OAKLAND — As Oakland Athletics catcher Bruce Maxwell walked up to his locker before Sunday’s series finale against the Baltimore Orioles, he found a black Orioles jersey hanging on his chair. Inscribed in black ink inside the orange numerals on the back: “Never be afraid to be yourself, Adam Jones”.
Maxwell met the Orioles outfielder four years ago, when one of Maxwell’s mentors — former A’s outfielder Coco Crisp — gave him Jones’s number during spring training. Since then, the two have talked frequently, both in-season and out.
“I’ve known Jones now for four years,” Maxwell said. “He’s been a great mentor to me. He’s been a big brother to me. He took me under his wing.”
Originally, Maxwell wanted to pick Jones’s brain about hitting, but the relationship has developed into something far deeper. The two have talked about life, and about the shared role they play as representatives of the African-American community.
“I idolize the hitter he is, the player he is, and the person that he is,” Maxwell said. “He keeps close tab on me, man. He calls me his Little Homie — basically like I’m his little brother — so it’s always fun playing against him, it’s always a pleasure seeing him, and I love the relationship that we’ve developed.”
Being African-American Major Leaguers, the two are among a fraternity that dwindled to just 62 on Opening Day rosters in 2017 — just 7.1% of the league’s roster spots — the lowest percentage since 1958. That number increased by six this year.
“My role, as I’ve gotten older, has transitioned to sort of a mentor-ish role,” Jones said. “Sometimes, you just need someone else in your world, who understands your life, kind of. Sometimes, it’s good to have somebody who’s been around a little bit longer to rub shoulders with, and throw ideas against. I told him I’m an open book.”
As the Athletics’ Marvel Superhero Day on Saturday celebrated the success of “Black Panther” with a bobblehead of King T’Challa, and a costumed actor delivering a first pitch, Maxwell and Jones stood behind home plate and chatted with Oakland-born director Ryan Coogler’s brother.
“He was excited to have the night, and he was just taking it all in,” Maxwell said. “It was a good time. It was good to talk to that guy one-on-one.”
The far-off, hidden futuristic nation of Wakanda and its monarch T’Challa (the titular Black Panther) — created in 1966 — are intricately linked with the city of Oakland. The opening scene of that film is set in the city in the early-1990s, and the Black Panther Party arose in the city just after the character was introduced.
“To see that being so successful, and the storyline of that movie — I’ve seen it a couple times myself — and the actors from here, it’s huge, and I think it’s a huge movement forward in our society,” Maxwell said.
The night celebrated the first major comic book-based motion picture to feature a Black main character — the New Line Cinema-distributed “Blade” trilogy (1998) came before the current spate of Marvel films — which has made over $1 billion at the box office.
“It was awesome,” Maxwell said. “I was excited to play. I’m excited every day, but [Saturday] even more. The Black Panther symbolizes the unity of the Black culture, when it comes to the movie, but also when it comes to life.”
The Afro-futurism and African self-determination displayed in the film contrasted starkly with the so-called Black pain narratives explored in most mainstream films, and resonated with audiences across the racial spectrum. Notably, it starred Chadwick Boseman, who also played Jackie Robinson in “42”, released in 2013.
“There’s not many superhero movies that follow that trait, for lack of a better word,” Maxwell said.
The film — and the friendship with Jones — are particularly prescient for Maxwell, given the attention he drew at the end of last season.
The Oakland catcher’s decision to kneel during the National Anthem last year in solidarity with Black Lives Matter was a national story late in the season, but it wasn’t a surprise to Jones.
“It fit the guy I knew,” Jones said.
After Maxwell first kneeled, Jones was one of the first to reach out. His initial message was just one word: “Respect.”
“We talked about a lot of things last year,” Maxwell said. “He checked in on me. I had quite a few guys check on me for that, so he just reached out, told me he was proud of me, and to stay strong, stay motivated and everything.”