Brian Krehmeyer first began to notice the eighth-grader on days that the kid would sit in the stands at Wesleyan School in Norcross, Ga., watching baseball practice and greeting the coaches. Always eager to strike up a conversation, always smiling.
Krehmeyer had been an assistant for six years and became head coach in 2012. One of his freshman players that first season in charge was Jahmai Jones.
The talkative kid who later would be drafted by the Angels in the second round and traded to the Orioles earlier this week for veteran pitcher Alex Cobb.
Personality seems to get Jones noticed as much as performance, a bold observation considering how Baseball America ranks him as the Orioles’ No. 16 prospect and MLBPipeline.com has him 19th - 12 spots lower than where he sat with the Angels.
“One thing you’ll notice about him is he’s very comfortable in conversation with adults, with strangers, talking to children,” Krehmeyer said earlier this week. “He’s a very social person. Great conversationalist. Truly shows an interest in who you are and what’s important to you. So that’s what endears him to a lot of people is just he’s so genuine.”
And destined to play professional sports. It’s in his blood.
Jones’ father, Andre, was a linebacker on Notre Dame’s 1988 National Championship team and a seventh-round pick of the Detroit Lions. Brother T.J. was a wide receiver for the Lions and New York Giants. Brother Malachi is a receiver for the Canadian Football League’s Montreal Alouettes.
Jahmai gave up football after two years of high school - he was a slot receiver, of course - to concentrate on his baseball career. He made the Wesleyan team as a freshman, along with Carter Hall, whose father Danny has been the head coach at Georgia Tech since 1994.
“They immediately made an impression on the players,” Krehmeyer said, “and very soon after the season began both of them were in the starting lineup and never relinquished that role.”
Jones was a middle infielder who moved to center field “because of his athleticism, his strong arm,” Krehmeyer said. And he inhabited the top spot in the order.
“We liked to hit him leadoff because of his potential to get on base, to steal bases. He is our school stolen base record-holder. But he also hit for power,” Krehmeyer said.
“You see this now more and more in the major leagues, guys like George Springer, who can hit leadoff. You want to start the game with a bang. No longer is the leadoff man just kind of a Punch and Judy guy and then would steal bases. Teams are looking for offensive production one through nine, and the guy who gets the most at-bats in a season is always going to be your leadoff man. So we batted Jahmai in the leadoff spot and he always gave us that leadoff spark that we needed to start the game off right.
“And of course, we were always excited when the lineup would turn over because that meant he would have another at-bat.”
Jones was the 70th overall pick in the draft. The Angels gave him $1.1 million to keep him from fulfilling his commitment to the University of North Carolina.
“I think we knew that he was a special baseball player,” Krehmeyer said. “He definitely possessed the makeup to be a professional athlete. He dealt with adversity very, very well. He’s resilient, always had a positive outlook on his performance, and so I think he knew in his heart he had the potential. But a lot of kids dream about playing major league baseball. Very few have that opportunity to do so.
“As he was getting older, as we were going into his junior and senior season, I think that reality was becoming a little bit more evident, and in communication with his summer ball and travel coaches we kind of put together a plan that would provide him with the best chances. Did I know that he was going to be drafted where he was? Probably not, because you’re thinking there’s every college senior, there’s every college junior, there’s every junior college player, there’s every high school senior that’s eligible for the draft. Is my guy really one of the top 100 players in the country that a major league team would want to take a chance on? Not to mention the international players. That’s a lot of baseball players out there and I just don’t get out enough to see, what does California have, what does Florida have, what does Texas have?
“So it was an honor for him, it was an honor for me and the school to have Jahmai drafted where he was.”
The Angels chose Jones as their Minor League Player of the Year in 2017 after he batted .282/.348/.446 with 29 doubles, seven triples, 14 home runs, 47 RBIs, 86 runs scored and 27 stolen bases in a combined 127 games between Single-A Burlington and Inland Empire.
There was slippage in 2018, with Jones slashing a combined .239/.337/.380 in 123 games between Inland Empire and Double-A Mobile. He stayed with Mobile the following summer and batted .234/.308/.324 in 544 plate appearances, but made his major league debut last September and was 3-for-7 with an RBI and two runs scored.
Handling the difficult times in a calm and confident manner again would benefit him.
“That was a pretty stressful year his senior year when he was being scouted,” Krehmeyer said. “We were playing back-to-back nights against two of our rivals and a lot of scouts came out to the first night and he quite frankly had a pretty poor night. Struck out a couple times and really looked bad. But being the future professional that it was, he didn’t let himself get down. He would hustle out to his position, hustle in, kept his positive attitude.
“The next night we went over to our other rival and he hit two home runs. Long home runs. And so the message to the scouts, or at least what they took from it from what they told me the next day, was, ‘That’s exactly the type of ballplayer that we wanted to see, how you deal with adversity.’ Because in the big leagues you’re going to have off nights, you’re going to miss the ball, but are you going to bounce back the next night and be able to produce? And he showed that early on that with baseball being such a game of adversity, with baseball being such a game of ups and downs, it’s more how you bounce back.
