WBC hero Jones sets sights on Olympics

March 25th, 2021

This season, Japan’s professional baseball schedule includes a lengthy break for the Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

, who is starting his second season with the Orix Buffaloes of Nippon Professional Baseball, isn’t planning a vacation.

He wants to play for Team USA.

Jones, a hero when the U.S. won gold medals at the 2017 World Baseball Classic, told MLB.com this week that he’s eager to represent his country again.

“One hundred percent,” the five-time MLB All-Star said in an interview from Japan. “I’m fully committed to it. Knock on wood, if I’m healthy, [Orix] has already allowed me [to play]. Everything is based on health. ... I would be honored to wear Team USA colors again.

“The WBC was flat-out amazing, but the Olympics is the Olympics. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime, completely different, emotional thing. Like millions of other people, I’ve watched it on TV. Who wouldn’t want to be part of it? Getting to go see men’s basketball, all these different [sports]. Being around people from all the countries, [who] have worked their tails off the last four years -- to see that up close would be a special moment.”

Jones, 35, could become the first player -- from any country -- to win gold medals at the Olympics and World Baseball Classic. He debuted for the U.S. at the ’13 Classic before authoring the signature moment in ’17, a game-saving catch in his hometown of San Diego against Dominican Republic star (and then-Orioles teammate) Manny Machado.

For Jones to wear the Team USA jersey when the Olympics open in four months, he’ll need a productive first half with Orix.  

And the U.S. must qualify for the six-team Olympic tournament -- which hasn’t happened yet.  

At present, two bids remain unclaimed. Team USA will compete for one at an early June qualifying tournament in Florida that includes Canada, Colombia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico and Venezuela. The final Olympic berth will be awarded through a June 16-20 qualifier in Taichung, Taiwan, in which the second- and third-place finishers from the Florida tournament will compete. 

Team USA’s roster could have multiple iterations as the year evolves: one for the Florida qualifier, one for the Taichung qualifier (if necessary) and one for the Olympics. In the past, MLB organizations have granted permission for Minor Leaguers to compete in the Olympics; it’s unclear how those requests will be handled this year, due to international travel protocols amid COVID-19. 

Accordingly, free agents and Americans playing in Japan and Korea -- where the KBO League also takes an Olympic break -- could have logistical advantages for the final Olympic roster.  

“I hope that Team USA is able to stack the talent,” Jones said. “You see Ian Kinsler is going to play for Team Israel. I don’t know about [Ryan] Braun’s situation, [possibly] playing for Israel. That’s been brought up in some conversations. 

“There’s still a lot of guys that can play for Team USA [who would] maintain themselves in shape and probably play in the qualifier. I’ve spoken with Edwin Jackson about it. I’ve spoken with Brandon Phillips about it. I’ve spoken with [Nick] Markakis about it. Those [are] three guys with great track records in the Major Leagues and still are in terrific shape.”

Jones has great appeal to Team USA’s management group, on and off the field: He’s a four-time Gold Glove-winning outfielder with big-game experience. He also has current scouting knowledge of Team Japan, which he said is “looking like the favorite” based on the talent in NPB and the host nation’s ability to select nearly all of the country’s top players.  

Jones has built equity with USA Baseball, after eagerly accepting spots on the ’13 and ’17 Classic teams. His enthusiasm to play for the national team is similar to what he’s observed among his Japanese peers since joining Orix last year.

When Jones was invited to play in the 2013 Classic, he remembered hearing that roughly half of those invited to play for Team USA ultimately declined the opportunity.  

“I don’t understand that,” he said. “Like me, there’s no chance I’m declining. Here, it’s so much more pride. If they don’t make the team, they might cry. They want to be on that team.  

“When we won it in ’17, you had a lot of people watching it. You had a lot of people tweeting, ‘Oh, next time I’ll do it.’ You’re like, ‘Why didn’t you do it this time?’ This is the opportunity of a lifetime. I just hope that, especially for the next WBC team, the guys they ask, I hope they want to represent their country.”  

Because the MLB schedule hasn’t permitted the league’s current stars to play in the Olympics, participation is a matter of timing: Players must be prominent enough to capture the attention of USA Baseball officials, without being so vital to their MLB organizations that they’re in the Majors as the roster is picked. 

When Team USA captured bronze at the last Olympic tournament in 2008, the U.S. roster included then-Minor Leaguers Brett Anderson, Jake Arrieta, Trevor Cahill and Dexter Fowler, as well as Stephen Strasburg, the No. 1 overall MLB Draft pick one year later.  

Jones was 22 when the Beijing Games began and already an everyday player with the Orioles. Thus, his role for those Olympics was the same one he’s had since childhood: fan of the athletes and supporter of Team USA.  

Olympic baseball may not be on the minds of most U.S. fans, four months before the first pitch in Fukushima. That’s not the case in Japan, where the roster of Samurai Japan is debated with a fervor Americans might recall from the 1992 Dream Team.

