowd get. As it happens, I was in the press box that night, so I wasn’t allowed to add my voice to the cheering crowd. There is no cheering in the press box. What I can tell you is that as Jones rounded the bases, there were smiles on a number of faces, and I don’t mean just from the people who work for the Orioles.
Among the things I loved about Jones was the indignant swagger that he brought to interviews with those who doubted the success that the O’s were having. Early in the 2014 season, as hype swirled around new Yankees free agent signing Masahiro Tanaka, Jones answered a Yankees reporter’s question about facing Tanaka by saying, “Why don’t you ask Tanaka about facing me?” After the same game, which the Orioles won, he said to the same reporter, “Am I supposed to go home and say that I faced Tanaka tonight?”
I miss that guy already. It’s not every day that the Orioles get a star player who develops into the star they wanted, who then chooses to sign a contract extension to stick around, who adopts Baltimore as his home. Jones even exercised a no-trade clause to avoid being traded away from last year’s Orioles team that finished 47-115. There were probably personal considerations there, rather than just that he loved being an Oriole that much, but that’s what I’m telling myself anyway.
I miss the pies, too. The post-game pies will always be another fond memory from that era. It was often Jones who delivered them to a teammate’s face, except for when he earned the post-game interview and sometimes they got him instead. Multi-home run night? Pie. Walkoff hit? Pie. And when the Orioles clinched the division in 2014, Jones, man of the people that he is, brought the front-row fans into the celebration by pieing some of them in the face.
Some day the Orioles will manage to be good again. One thing that makes it hard to imagine what that might be like is the knowledge that Jones won’t be around to throw a pie after a big home win.
Fun as that era was, it’s also a little sad looking back on it and knowing that the Orioles never were able to win it all, or even get into the World Series for the first time in my lifetime. Jones deserves to be remembered as the face of a Baltimore championship team. What is deserved is often not what is received from the baseball gods.
Jones at least got his own championship moment, even if it was “only” in the World Baseball Classic. The greatest single catch of his baseball career might have come when he was wearing the Team USA uniform, when he robbed then-O’s teammate Manny Machado of a home run at a clutch moment on the way to the American team winning the whole tournament.
You can’t look at the Orioles career leaderboards without finding Jones all over the place: Eighth in games played, sixth in plate appearances, fifth in runs scored, fourth in hits, sixth in doubles, fifth in home runs, fifth in runs batted in. It’ll be quite a while before Jones is passed on most of these lists. He might not be headed for a statue in the stadium after he retires, but he was a legend of this era and he’ll be missed.
Jones was selected to five All-Star teams and won four Gold Gloves while a member of the O’s. It’ll be a while before we have another Oriole top those numbers, too.
Jones was acquired. He played. He is Birdland. We’re never going to see another player like him. If Orioles fans are lucky, we will someday see someone who is as good in different ways. With Jones officially gone, the last remaining 2014 Oriole on the roster is Chris Davis.