In an historically awful season and in the so-called dog days of summer, the Orioles had an important moment this weekend. Their rookie center fielder dubbed it a “pass-the-torch situation” when he took the field for his debut Friday night. Then Cedric Mullins delivered at the plate, too, becoming the first player in Orioles history to collect three hits in his major league debut. It’s easy to tamp down expectations for the 23-year-old, who was called up from Triple-A. It’s also easy to not get too excited about a prospect joining a team sitting on 84 losses prior to the middle of August. But this is what Orioles fans have to look forward to, and while it’s really nothing in the micro sense of things, it’s a big deal in the macro.
Adam Jones, the man who encouraged Mullins to be the first to lead the team out onto the field on Friday night, is an incredibly important figure in Orioles history. That statement sounds so declarative and daunting, but it’s true. He’s easily one of the top 15 players in team history and his impact is right up there with the likes of Cal Ripken Jr. and Brooks Robinson. But now, in his 11th season in Baltimore, Jones is sliding out of the way of a youth movement. He is now a right fielder, whether he likes it or not. The 33-year-old gave his “blessing” to move over for Mullins. It’s not something the Orioles required from him, nor did he have to be so cordial in giving it. This situation, for all its warts, has been handled about as well as possible.
There’s no telling whether or not Jones, whose contract expires after this season, will return to the O’s next year. There appears to be some interest on Jones’ part and not as much from the team. That’s just my speculation reading through the tea leaves of some quotes around the trade deadline, where it was widely rumored that Jones could be on his way out of town. Instead, he exercised his rights to veto a trade and stayed put in Baltimore. Now he’s serving as torch-passer-in-chief while mentoring Mullins and other young players.
As Orioles fans, we feel like we know Jones very well. We feel like he’s been a member of the family for more than a decade. From his personality on the field and his bubble gum blowing in center field to his outreach in the community and ability to speak rationally and intelligently about things like racism and poverty, Jones has been a glowing representation of the Orioles. Despite the fact that he wasn’t drafted and developed by the O’s, fans feel as if he’s one of their own.
The Orioles, and their fans, are now hoping they have another one of their own. Outside of play on the field, the team and fan base is looking for someone to point to. Someone to say, “That’s our guy.” No one is saying Mullins is or needs to be the leader that Jones has been. No one is saying he even needs to be of Jones’ caliber on the field. But the significance of this moment, again from a macro standpoint, is something.
It’s also quite noteworthy that there is one black player seemingly taking the mantle of another. I’m probably the last guy anyone would ask to explain the significance of having a black baseball player in such a leadership role on a team. I’m a white guy who has never had to deal with the adversity and obstacles folks like Jones or Mullins have overcome. And even though Major League Baseball started this season with its highest percentage of black players (8.4 percent) since 2012, that’s still a staggeringly low number. But Jones has carried that flag, whether he wanted it or not. He’s done so much not just for the community, but the black community, in his time with the Orioles. Mullins now has a chance, if he wants it, to carry on that outreach.
In this season that has gone so wrong, fans are looking for signs of hope in the future. The first of them may already be upon us. This weekend was the start of a new era in Baltimore. Center field now belongs to a young, switch-hitter from Greensboro, N.C. We’ll have to wait and see if he makes Baltimore his own in the way the kid from San Diego did.
Andrew Stetka blogs about the Orioles for Eutaw Street Report. Follow him on Twitter: @AStetka. His thoughts on the O’s appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s continuing commitment to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of cyberspace. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.