Adam Jones Q&A: On race, America and why he continues to speak out

Jeff Passan
MLB columnist
Adam Jones addressed his place in baseball today and the ugly incident at Fenway Park. (AP)

Over the weekend, Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones visited the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, a shrine to the rich history of black baseball in the United States. Jones’ connection with the museum goes back nearly a decade and runs deep enough that he is one of its greatest benefactors.

The $20,000 donation Jones gave the museum was the latest example of him standing behind the things in which he believes. In baseball, perhaps the most buttoned-up of major American professional sports, potential blowback and a clubhouse culture squelch desires to address social issues. Jones, 31, is the exception. He has become the voice for the modern black baseball player. Opinionated and fearless, Jones sees what his baseball forebears did not just for the sport but the United States writ large and recognizes the power of his platform to influence for the better.

In a conversation with Yahoo Sports, Jones addressed his place in baseball today, the ugly incident at Fenway Park in which a fan berated him with a racial slur, Curt Schilling’s belief Jones made up the story, the thoughtfulness of Orioles manager Buck Showalter, how baseball is a white-man’s sport and why he believes three-strikes criminal policies have harmed the game.

Yahoo: You’ve seen when players talk about a subject as sensitive as race that they can be portrayed in a certain way. You still do it. Why?

Jones: I’m not afraid of the backlash, because it’s the truth. It’s my truth through my eyes. We all have our own truths. How we were raised – that’s our truth. Growing up in San Diego, or California in general, it’s a very liberal state. I grew up with blacks, whites, Mexicans, Filipinos. Everything was diverse. My class wasn’t predominately anything. Playing sports, it was diverse. My neighborhood was diverse. The worst thing is when people say, “I don’t see color.” I think that’s the dumbest thing. Unless you’re colorblind, you see color. You may choose not to think of the other things that come with color, but you see color. At the ballpark in San Diego, you see the diversity. LA, Arizona, San Francisco, both Texas teams. You just see so much diversity. Growing up like that, I always assumed the rest of the United States, the rest of the world, was like that.

Fast forward, and I’m playing in Double-A in Arkansas, Little Rock. I’d never been to Little Rock. It was my first incident with racism. Some teammates and I are walking going to get something to eat after a game, and some guy riding a bike just wants to spew some nasty things at us. My teammate at the time – he was from Georgia, and he was older, and he told me to keep walking, because nothing good could come out of it. Me being 19, I was like, “What?” This was not supposed to happen like this. It’s something I’ll never forget. Why would anyone go out of their way to hate on another person?

Life is an education. Over my 10 years in the big leagues, 14 years in pro ball, I’ve learned. Everyone will say, “You’re just an athlete. You make all this money. You shouldn’t complain.” I think that’s the second-dumbest thing people say. It’s not about the money. I make a good amount of money because people pay to see me. It’s like an actor. I’m an entertainer. No more, no less. Once my entertainment value goes down, I’m out of here. I just try to tell people what I see. I’m sorry if you don’t see them. I’m sorry if you’re not aware of the situation. But somebody in the outside world can’t tell me what a 10-year major league vet experiences and sees.

As athletes, we do have to be censored in a certain way, but at the same time, if there’s a big issue, and it’s something you stand for, you’ve got to speak out. Because if you’re worried about the backlash, I think silence is just as bad. I understand that I put myself in a position where even if I do get bad press, I’ve got something to fall back on. I do understand younger players not saying anything. You don’t want to hinder your future in this game. It’s a wonderful game. It’s blessed me and my family so much.

Yahoo: Is that the feeling among younger players? That speaking their minds is dangerous?

Jones: In certain aspects, it can definitely do that. And it sucks. That’s why a lot of people just turn a blind eye. I don’t know. You just see what’s going on in the world. It’s changing. You see how this last election really divided not just the nation but friends. Facebook is the top place where political things were discussed, and you see a lot of unfriending. I don’t really chime in on political stuff because I don’t know what’s going to affect what. If I haven’t educated myself well on a subject, I don’t want to speak forcefully. But the things I do understand I’m going to speak about. First off because I’ve done my homework on it. My wife would kill me if I didn’t. And my mother. I have a good team of people behind me that understand where I stand on things. Sometimes I say it a little brash. I’ll come off as aggressive or like I said it with a chip on my shoulder. But I just want what everyone else wants: a fair shot for everyone.

Yahoo: Do you feel alone speaking out on this among baseball players? In basketball, you’ve got …

Jones: … 70 percent black players. Seventy percent black people in football. And 8 percent in baseball. The funny thing is, people will tweet me like, “Do you think Gordon Hayward cares he’s the only white dude in the NBA?” If he wants to speak out on it, he’s more than welcome to speak out on it. But the number of white basketball players at amateur levels is not dwindling.

I don’t think I feel alone. When you speak out, you’re going to get a lot of attention. A friend of mine sent me the SNL skit the other night. You’re going to get attention. Some good, some bad. [Curt] Schilling is over there with his rants. He just wants an outlet. Somebody will take his call, take his rants. He can keep them for himself. Because he’s never experienced anything like I have. I’ll stick with what [Mark] McLemore said about it: Schilling, hell of a career. But he’s never been black, and he’s never played the outfield in Boston.

