From 1998 to 2011, the Orioles had a losing season each year, missed the playoffs each time and were often a laughingstock in Major League Baseball. From 2012 to 2016, the O’s made the playoffs three times, won an AL East title, and won more games than any team in the American League.
If there was a turning point, when the gears were set in motion for a brighter future, it may have been Feb. 8, 2008, when Cy Young candidate Erik Bedard was traded to Seattle for a mind-boggling five-player haul. One of those players was Adam Jones.
The Orioles knew they were getting a hyped prospect. They ended up getting so much more.
In his time in Baltimore, stretching from 2008 to 2018, Jones became the de facto captain and leader of an Orioles team that brought winning baseball back to Charm City. While Nick Markakis was the quintessential leader by example, Jones was the team’s biggest voice, the one who could be counted on to deliver a sound bite that motivated his teammates or pull a prank that eased the tension.
He was the picture of whimsy, smooshing pies into the faces of teammates after game-winning hits and blowing bubbles while chasing down tough catches in key moments. He was also a source for commentary, whether that topic was as trivial as fan support, or as significant as racial behavior across the sport.
But he’s this high on this list because he could flat-out play. Jones became a star in Baltimore, with five All-Star appearances in a seven-year span between 2009 and 2015. He was in the top 15 in MVP voting three times, he won three Gold Gloves in center field, and he topped 30 home runs twice. He averaged 29 home runs a season from 2011 to 2017.
The flashes of what was to come were there from the start, but it took Jones a little while to put it together over the course of a whole season. He got off to a red-hot start in 2009, his second year with the team, and made the All-Star Game as a result, but a sluggish second half (he hit .222 after the break) caused him to finish with a so-so .277/19/70 slash line.
The 2010 and 2011 seasons (.284/19/69 and .280/25/83, respectively) saw Jones continue his progression, but it all came together in 2012. Jones returned to the All-Star Game, the first of four straight appearances, and finished with 32 home runs and 82 RBI, in addition to a .287 average. He also won his first Gold Glove.
The stats only told part of the story, however. The Orioles came out of nowhere to win 93 games and an AL Wild-Card berth, and coming through with seemingly every key hit was the dynamic 27-year-old. Jones drove in 10 extra-inning runs for a team that went 16-2 in such games. He had the go-ahead three-run home run in the 18th inning of a 9-6 win over Boston on May 6. Ten days later, he homered in the 15th inning of a 4-3 win over Kansas City. On June 9, he hit a walk-off two-run homer in the 12th inning of a 6-4 win over Philadelphia. On Aug. 7, his walk-off single in the 14th inning beat Seattle 8-7. On Sept. 19, against those same Mariners, Baltimore won 3-1 in 11 innings. Guess who had the go-ahead two-run shot?
Jones’s biggest moment, though, didn’t come in extras. On Sept. 6, playing a game against the first-place Yankees that could validate their status as a contender, Baltimore (more specifically, Pedro Strop) let a 6-1 lead slip away completely during a five-run eighth. The O’s were reeling. The Yankees had woken up. The momentum was entirely theirs.
And then Jones came up in the bottom half of the eighth, and kicked all that dread aside by cracking a no-doubter to left field. Camden Yards erupted. Two more home runs followed that inning, Baltimore won 10-6, and the baseball world had been put on notice. The Orioles were for real.
Jones finished sixth in the MVP voting that season, but he was far from done. He slugged 33 home runs with 108 RBI, a .285 average and a Gold Glove in 2013, finishing 13th in the MVP race as Baltimore flirted with the playoffs before falling short at 85-77. He was great again in 2014, hitting .281 with 29 home runs, 96 RBI and another Gold Glove as the Orioles rolled to the AL East title and the American League Championship Series. Jones finished 14th in the MVP voting for his efforts.
Jones continued to provide a potent bat for a competitive Orioles team, slashing .269/27/82 in 2015, then .265/29/83 in 2016 as Baltimore made its last playoff appearance with a Wild Card entry. He had another strong season at the plate in 2017, hitting .285 with 26 home runs and 73 RBI, though his defense in center field had started to regress. In 2018, his final season with the Orioles, he hit .281 with 15 home runs and 63 RBI — as well as 35 doubles, second best for his career — for a team that bottomed out and lost 115 games.
Throughout his Orioles career, Jones was a valuable two-way player who could belt home runs, hit for a good average and give Baltimore an always steady, sometimes spectacular defender in center field. At his peak, he was one of the best outfielders in the game.
He wasn’t perfect. His plate discipline — or lack thereof — was the source of many a groan from Orioles fans, and he was never able to translate his clutch hitting in the regular season into playoff success. He batted .155 with a .206 on-base percentage in 58 postseason at-bats, seemingly hamstrung by his inability to work counts against a steady stream of quality pitchers.
(For his struggles, however, he did deliver one memorable moment. His tying two-run home run in Game 2 of the 2014 ALCS was perhaps the last time Orioles fans could daydream about a World Series championship.)
Those qualms aside, Jones for a decade gave the Orioles an emerging franchise player that became the cornerstone of the most successful stretch of baseball Baltimore fans had seen in nearly two decades. Hopefully he has a return to Major League Baseball in him.
If not, those memories of bubbles, pies and game-winning home runs will have to do.