Adam Jones already was an American icon because of his catch in last year’s World Baseball Classic that robbed Manny Machado of a home run and was the signature moment of Team USA’s first tournament championship. The center fielder also has been an important voice on multiple occasions with the Baltimore Orioles, from dealing with racists at Fenway Park in Boston, to sharing honesty, emotion, and perspective as his adopted hometown went through turmoil three years ago after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody.
At the end of this season, Jones will wrap up his six-year, $85.5 million contract with the Orioles, and it is highly unlikely that a rebuilding team will want to re-sign a 33-year-old whose skills have been plainly in decline since his last All-Star appearance in 2015, last spring’s performance notwithstanding. Jones is on pace for his lowest OPS since his first year with the Orioles, back in 2008, and will be a double-digit negative in defensive runs saved for the third straight season, a far cry from what he once was as a four-time Gold Glove winner.
Jones does still have value as a player, and the Philadelphia Phillies hoped that playing in a pennant race might rejuvenate a veteran player who has slogged through the summer with one of baseball’s most hopeless teams, so they tried to acquire him before Tuesday’s non-waiver trading deadline. Jones, however, said no.
Major league players with at least 10 years of service time, including five with the same team, have the right to veto any trade. It’s part of the collective bargaining agreement and has been since 1973, when the “Curt Flood Rule” went into effect. Flood had sat out the entire 1970 season rather than report to the Phillies after the St. Louis Cardinals traded him, and though he lost his court challenges, Flood’s courage paved the way for both the 10-and-5 rule and the advent of free agency.
When Jones talked about his decision not to leave Baltimore, he was well aware of all of this, even if he did not invoke Flood by name.
“When players walked out years ago and walked the picket lines and did that stuff, they did all that for reasons like right now,” Jones said, as quoted by Roch Kubatko of MASN. “I earned this and it’s my decision. I don’t have to explain it to nobody. It’s my decision. … I’m not going around telling other people and dictating other people’s lives. Why do they do that with us? No one’s going to tell me what to do. I earned every single bit of it. People before me fought vigorously to get rights like this.”
Jones is absolutely and unequivocally right. It’s easy to question why anyone would want to play for the Orioles instead of the Phillies in 2018, but Jones does not owe an explanation to anyone. He has the right to decide, he exercised it, and importantly, he provided a reminder of the value of organized labor to empower him to do it.
In doing so, Jones provided a blueprint for athletes across sports when it comes to talking about such things. Today’s ballplayers, Jones included, are extremely well-compensated workers, but they still are workers, and workers need to be cognizant of their rights and how they can be used. Football players who skip voluntary team workouts in the offseason can point to the same thing, but an even stronger use of the past to frame the present lies in the public way that unions and management do their collective bargaining.
Most of the time now, when there are labor disputes, the public criticizes players who are seen as lucky enough to be millionaires who get to play games for a living – conveniently forgetting that their bosses are billionaires who benefit from publicly-funded stadiums and copious tax breaks to operate their sports franchises. There is great power in reminding people that players in the past fought for the rights that they have, that the fight never ends, that rights are acquired to be exercised, and that labor across the salary spectrum has things in common.
Jones might only have two months left in Baltimore, but they are months that he has chosen to spend there, and his reminder to everyone of why he can make that choice can be a key moment for the labor movement going forward.