ST. PETERSBURG — At only 6 years old, Greg Jones pulled a Devil Rays jersey over his head to gear up for his first organized baseball game. The No. 22 stretched across his back.
Greg Jones Sr., his dad, remembers that introductory season well.
“It’s like a dream come true if you think about it,” the elder Jones said Tuesday. “He wore 22 back at home, playing for the Devil Rays team out of west Raleigh.”
Fifteen years later, the Tampa Bay Rays drafted the younger Jones with the No. 22 overall pick in the 2019 Major League Baseball draft.
Jones did not cheer for a favorite team growing up in North Carolina, preferring instead to follow individual players like José Reyes and Derek Jeter, but the shortstop always owned a special connection to the professional franchise in Tampa Bay.
The Jones family visited relatives in Florida in 2004, and Jones Sr. took his son to Tropicana Field for his first taste of Major League Baseball. The Devil Rays hosted the Yankees, and the pair of Joneses joined a sellout crowd.
Jones and his dad returned to Tampa Bay on Tuesday, this time with his mom and sister along for the ride. He signed his first professional contract, met the team and started to get a feel for his potential home stadium.
“It feels a little bit more my size now,” Jones said. “It looked a lot bigger back then, so I just can’t wait to be playing in a place like this.”
Tampa Bay signed the speedy shortstop to a $3,027,000 signing bonus, the full slot-value for the 22nd overall pick. Rob Metzler, the director of amateur scouting for the Rays, said that it is an honor to welcome Jones and his family to the Trop.
“These families go through this together, so to be able to celebrate a great accomplishment with the family is awesome,” Metzler said.
Metzler said that Jones’ play with UNC-Wilmington and the Chatham Anglers of the Cape Cod Baseball League played a role in the draft process. The Rays followed Jones across multiple levels of competition and saw him grow as an athlete.
“We have somebody who we think has the ingredients, not just physically, but mentally, character, all the things that we’re looking for,” Metzler said.
Jones will join the short-season Hudson Valley Renegades later this week. He will continue to play shortstop in his first professional season.
The grind of a professional baseball career includes long stretches away from home and near-constant uncertainty. Organizations can move a prospect to a new city at any moment, and players are under constant pressure to succeed at each level. Jones said it takes a strong work ethic to make it to the show, but he is familiar with betting on himself.
After Jones graduated from Cary High School, the Orioles selected him in the 17th round of the 2017 draft. Instead of signing with Baltimore, Jones opted to go to college to refine his skills and continue to play at a high level. The elder Jones, decked out in a UNC-Wilmington shirt and cap, said that the school and its baseball program did wonders for his son’s development.
“That was the best thing we could have done for him,” the elder Jones said. “He wasn’t ready coming out of high school. He had to get a little bigger, a little stronger. (UNC-Wilmington) did a fantastic job with him.”
His mom, Tammy, had similarly kind words for Jones’ college experience. She said that school gave Jones an opportunity to mature away from home.
“When he got drafted out of high school, he decided he would go to school for a few years,” she said. “It helped him grow up to be the person that he is.”
Jones, repping his new club with a navy-blue Tampa Bay cap, gave thanks to his parents for helping him get this far.
“It means a lot to be here with my family,” Jones said. “It shows all the time, effort and money they put into the game actually paid off."