“For the Japanese, they are prideful,” Jones said. “They really, really want to win, especially on their soil. When they lost [to Team USA in the 2017 Classic semifinal], they still talk about that. It’s still a sour taste in their mouth, that they lost. They still feel, ‘We should have won it.’”  

Jones stopped and smiled.  

“They didn’t,” he continued. “We were victorious.” 

Jones doesn’t plan to stop playing anytime soon. He’s loved his time in Japan, on and off the field. He speaks glowingly and appreciatively of the experiences his wife, Audie, and their two sons, August and Axel, have enjoyed. Jones’ contract includes an option for 2022, and he wants to return to the Buffaloes next year.

“It’s great,” Jones said. “We all live in apartments. It doesn’t matter who you are, you live in an apartment, especially the people at school and the Americans who are here ... 

“Just like when we were kids, they use the phone and call apartments. They go and very respectfully ask if they can go over to their friends’ [places] and vice versa. When it comes to school, they are thoroughly enjoying it. It’s taught in English and they’re picking up on Japanese a lot. 

“The school they go to has 40 different representations of nations. They’re talking to kids from Brazil or from South Africa or from Sweden, obviously Japan, some Chinese, some Koreans. All over the world. For them to have that at such a young age is priceless.”

Jones’ experience in Japan has made him reflect on what he wants from his post-playing career. After taking “a couple summers off” to travel whenever he retires as a player, he’s interested in working for an MLB front office and giving back to the game, especially at the youth level. He said he’s open to pursuing a career in broadcasting and media.  

And he reiterated that he wants to manage -- a desire that he’s mentioned often over the years.  

“I know I can influence the game in some facet,” he said. “I’m not saying I’m going to be a Dusty Baker or Frank Robinson. But I know I can give back.  

“I know a lot of kids look up to me for advice. It’s great that social media is that avenue. A lot of kids in the pros and college ranks reach out to me ... To be that big brother is pretty cool, like how CC Sabathia is for everybody. It doesn’t matter what questions you have, he’s been there ...

“One big thing is, for some odd reason, I do want to manage. I don’t know why, but I do want to manage.”  

Four years after winning World Baseball Classic gold, Jones finally is getting around to one important item: He’s asked an artist to paint a mural for his home, depicting his catch on Machado’s deep drive in San Diego.  

“It’s an iconic picture, an iconic moment,” he said. “When you freeze-frame everything, you have Team USA across my chest, the WBC logo, in San Diego. Everything was just ... just ...”  

He found the right word.  


The artwork should be done in August. The Olympic gold medal game is set for Aug. 7 in Yokohama. If the summer unfolds as Jones and Team USA hope, there may be a new muse by then.

More names to watch

Japan, Israel, South Korea, and Mexico have claimed four of the six bids to the Olympic baseball tournament. Here are some other players we could see on rosters.

Masahiro Tanaka, RHP, Japan: Tanaka’s 3.74 ERA is the best of any Yankees starter to throw 1,000 or more innings in the Wild Card Era -- better than Sabathia, Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte or Roger Clemens. Now he’s back with his original club, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, and at age 32 can look forward to an extended second act in Japan. Tanaka pitched for the 2008 Olympic team that lost to the U.S. in the bronze medal game, but he won World Baseball Classic gold one year later. 

Kodai Senga, RHP, Japan: One of the most sought-after pitchers in Japan, Senga remains unavailable to MLB clubs because the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks have refused to make him available via the posting system. Senga, 28, is coming off a 2020 season in which he won the pitching Triple Crown -- wins, ERA, strikeouts- in the Japanese Pacific League. 

Seiya Suzuki, OF, Japan: Adam Jones has predicted that Suzuki, 26, will play in MLB within the next several years -- and make a big impact when he does. Suzuki already has excelled on the international stage, earning MVP honors as Japan won gold at the 2019 WBSC Premier12. 

Ian Kinsler, 2B, Israel: Kinsler became an Israeli citizen in January 2020, shortly after retiring as a Major League player, and will increase his baseball activities in the months ahead to prepare for his first game action since 2019. Kinsler won gold with Team USA at the ’17 Classic, but was allowed to change his national team designation under international baseball rules. 

Ryan Lavarnway, C, Israel: The former Yale star has played at the Major League level in nine of the past 10 seasons, including five games with the Marlins last year. He’s played with the Cleveland Indians this spring as a non-roster invitee, having reunited with Terry Francona, his first manager in the Majors. Lavarnway, 33, has been a mainstay for Team Israel since the qualifying tournament for the ’17 Classic. 

Shin-Soo Choo, OF, South Korea: The former MLB All-Star returned to his native Korea on a contract with the KBO’s SSG Landers, after appearing in the last 16 Major League seasons, including the past seven with the Texas Rangers. Choo was included on Korea’s 154-player “pre-registration list,” with the final selection due in June.

Efrén Navarro, 1B, Mexico: Navarro was the walk-off hero in Mexico’s win over Team USA at the 2019 WBSC Premier12 to earn the Olympic bid. He earned a Gold Glove while helping Culiacán to the 2020–21 Mexican Pacific League title. The 34-year-old California native has Major League experience with the Angels, Tigers, and Cubs.