“They talk about in wrestling or boxing or MMA or football, can you get up off the mat and keep fighting? And he certainly showed that his senior year.”
Nothing was harder for Jones than losing his father, who died unexpectedly in 2011 of a brain aneurysm. Andre was only 42. Jahmai was about to enter his freshman year.
The family remained together, kept its impenetrable bond, but missed its strongest pillar.
“We didn’t really get into that. He was still at such a young age and he had a support group around him. We really haven’t had that conversation,” Krehmeyer said.
“It is part of his story, it is part of his makeup. But his mother (Michele) has been ever-present and supportive. She coaches him still. What’s funny about it is she’s about 5-foot-1 and she jumps right in there and tells him, ‘Jahmai, you’re dropping your hands. Jahmai, you’re pulling your shoulder out.’
“His mother held it all together and kept these boys on the straight and narrow. You’re going to fall in love with them the first time that you have an interaction with them. He’s that type of a kid.”
Conversations about Jones inevitably are steered back to his character. To how enjoyable it is to be around him. The intangibles that can’t be recorded with a stopwatch or tracked and calculated with a high-speed camera or other electronic device.
What’s inside the person.
“When you’re talking about Jahmai, he’s just such a character. Not one that’s going to be cutting up, making fun and pulling pranks, but he just loves to be where the action is. He’s always supportive of his teammates,” Krehmeyer said.
“There’s humility that Jahmai shows. Here he is, a major leaguer, and he still comes back to school to counsel and coach the current players, he volunteers in the concession stand for football games in the fall and basketball games in the winter, because his sisters were still going to school here and his mother helped out around the athletic facility. He didn’t need to do that, but he did because he loves this place, he loves meeting people, he’s eternally grateful for the people in his life and the contributions that they made. He was naturally destined for this future anyway, but he loves giving credit to the people around him for the person that he is.”
Jones sticks around the program until forced to leave for spring training. Krehmeyer tried to give him an out as the trade rumors grew hotter.
“He’s a tremendous asset for us because we currently have players who have aspirations of being drafted, of playing college baseball, and here Jahmai is not too far removed from where they are in life and he’s already arrived at those levels. So he’s able to impart incredible wisdom and life experience to my current players,” Krehmeyer said.
“The other day when news broke, I texted him and said, ‘Hey, if you need to take a day off from coming to practice, you may have some matters you need to take care of.’ And he responded back, ‘Haha, no, I’ll be there.’ So we did have a chance to talk for a few hours after he found out and he said, ‘You know what? I’m excited. It’s a great opportunity. The Orioles are a team that expressed an interest in me, that wants me.’ And his words were, ‘I knew when I was playing, I wasn’t just playing for the Angels, I was playing for all 30 teams in Major League Baseball.’ So that’s a very mature attitude for a 23-year-old to have, and that’s why I say his makeup as a professional athlete is far superior to what his age is. He understands the role of a professional, that it’s a business, that you perform and you’re going to hang onto your position, and you don’t perform and the team’s got to move on.
“He’s looking forward to the experience in Baltimore. I think he’s happy to be on the East Coast where his home is, his family is, where his girlfriend is located. Certainly all of his friends here at Wesleyan are going to be able to at least have greater access to him than if he were on the West Coast.”
The conversation reinforced Krehmeyer’s belief that Jones is able to process having an organization basically give up on him, while another covets the tools that can get him on the active roster, whether in a utility role or perhaps as the eventual starter at second base.
“I know he’s hungry. He wants to break camp with the big league club, he wants to be in contention for a starting position,” Krehmeyer said.
“Going back to the question of, is this a good thing or is this a bad thing for Jahmai being shipped out by the Angels? Well, he responded that when he had his initial phone call with the Angels, they said, ‘Hey, we want you to hear it from us first. There’s a good chance by the end of the day that you’re going to be traded, but the good news is that the team we’re going to trade you to specifically asked for you and nobody else. So that’s a sign that they want you, that you’ve been on their radar. And unfortunately this is a business and we’ve got to strengthen our rotation, so we need to go get a pitcher and you’re the price we had to pay for that.’
“So the change in scenery would be good. The bad news is, the Orioles aren’t the team that drafted him, so there’s no personal attachment to wanting to see one of your draft picks turn out. However, the Orioles brass wants to show the fan base a return for letting Alex Cobb go. They can’t just say, ‘Well, we gave him away for nothing.’ So you’d like to think that the brass is going to want to give Jahmai every opportunity so they can show the fan base, ‘This is what we got in return.’”
Note: The Orioles won their arbitration hearing with Anthony Santander, who will receive $2.1 million instead of $2.475 million. Santander would have made $572,500 in a full 2020 season.