In less than six short summer months, Austin Jackson, the rookie center fielder for the Detroit Tigers, has accomplished a feat that seemed inconceivable when he was acquired last Dec. 8 in the three-team trade that sent Curtis Granderson to the New York Yankees. He has made Motor City baseball loyalists effectively forget “Grandy.”
Whippet quick, a dazzling fielder, and professionally polished after spending five years as the Yankees’ top minor-league prospect, the 23-year-old Jackson exploded on the Detroit sports landscape this spring, earning American League Rookie of the Month honors for April, leading the league in hits and batting average through the first quarter of the season, and turning the spectacular outfield catch into his personal specialty. Tigers Manager Jim Leyland says he’s counted at least six times Jackson has run down fly balls he appeared to have no hope of catching — including the spectacular over-the-shoulder grab in the ninth inning that momentarily preserved pitcher Armando Galarraga’s perfect game against Cleveland June 2, until fate and umpire Jim Joyce made the play an afterthought.
With his blinding speed, the 6-foot-1 Denton, Texas, native is a hard man to pin down. However, Hour Detroit caught up with the polite, reflective Jackson between batting practice and the first pitch of a recent night game at Comerica Park.
Your father, Albert, built a 70-foot batting cage for you and your older brother, Jamaal, when you were very young, but you once intended to play basketball and baseball at Georgia Tech. Was baseball always your first sport?
Yeah, it was the sport I wanted to play. I played basketball and baseball pretty much evenly growing up. My dad built me a [batting] cage, he built a mound, and he set up a basketball hoop for me, so I pretty much had it all right there at the house.
You were drafted by the Yankees, developed in their farm system, and touted as their prized outfield star of the future. Given their history, the pinstripes, and Yankee Stadium, are you disappointed not to have played for them?
I wouldn’t say disappointed. I did get drafted by them out of high school, so those were pretty much my college years as far as meeting new people and building friendships with the people in that farm system. So getting traded was a big thing, because after building those good relationships you’ve got to go to another spot and start again.
So you come to Detroit, and you’re voted American League Rookie of the Month for your first month in the majors. Did you expect to perform at this high a level right away in the big leagues?
Yeah, I did. I mean, that’s just something that, working in the off-season, you start working harder, it means more to you once you have a legitimate chance of making a ball club. You start taking everything a little more seriously. You step your focus up. It’s the same game. The only difference is, you’re playing with a bunch of guys who have established themselves in the game. They’re not at this level for nothing. It’s just playing against the different pitchers that you’ve seen on TV growing up and going through the minor leagues, and actually getting to face them. They’re a lot a better once you’re in that batter’s box.
What do you remember about that running catch in the top of the ninth that preserved Galarraga’s perfect game against the Indians — for five minutes, at least?
As the game was going on, I really didn’t understand what was at stake until about the eighth inning. I look up and realize that they haven’t scored and nobody’s gotten a hit. So I’m thinking, ‘OK, this is really happening.’ Going up to bat in the bottom of the eighth, I told myself, ‘I know this is probably going to come down to me having to catch a ball that’s hit in the gap.’ So when I go out to center field, I’m playing in the middle of the field because I want to try to catch everything, and I’m playing shallow because I want to take away any bloop hits off the end of somebody’s bat. When [Cleveland’s Jason Donald] hit it, I definitely didn’t think I had a chance to catch it, but it hung up there a lot longer than I expected and I was able to make a play on it.
Have you ever met Curtis Granderson? Talked about the irony of patrolling the outfield the other man expected to be playing in 2010?
I got a chance to speak with him a little bit in spring training. He told me to just keep working hard. Play hard, run hard and the [Detroit] fans will love you. They just want to see an honest effort, that you really want it. And that’s what I try to do, hustle all the time.
First impressions of Detroit in your brief time here?
I like it. It reminds me a lot of where I stayed in the off-season. Kind of quiet. But I haven’t seen much of the city. I go to my place, I go to the field, and that’s pretty much my day.
The most important question, at least for one segment of our audience: Are you married? Single? Dating anyone?
I’m not married. But I do have a girlfriend.