Conor Jackson Acting Like a Big Leaguer

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For a theater major, Conor Jackson hasn't exactly had a flair for the dramatic this year. He has yet to punctuate a victory this season with a walk-off homer or a diving stab at third base.

In fact, Jackson's most developed skill set may seem to border on the mundane in this day and age of tape-measure home runs. He is quite simply one of the best players in the country at getting from the batter's box to first base without making an out.

Entering today's 3 p.m. game with UC Davis at Evans Diamond, Jackson has accomplished that feat over 55 percent of the time, tops in the Pac-10.

Fortunately for Jackson, the ability to get on base has recently become valued with the most relevant demographic to his future career. General managers like Billy Beane, J.P. Ricciardi, and Theo Epstein lead the young guard of professional baseball executives who have built successful teams worshipping almost exclusively at the altar of the on-base percentage. It is this trend that will make Jackson a very coveted commodity come the June draft.

"I have my best opportunity to go into the draft this year," says Jackson, who has reached base 99 times in 179 plate appearances this season. "But right now, I just want to get to Omaha."

The road to the NCAA Tournament will not be easy for a Cal team that currently sits at 9-9 in the conference. Conventional wisdom would hold that the Bears need to win four of their final six Pac-10 contests to qualify for the Big Baseball Dance, a task made more difficult by the fact that those games are against nationally ranked foes in Arizona and Stanford.

The Bears' best player, however, is used to overcoming the odds. In spite of garnering prep All-American honors and being named Los Angeles Player of the Year in his classification, Jackson went essentially unrecruited by his hometown schools.

"I wanted to go to USC, but they didn't even give me a sniff," Jackson says. The third baseman admitted he loves playing the Trojans, and the statistics bear him out. The .357 career hitter raises that to .536 (15-for-28) in his three years against USC.

The success hasn't come easily this season, either, for Jackson or the team. The Bears had high hopes and a preseason national ranking, but a combination of poor situational hitting and an underperforming starting rotation has left the team in its current struggle just to earn the NCAA bid.

For his part, Jackson sat out seven games early in the year with an ankle injury, though his competitive nature was not particularly pleased with the seat on the bench. "If Conor had it his way, he'd be out there playing right now," first base coach Matt Allison said at the outset of Jackson's forced break.

Since returning, Jackson has seen his home run total drop from 16 in 2002 to just six this year, as opposing pitchers are content to let other Bears beat them. His 44 walks, as compared to 46 hits, are drawing comparisons to another intimidating Bay Area hitter.

"Everyone knows that Conor isn't going to see the type of pitches that we see, and that pitchers are going to do everything they can to get the people out in front of him," leadoff hitter David Nicholson says. "Conor is like our Barry Bonds."

The drop in home runs has concerned some major league teams, but Jackson's overall game will make him an early first-day selection in the amateur draft on June 6.

'There were some questions about his defense and power coming into the year, and he hasn't really answered them," says John Manuel, a senior writer at Baseball America. "But his offensive potential is still impressive, and he projects to go in the first three rounds."

That offensive potential is based on Jackson's beyond-his-years plate discipline, which has been well-honed by his coaches over the years. Cal coach David Esquer recruited Jackson to replace the gaping hole at third base left by Xavier Nady, a Rookie of the Year candidate for the San Diego Padres.

"I can't say enough about (Coach Esquer), and you should write about him, not me," Jackson said. "I love the fact that he relates to us, how he's an inspiration to all of the ballplayers on the team."

But Jackson's first mentor gets even more credit for that patience which will make his son a very rich man in roughly two months. John Jackson may be better known to us as Admiral A.J. Chegwidden on the television series JAG, but to Conor, he's just "Dad". And the best batting practice pitcher a young boy could ask for.

"Ever since I was little, my dad would throw to me, and he threw a lot more balls than strikes." Conor said. "That way, I learned not to swing at bad pitches."

Conor Jackson isn't going to take his theatre major and follow in his dad's footsteps on CBS. He may just have to settle for ESPN.


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