Yahoo: How many times have you been called a racial slur in Boston?

Jones: To me, a few. To others? Now, you can’t just single out Boston. That would be a cop-out. You go around the whole nation, and you hear fans get nasty. I don’t know if it has something to do how with how their day went. I understand people’s frustrations after they have a tough day. Could’ve had a tough day at work. Could’ve been fired. Wife could’ve chewed ‘em out. Kids could’ve gotten sick. I’m a fan of baseball, so I understand if you go laugh at a player when he’s 0-for-3 or somebody’s hitting .150 – baseball-related is perfectly suitable. The second you want to start cursing, let alcohol beat you up a little bit, yell profanity, get angry – that’s not the sport. And another thing I think ties into aggression with sports, especially with Twitter, Instagram, social media, is fantasy. I get guys like, “Hey, can you sign this for me?” I sign for them, and they’re like, “Hey, I’ve got you on my fantasy team. Do something.” Like … OK. How do you respond to that?

At the end of the day, when this uniform is off, I try to be a normal person. But I understand it’s a different standard. Whenever we speak out or whenever anything happens to us, it’s all documented. In 2017, everything is going to be news quickly, quickly, quickly. I got so many calls after (Boston). My mom, she’s all upset. I’m her baby boy. She doesn’t want me to have to go through things like that. But I told her, that’s why I had to speak up about it.

Adam Jones was called a racial slur at Fenway Park on May 1. (Getty Images)

Yahoo: What does it feel like when someone calls you a racial slur?

Jones: It feels like they know they can try to get a rise out of you. When I’m in center field, I hear the good, the bad, the ugly from the fans. I hear it. I hear the chatter of the fans. But that catches you off-guard. I’ve heard it all. “Go eff yourself.” “I’m effing your mom this weekend.” When people start to use strong profanity and hate words, you sit there and think, “What is really the issue?” The issue isn’t me. The issue is not me being in center field. There’s a bigger issue. I don’t know what would make someone do that – (especially) at a Major League Baseball game. When you’re at a baseball game, you’re surrounded. And the scarier part is when things are said in the stands, a lot of people around them are mum. I don’t know if they don’t want to get involved with it.

Yahoo: What should fans do?

Jones: Stand up. It doesn’t matter what color you are. Stand up for what’s right. You see someone fighting three on one – black, white, anything – the right thing to do is stand up and intervene. Don’t be afraid you’re going to get beat up, too. It’s the same thing here. Be proactive. Don’t be so scared of retaliation. I understand that by speaking out, some people aren’t going to like it. But you know what? The group of big boys, the African-Americans in the game past and present, reached out to me, and there’s no greater feeling that I’ve had. Same from last year when I spoke out about it. I got so many calls, and not just from blacks. From white players, too. One of the big ones is Rick Sutcliffe. He’s one of my biggest supporters. He said to keep speaking up. Because when things are wrong, they’re wrong. Don’t be afraid of backlash. You have to stand up for what you feel is right. Are all my points 100 percent correct all the time? No. But me standing up for an injustice is correct. I’ve got a good platform for it. And at the end of the day, my ownership has my back.

Yahoo: How have the Orioles supported you?

Jones: I’ve spoken with PGA (Orioles majority owner Peter G. Angelos). I’ve spoken with John Angelos (his son and Orioles executive VP), who I’ve gotten to know really well these last two years. And they are in complete support. If you know our owner’s history, he’s always fought for the little guy, always fought for the unions. Our ownership has definitely had my back. P.R. has met with me multiple times to make sure I’m comfortable with everything around me. And then you’ve got Major League Baseball and the Red Sox. The next day, I met (Red Sox owner) John Henry. I’d only seen him on TV. To meet the owner of the team? The only time you ever meet the owner is when he’s giving you $100 million. For them to step up and intervene and show their appreciation for how I go out and mind my business and play the game and, knock on wood, try to be good for baseball, black, white or indifferent, they were really appreciative of that, and I was appreciative of them coming to me and getting ahead of it. Boston ain’t the only place it happens. We just have to make sure it doesn’t happen anywhere else, and if it does, that people around and security – I guess the infrastructure is set to have the fans ejected.

I don’t think the baseball field is the place to let out anger like that. You can scream into a pillow or grab your ears and do some woosah. Or grab the little medicine marbles and roll them in your hands. The best thing they say at the end of the Ravens’ national anthem is: “Don’t be a jerk.”

At this point, Orioles manager Buck Showalter came over to ask Jones if he was going to the Negro Leagues museum on the team bus at 11 a.m. or closer to his scheduled visit at noon. Every year when the Orioles visit Kansas City, Showalter offers his team an opportunity to tour the museum – and makes it mandatory for some of the team’s younger players.

Jones: He’s going to make ‘em write book reports, too.

Yahoo: Not many other managers care about history and how it remains so relevant today like he does.

