Jones' move to play just baseball paying off

February 24th, 2021

Sports are in blood. His late father, Andre, was a national champion linebacker at Notre Dame who went on to play for the Detroit Lions. One of his older brothers, T.J., followed in Andre's footsteps at Notre Dame, then played wide receiver for six seasons for the Lions and New York Giants. Another older brother, Malachi, played Division I football for Appalachian State University, the Canadian Football League and several professional arena leagues. His younger sister, Jayla, is a junior Olympian in equestrian.

"I've definitely had a lot of influence from them from a young age," Jones said Wednesday from Orioles Spring Training in Sarasota, Fla. "I really do think it helped me figure out who I wanted to be as a person, being immersed in a football environment."

One of the lessons Jones ultimately learned was that, despite loving football, baseball was his true path. For this, the Orioles are grateful. The same ability that made Jones a triple-sport athlete growing up were what the O's targeted when they acquired Jones from the Angels for Alex Cobb and significant salary relief in early February, adding a versatile, big-league ready prospect to their immediate infield mix. Jones, who debuted and appeared in three games for the Angels last year, is a converted outfielder the O's are viewing primarily as a second baseman.

"We believe in the athleticism," O's manager Brandon Hyde said. "He has big tools and moves well. … We're going to give him a long look."

A former MLB Pipeline Top 100 prospect, Jones is a different type of blue-chipper than the Orioles had previously targeted during their rebuild. Of the more than one dozen prospects acquired by executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias via trade over the past two calendar years, Jones isn't the highest rated. But he might be the most polished and is certainly the first to arrive at Spring Training with a chance at cracking the Opening Day roster. Even if he begins the year at Triple-A, it's not hard picturing Jones serving as a right-handed complement to Yolmer Sánchez at second base or versatile bench option at some point this season.

For Jones, that's validation enough that the decision he made in high school to quit football and focus on baseball was the correct one. It was not easy or expected at the time. Jones was skilled on the gridiron like his father and brothers, catching 12 touchdowns for Wesleyan High School in Norcross, Ga., as a freshman. But he kept gravitating to the baseball field, especially after Andre's unexpected death of a brain aneurysm at age 42 rocked the Jones family. Jahmai was 14.

"Everybody was expecting me to play football, to do what the family did," Jones said. "If I ever felt stressed, I wanted to do something baseball related. I wanted to go hit. I wanted to go take ground balls. I wanted to just be around the game, so I made the decision to stop playing football in high school. After talking with my family, everybody was on board. People in my community didn't agree with it, they didn't see why I was doing this. And I didn't really care. I didn't need everybody to see what I saw. I didn't need everybody to believe in me, because I knew at the end of the day, this is what I wanted to do. This was where I put all my focus and time and effort into. If they weren't on the metaphorical train, then they're getting left behind.

"I felt like if I played football, I'd constantly be compared to my brothers. My identity would be lost in the mix. I wanted to make my own identity in this world."

Recognition came rather quickly. Jones blossomed into a second-round pick out of Wesleyan in 2015, forgoing a scholarship to the University of North Carolina to sign with the Angels for $1.1 million. He showed well early before turning heads with a breakout season in '17, earning Jones the Angels' Minor League Player of the Year honors. His numbers dropped with a full-time switch to second base and a promotion to Double-A in '18, but he played extremely well in the Arizona Fall League in both '18 and '19, against arguably the top competition in the Minor Leagues.

That stood out more to the Orioles than Jones' inconsistency at Double-A, as did his plus makeup and athletic roots. Now, Jones' siblings say he was always going to choose baseball, that it was a matter of "when" and not "if." The same could be said for when he will impact the Orioles.

"I had all their support, and that was really all I needed," Jones said. "Ultimately, I made the decision and thankfully I'm here, so I think it paid off just a little bit so far."