Representing his country was a dream Orioles center fielder Adam Jones had since he was a teenager growing up in San Diego.
Twice while he was in high school, he tried out for his Team USA age-group squad and didn't make it.
But now, the 27-year-old Jones will have his chance, playing for the United States in the third World Baseball Classic, which begins Tuesday.
"I got cut from Team USA tryouts when I was 15 and 16," Jones said. "I just wasn't good enough. They took other players, and that was fuel to me to get better. Even at 16, I realized that you've got to get better. Last one standing."
The lesson Jones learned was simple: Keep working, don't take a day off, and like a saying he often uses on Twitter — stay hungry.
"Now I get to play when it matters," Jones said. "[I'm] excited that I get to wear my country on my chest. No prouder moment as an American."
Jones played his last game before leaving Orioles spring training in Friday's win, 6-5, over the Pittsburgh Pirates in the Grapefruit League before departing for Arizona on Sunday morning to begin training with Team USA, which opens pool play March 8 against Mexico.
For Jones, not making Team USA as a teenager served as motivation that he uses to this day. He has used doubters to drive him to become one of the best young players in the game.
"I've always been the underdog my entire life," Jones said. "I missed a couple Team USAs, and I worked my [butt] off and I wasn't good enough, so it was completely understandable. There were guys who were better than me at the time.
"I've been told I wasn't going to hit myself past [Single-A]," Jones added. "I remember I got to Triple-A at 20, I saw one of the scouts who said something like that, and I said 'Thank you, buddy, you just threw fuel on my fire.' That's all it is. I'm not here to prove nobody wrong. I'm here to prove myself right."
Now Jones is a two-time All-Star, a two-time Gold Glove winner and the face of the Orioles franchise, signed a six-year, $85.5-million contract extension last season that keeps him in Baltimore through 2018.
Jones said the decision to play wasn't a difficult one. But it is still tough leaving Orioles camp.
"[You] get to play for your country," Jones said. "I'm going to miss these guys here, but they understand the opportunity that I have, and I'm pumped to be able to play for Team USA."
This spring, Orioles manager Buck Showalter has given Jones as many at-bats as possible to get him ready for the WBC. In the team's intrasquad scrimmages prior to the start of the Grapefruit League season, Showalter batted Jones leadoff to get him more at-bats.
But Showalter doesn't hide his concern about the WBC. Every manager has the same worry about his key players getting injured.
Two Orioles pitchers — Miguel Gonzalez (Mexico) and Jim Johnson (United States) — declined invitations to participate in the tournament, saying that staying in major-league camp would better help them prepare for the season.
Relief pitcher Pedro Strop (Dominican Republic) and Jones, as well as top position player prospect Jonathan Schoop (Netherlands) are playing in the event. Several Orioles minor leaguers, including catcher Chris Robinson (Canada), catcher Allan de San Miguel (Australia), pitcher Jonatan Isenia (Netherlands), pitcher Rafael Moreno (Brazil) and outfielder Tim Smith (Canada) are also participating.
"You see these players as precious commodities of the Orioles and of the city of Baltimore," Showalter said. "You just hope they return in the same condition they left."
Jones is coming off a season in which he played all 162 games, overcoming injuries to both wrists that nagged him throughout the season.
He went through times when he'd limit his swings, skipping batting practice to stay healthy throughout a season in which 20 of his 32 homers either tied the game (three) or gave the Orioles the lead (17). He also hit three homers in the 12th inning or later, the first player to do in the past 40 years.
"I just trained my legs a little more," Jones said of the offseason preparation for the WBC. "Basically what I did last year. I think the most important thing is to play 162 for Baltimore, but I made sure that I played my legs in order for this WBC because I know the biggest concern is the health risks, the issues. Nobody wants to get hurt doing it because you're not playing for your team, you're playing for your country, but I think I'm in good enough shape to go out there and give it all I've got.
"If I worry about injuries, I'm going to get hurt," Jones said. "Knock on wood."
Showalter said he plans to ease up on Jones once he returns from the WBC — the tournament's championship game is March 19, but the United States only reached the semifinals in the last WBC in 2009 – with the goal to keep Jones fresh for the long grind of the regular season.
Jones believes he will be ready. He's prepared to play another 162 games this season. New York Yankees outfielder Ichiro Suzuki and Detroit Tigers first baseman Prince Fielder were the only other players to play in every game last season.
"I'm going to break Cal's record," Jones said with a smile, referring to former Orioles great Cal Ripken Jr..s consecutive games streak of 2,632 games. "I'm going after Cal. Cal is in my sights. Sixteen more years. But that's my goal. If I show up at the ballpark, I'd rather play than sit. I'd rather play than have a day off. That's just my mentality."
Showalter said he'd like to give Jones more rest in 2013 — given the fact that Jones' health is a huge part of the Orioles' future success — but he can't guarantee that Jones will take those scheduled days off.
"No, he won't play 162," Showalter smirked, "but don't hold me to it. I kept trying to get him out of there last year. [You're asked] about contractual obligations. I got asked a question, 'Can you trust him with this?' It was a short answer. It's fun to watch him turn into the guy he is."
U.S. schedule for the World Baseball Classic
Pool D, Chase Field in Phoenix
March 8: U.S. vs. Mexico, 9 p.m.
March 9: U.S. vs. Italy, 9 p.m.
March 10: U.S. vs. Canada, 4 p.m.
If the U.S. is one of the top two teams in the pool, it will play in the double-elimination second round at Marlins Park in Miami (March 12-16). The semifinals and finals are at AT&T Park in San Francisco (March 17-19). All WBC games will be televised on MLB Network and ESPN Deportes. For the full schedule, visit worldbaseballclassic.com.