MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Jacque Jones walked to the plate at Minnesota's new Target Field, humbly amazed by another hearty standing ovation from the crowd.
He waved his helmet back and forth as he circled around the batter's box in gratitude to the fans who could've easily forgotten about an outfielder who was never an All-Star or an overwhelmingly popular player during seven seasons with the Twins.
This warm reception at these otherwise-meaningless exhibition games over the weekend was another reminder to the 34-year-old Jones why it was worth trying to revive his major-league career in the place where it started.
He just liked playing here.
"It's always nice when people appreciate the things you do," Jones said. "By no means am I a Hall of Famer, but people appreciated the way I played the game, the way I went about my business and the way I handled myself when I was here. It was very nice."
Jones was part of a large group of rookies who made their debuts with the Twins in 1999 and formed the core of the 2002 team that won the AL Central title after the franchise was nearly eliminated by Major League Baseball and returned baseball to local relevance.
Jones left Minnesota to sign with the Chicago Cubs and hit .285 with 27 homers and 81 RBIs in 2006, but he never enjoyed the environment there and his power disappeared the next year before he was traded to Detroit. The Tigers let him go barely one month into the 2008 season, and the Florida Marlins gave him three weeks before releasing him on June 12.
Jones joined the Mexican Pacific League and then after failing to make the Cincinnati Reds out of spring training last year spent the summer in the independent Atlantic League.
At that point, his career could've been over.
The Twins were inviting former players to their farewell weekend to the Metrodome, and Jones — initially reluctant, but encouraged by his family — decided to attend. He got to throw out one of the ceremonial first pitches, which brought a big cheer. Then he got swept up in the excitement of Minnesota's rally to win the division in the tie-breaking 163rd game of the season.
"Seeing that game and those guys leaving it all out on that field, I got goose bumps," Jones said.
He realized that he was ready for another chance, so he called manager Ron Gardenhire and asked for one. Jones talked with members of the front office at the winter meetings, too, and eventually he was given a minor-league contract with an invitation to spring training.
Understanding there was no immediate room for him on the roster, Jones told the Twins right away he was willing to report to Triple-A. So that's where he's headed, to the Rochester Red Wings in the International League, after batting .366 in 41 at-bats with three doubles, two homers and six RBIs this spring.
"You've got to earn your way back up here, and when something happens and there's an opening, you can be the guy that they say is swinging the bat great," Gardenhire said. "He's got a track record, and if something happens to one of our outfielders, Jacque he'll get a chance."
Catcher Joe Mauer is one of only a handful of players still around from the 2005 season that was the last one in Minnesota for Jones.
"He can still play at this level and produce," Mauer said. "Anything can happen. I'm sure he'd be one of the first to come up."
Jones said he didn't feel like he had to prove his skills to the Twins, only to himself.
"I was relaxed. I had a great time. My abilities came through again," he said.
As for whether he'll make it back to Target Field to help the Twins during the regular season?
"I'm not thinking 'if,'" Jones said. "I'm thinking 'when.'"