Jones: Look at Buck. From (near) lower Alabama. Went to college at Mississippi State. Now, what we know about the United States in Mississippi and Alabama is blacks ain’t that great. But he’s been my manager for seven years, and he has taught me more about African-American baseball players than the game has taught me. When he first got here, one of the first questions he asked me is have I been to that museum. Of course I’ve been there. He’s proactive on things like that. He doesn’t have to be. He’s got bigger things to worry about than getting up early. He’s got a 6 o’clock game. But he understands the importance of that for white, black, Latin players. That museum – all the museums around baseball – are unbelievable educational tools for anyone. You don’t have to play baseball in there to understand what these people did. They weren’t just baseball players. They were civil rights activists. It was bigger than the game. I’m not trying to be bigger than the game. I just want to make sure everybody has a fair chance. I know a lot of people don’t like to hear this, but African-American history is American history.

Adam Jones was the unofficial captain of Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. (Getty Images)

Yahoo: Eight weeks ago, you’re wearing USA across your chest in the WBC. You’re not officially the captain, but you might as well have been. You make the play of the tournament. How do you reconcile baseball giving you all this pride in your country and then showing you some of its worst elements?

Jones: Donning USA across the chest was one of the most special moments I’ve had playing baseball because I’m not representing myself anymore. I’m not representing the Orioles or Major League Baseball. I’m representing the United States. I’m representing the people fighting for our freedom. I’m representing freedom and opportunities this great land presented not just to myself but countless other people, other countries, other regions of the world. And then this happens.

I try not to mix the two. (The WBC) was so special and meant so much to us. We banded together. We did something Team USA never has done. We weren’t the favorites, but once we got down to it and started playing good ball, it was unbelievable to be on that team and that field and in that clubhouse with those guys. I’ll never forget it.

Yahoo: Last September, you said: “Baseball is a white man’s sport.” What do you mean by that?

Jones: I don’t mean every person on the field is white. Nah, nah, nah, nah. I’m not saying that. That’s the third-dumbest thing people say. I said that in terms of: Look at the management. Twenty-nine are white. Then you go down: presidents, front office, media. What about basketball? There’s one black owner, Michael Jordan. People making the big-money decisions are not black. Or Hispanic. They’re generally white. In media, the same – and there aren’t a lot of women. Women are in the same boat, too.

I’m not trying to say baseball doesn’t want people to play in the inner cities. It’s that the decisions made in baseball are white-made decisions. They generally have the same ideology. It’s a cash-driven game. At the end of the day, this is about profit. We’re not dumb to that. It’s entertainment. You think at Paramount they’re just making movies to entertain people? No. Of course not. They seize the opportunity to profit. When I said that, I wasn’t saying more blacks should be playing. I already know that’s a problem at the lower levels.

When it comes to a decision, when it comes to transactions, when it comes to contracts, they’re generally made by white people. I get it. They created the infrastructure. Could there be some solutions to it? I think so. I think there are very reputable people, former players, people who went to Harvard and Dartmouth and Yale and the high-end schools major league teams are hiring people from, that are of color. At the end of the day, this game has changed and turned to, “Look at this and tell me what it is.” You don’t have to be white to do that. Making the game more diverse in terms of backgrounds, ideologies, thinking, at a higher level, up to ownership, would be helpful.

Adam Jones grew up in San Diego watching other black players like Tony Gwynn, Chris Gwynn, Gary Sheffield, Greg Vaughn, and Fred McGriff. (Getty Images)

Yahoo: You’ve been as involved as any major league player when it comes to community-based youth programs. What can MLB do to get young kids – and particularly black kids – back into the game?

Jones: It’s bigger than just baseball. And this is what I believe: Baseball always has been a father-son game. You play catch with your dad-type game. The last 30 years, especially in California with the three-strike policy that Reagan and Bush – the three-strike policy in general – there aren’t as many black fathers out there to play catch. The mother is turned into a single mother. She doesn’t have the time, the energy, because she just worked a double. The availability of the parent is not there to play with the kid. The neighborhood is fine, but baseball is generally taught from father to son, even if the dad didn’t play. I just think that with the African-American father not as involved with the life of the kid – that’s way bigger than baseball. It’s real life tying into sports. You want to talk about baseball? To me, these are issues that are baseball.

I’ve always been a curious person to see how people grew up. You ask your teammates, who taught you to play baseball? Most of them will say, “My dad.”

Yahoo: You could have played anything, right? Why baseball?

Jones: I think I chose the right sport. I wasn’t as good at basketball and football in high school. Once I turned about 15, I was a lot better. I was athletic enough to play the other sports, but I wasn’t skilled enough.

Yahoo: At what age did you realize that it had become unique to be a black baseball player?

Jones: Not when I was growing up. I was a product of the mid- to late ’90s baseball boom. I grew up watching Tony Gwynn, Chris Gwynn, Gary Sheffield, Greg Vaughn, Fred McGriff – and those were all Padres. In interleague play, I’d get to see (Ken Griffey) Jr. Then you get into pro ball (Seattle drafted Jones with a first-round pick in 2003) and it’s the McLemores.

I always looked at it like I went into it like a horse, just put blinders on. I had an objective. I wanted to be the best I could every single day. And I still have that objective. But now, I don’t have the blinders on anymore.

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