More Than Meets the EyeBrett Jackson Seems to Have Everything Going for Him. Crises of Confidence Almost Took it All Away.
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
Category: Sports > Spring > Baseball
If Apollo was a baseball player, he'd be Brett Jackson.
Jackson is the type who grabs your attention wherever he is on the field. In the batter's box, he starts every at-bat by pawing at the ground like a thoroughbred in the starting gate. In the outfield, you can't miss his sturdy 6-foot-2 frame as he stalks fly balls looking like a prototype from the factory of all-American good looks.
Scouts talk about the "eye test," a measure of whether a player simply looks like a ballplayer or not.
Jackson sure as hell passes that exam.
The junior center fielder has turned heads everywhere he's gone-from high school to Berkeley to the East Coast, where he was named the eighth-best prospect in the Cape Cod League last summer. Most mock drafts are projecting him to go in the first round in this June's MLB Amateur Draft, and when you see him-practically bursting with the self-assurance of a motivational speaker-you don't wonder why.
And for those reasons, you also don't wonder why Jackson laughs after being asked if anything in his life has ever been a struggle.
"Shoot," he says. He looks like he's racking his brain for anything. A lost puppy, a dropped ice cream cone on a hot summer day, a lucky shirt that disintegrated in the washing machine.
The longer the pause lasts, the more you're expecting him to say, "Well, no, I guess my life's never been that hard."
Your first mistake was thinking that you knew what to expect from Brett Jackson.
When Jackson arrived at Cal three years ago, his teammates called him "the golden beacon of hope."
Everyone thought they knew what he was capable of: headlining a program that hadn't been to the postseason since 2001, batting leadoff and anchoring the outfield with his cannon arm, being the guy. Expectations were high, and the reasons were obvious.
As a junior at Miramonte High in Orinda-a cozy town about 10 miles from Berkeley-he batted .385 with 34 RBI and earned first-team all-conference honors.
When he got to Cal, he was named the starting center fielder and leadoff hitter in the Bears' first game of the season to the apparent expectation of ... everyone.
But then the beacon started to flicker.
Jackson went 2-for-15 to start his collegiate career. He floundered at the plate and, by the end of the first month of the season, he'd fallen out of the lineup altogether. Facing a crisis of confidence, he did what almost anyone in his situation would do: He started to lose confidence in himself.
"I was this guy that (coach David) Esquer had a lot of faith in," Jackson says. "And I was just a freshman, and I struggled early. It was hard. All these guys I really respected and really looked up to had a vision of who I was. I felt like I was letting them down."
He talks almost in passing about the haunting insecurities that followed him to Cal. Makes a few jokes. Growing up, he was short. He had big ears. He wasn't comfortable in his own skin. All things that are hard to believe coming from the man he is today. But the jokes belie something deeper that can only be seen clouding Jackson's blue eyes for a moment.
"Baseball and sports were all I really had," he says. "Put me on the field, and I was over-competitive. Sometimes the worst came out of me."
Personal problems heightened his struggles. Jackson was a self-admitted "misfit" on the team, out of place in the group that he spent nearly all of his waking hours with. He was lost at the ballpark and lonely away from it.
This was the moment when Jackson could have easily faded away. So much promise might have disappeared as if he'd never even stepped onto Evans Diamond. Another name in the long list of should-have-beens, athletes in all sports from all places that every day slip from our consciousness to join the nameless rabble.
But Jackson wasn't ready to give up. He rededicated himself to his approach at the plate, adding 10 a.m. batting practice with hitting coach Jon Zuber to his morning routine. By the end of his freshman year, he was batting just .235 but he'd clawed his way back into the starting lineup.
Surviving wasn't enough, though. Jackson spent his sophomore year focused completely on baseball. It was a "work year" spent laboring in the cages and in the weight room. And when the season opened, everyone saw the athlete who today is one of the top players in the Pac-10.
He hit .307, drove in 40 and stole 12 bases, and for the first time in his collegiate career he was an uncontested mainstay. It's a spot Jackson hasn't had to relinquish, and now it feels like he's always been there, a leader at the top of the lineup and in the depths of the outfield.
The fact that he wasn't -- and that he could have easily never been -- is the part that people don't know.
Down Camino Pablo there's a little league field tucked in between the curving, tree-lined hills and upper-middle class housing of Orinda. The grass is neat, kept trimmed close to the ground but still lush enough to give generously underfoot, and the infield dirt is the sandy brown stuff of playgrounds everywhere.
Ten years ago, Jackson was pitching off its maybe-six-inch-high mound, tears of frustration welling up as he walked the bases loaded during a playoff game.
"I threw harder than anyone else in the league, but I had no idea where it was going," Jackson admits.
The third walk brought out his coach-who also happened to be his father-a man that Jackson refers to as both his best friend and the biggest badass he's ever known. Instead of opting for the usual pat on the back that most kids would receive, his father treated Brett the way that any competitor bent on winning would.
"What are you doing?" he said. "Throw strikes!"
"You don't think I'm trying?" Jackson shot back.
As the shouting match intensified on the mound, the umpire stepped in and ejected Jackson's dad. Crying and furious, Jackson collected himself and did what no one expected him to do: He struck out the next batter.
Jackson laughs as he remembers that day and quickly adds that his mother probably won't like that he told that particular story. He leans back in his folding chair, planting his cleats in the auburn dirt. His toes in the earth are the only thing grounding him here-part of him is still in a little league field in Orinda, another part is somewhere far away in the recesses of his memories.
He looks down at his hands and rubs the calluses there. Millions of gloved fly balls, thousands of plate appearances, hundreds of hours in the batting cages. The years of discontentment that drove him on are worn on the hard skin of his palms.
You can see it all flashing through Jackson's mind as he formulates his next thought.
"I said to my dad a couple days ago," he starts, "'Dad, I'm happy with who I am for the first time in my life.'"
The impact of the statement is almost lost in the nonchalance with which Jackson says it. You're expecting him to say more, but he doesn't see the need to dwell on it. Coming to this place of contentment -- a folding chair along the first base line of Evans Diamond -- is just another stop on the road for Jackson.
The setting sun catches the smile beginning to form on Jackson's face as he remembers something else.
"We play a game on the bus," he says. "You get one word to describe the person next to you … Mike Bugary is famous for calling me stubborn."
It's a description Jackson's clearly proud of, and it explains a lot.
There were times when fear and insecurity threatened to conquer him, but the stubborn determination to fight was always stronger. From striking out the next batter after walking the bases loaded as a 10-year-old to rebounding from a heartbreaking freshman year, it was his stubbornness that kept him afloat.
The fans that have come and gone at Evans Diamond over the past three seasons have seen his lowest moments without even knowing it. They've seen him change his life in the span of a year. He's stood there and succeeded when he was afraid he couldn't, in front of an oblivious crowd that never expected him to fail in the first place.
Luckily, failing is the one thing Jackson's always been too stubborn to do.
Contact Katie Dowd at email@example.com.
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