The 2018 Baltimore Orioles are one of baseball’s very worst teams. Their record stands at 33-75, putting them a whopping 41 ½ games back of the division lead with two months still left to play this season. Their offense has scored the third-fewest runs in Major League Baseball, and their pitching staff has allowed the fifth-most, giving them a run differential of -144. Only the Royals are worse, which is little consolation given just how bad the Royals are.
These Orioles are a team that was allegedly supposed to contend this season. This is a team that added over the offseason, acquiring Alex Cobb to bolster their barely-existent rotation. But instead of contending, the Orioles found themselves this trade deadline in the basement of basements, looking in dismay at not only the far-distant Yankees and Red Sox but at the years left on Chris Davis’s monster contract, lacking any real prospect depth that would give them hope for the future.
And so, like any team in their position would do, the Orioles sold off almost all their compelling talent. The Orioles only have had three position players accrue 0.5 Wins Above Replacement so far this season, and two of them are now gone to greener pastures: Manny Machado, by far their best player, is letting his superstardom shine under the Hollywood lights. Jonathan Schoop, Machado’s good friend and double-play partner, now plays for another National League contender in Milwaukee. The Orioles’ most valuable pitcher this season, starter Kevin Gausman, went to help the Atlanta Braves in their race for the NL East title, and elite closer Zach Britton, though injured for much of this season, was snatched up by the rival Yankees—as much as a team 36 games ahead of the other can be considered a rival. Reliever Darren O’Day, too, is gone. A team that was already something of a sad, empty husk is now a sad, empty husk with all of its best players gone.
Except for one. There is still one player that Orioles fans, if they still want to come out to watch a team that is unlikely to clear 70 wins this season, can go to the ballpark and root for. There is one player who chose not to leave: the longest-tenured Oriole, five-time All-Star center fielder Adam Jones.
Jones would have been gone, too, if not for the fact that he has 10-and-5 rights—if a player has accrued ten years of service time in the major leagues and has spent the past five consecutive years with the same team, they have the right to veto any trade that the team proposes to them. The Philadelphia Phillies, another NL contender currently sitting atop the NL East, wanted to trade for Jones; the Orioles wanted to accept the terms of the trade, ridding them of Jones’s $6 million salary and gaining them some prospects for their concerningly barren farm system. The trade would have sent Jones to a team full of young, exciting talent, a first-place team embedded in a tight playoff race, with a bright future ahead of it and a huge, passionate fanbase hungry for a return to postseason competition.
Jones said no. He chose the Orioles.
Speaking to the press about his decision, Jones was every bit as clear, incisive and bold as he’s earned a reputation for being over his years in Baltimore: “When players walked out years ago and walked the picket lines and stuff, they did that for reasons like this,” he said. “I earned this and it’s my decision. I don’t have to explain it to nobody. It’s my decision. Thank you.”
“It’s my life,” he continued. “No one’s going to tell me what to do. I earn every single bit of it.”
To those who might question the process behind his decision-making, he offered this wisdom: “Now if someone wants to pay all my bills, trust me, they can tell me what to do. But until then, shut the hell up.”
Before Adam Jones was the face of the Orioles’ last decade of baseball, he was a kid growing up in poverty on the southeast side of San Diego, a working-class area with a lot of crime and few opportunities. He was raised in a household that struggled to make ends meet, with a mostly-absent father. Jones could easily have found himself on a different path—one that ended in tragedy instead of stardom. Supported by his circle of family and friends, most notably his older brother, Jones devoted himself to excelling at sports instead. Amid the instability of his home life, he grew up watching baseball, idolizing Padres hero Tony Gwynn.
And in spite of the many things that would seem to stand in his way, the odds stacked against him, Jones was determined to realize his athletic ambitions. He was the only black player on his travel baseball team as a pre-teen. He was often unable to afford the cost of equipment, and would grind as much as a kid could to rustle up cash: selling candy in other parts of town, pasting up posters for local rappers. He befriended another player on his travel team, Jett Ruiz, whose family became a surrogate home for him. When Jett’s father Steve offered to pay for Jones’s equipment one year, the 13-year-old promised to reimburse him for his investment. “I’m gonna be in the major leagues one day,” he said.
Jones’s determination was matched only by his talent. He was scouted and invited to work out with his idol Tony Gwynn as a teenager; in 2003, he was drafted out of high school in the first round by the Seattle Mariners, who converted him from a shortstop to a center fielder. Three years later, Jones stepped onto the field as a major leaguer for the first time. At the age of 20, he was making good on his high-minded promise to Steve Ruiz, standing in the aisles of a sport supply store seven years earlier. Adam Jones had invested in himself, fiercely and unapologetically, betting against odds stacked against him. And he was right. He was right all along.
Since he was traded to the Orioles in 2008 as one of the centerpieces of a blockbuster that sent Erik Bedard to Seattle, Jones has established himself as the face of the franchise—even more so than some other players, like Machado, who might have more exciting numbers. While he played for four Orioles teams that won 68, 64, 66, and 69 games; his career season in 2012, when he hit .287/.334/.505, played all 162 games of the season, and finished sixth in MVP voting, coincided with an unexpected 93-69 campaign for the team that broke them out of their 15-year pit of misery. He signed what was then the team’s largest contract ever that season, too, a contract that is set to expire at the end of this year.
While with the Orioles, Jones has represented the best of what a baseball player should be. He has been outspoken about racism, and has been notably active in charitable work in the Baltimore community, particularly work for kids, which won him a Roberto Clemente award in 2017. Jones’s numbers have formed a neat curve in his time with the Orioles, peaking in 2012, on the decline ever since; his viability as a center fielder is questionable, and while his average and on-base percentages—Jones has never been one to take a walk very often—have remained consistent, the power is no longer there for the 32-year-old. But through it all, he has continued to play with irrepressible personality—like a 13-year-old, 20 years ago in San Diego, with unlikely big-league dreams.
The Orioles are unwilling to commit to Jones beyond the end of his contract, perhaps reasonably so; there is little reason to think that his numbers will ever return to what they were a few seasons ago. Some fans might be disgruntled about the fact that Jones refused to leave, making the Orioles lose out on possible prospects for their imminent rebuild. And, at the heart of it, it’s just a little confusing—that a major leaguer, someone who presumably wants to compete at the highest level, would choose to stay with a last-place team when they could be with a team at the top.
But Jones has been through enough, and achieved enough, to deserve the benefit of freedom. He understands the value of finding a place where you belong, where it feels like home, and the value of being able to choose that home when so many other players can’t. And next year, it will be Jones who gets to decide where he plays, not the Orioles. For that bit of freedom and agency over his life, Adam Jones is staying in Baltimore, with a last-place team playing in front of a mostly-empty stadium. It’s what he wants, and it's what he's earned.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports US.