SARASOTA, Fla. - It seems like only yesterday that Conor Jackson was stressing over the amount of days he remained idle in camp because of a sore lower back. He’s signed to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training. Guys like him can’t afford to spend the bulk of their time on the injury report instead of in the lineup.
“You can’t impress anybody when you’re in the training room,” he said. “You’ve got to be on the field, you’ve got to play and you’ve got to show what you can do.”
Boy, is he showing what he can do.
Jackson’s reversal has been so sharp, so sudden, he’s risking whiplash instead of back stiffness.
By hitting his first two home runs yesterday, Jackson improved his spring line to .313/.353/.750 with five RBIs in six games.
Manager Buck Showalter keeps putting Jackson in the lineup, and he keeps delivering. If other players are being “slow-played,” as Showalter calls it, Jackson is being fast-forwarded.
Sort of reminds me of last spring, when Showalter kept playing Nick Johnson to gauge whether the veteran could remain healthy. Except he’s also giving Jackson a chance to separate himself from the first base/outfield/designated hitter pack.
Jackson, 30, is a fascinating story, one that you don’t come across very often in professional sports. He contracted Valley Fever in 2009, a fungal disease caused by spores in the soil that’s most common in the Southwest and leads to fever, headaches, cough and muscle pain. The symptoms are often confused for the flu.
He was limited to only 30 games that season with the Arizona Diamondbacks, who made him the 19th overall pick in the 2003 First-Year Player Draft, and a promising career was grounded.
Once a highly touted prospect who hit .300/.376/.446 in 2008, Jackson was traded to the Oakland Athletics in 2010 and hasn’t batted higher than .249. In his final season in the majors in 2011, he batted .158/.227/.316 in 12 games with the Boston Red Sox after being traded for minor leaguer Jason Rice.
The Texas Rangers signed Jackson as a free agent on Feb. 6, 2012 and released him a month later. He signed with the Chicago White Sox and hit .277/.363/.434 with 23 doubles, nine homers and 41 RBIs in 88 games at Triple-A Charlotte. The Orioles signed him to a minor league deal on Dec. 5 during the Winter Meetings.
“In 2009, there were a lot of times when I didn’t think that I was going to play baseball again. It hit me that hard,” Jackson said. “I missed a full year, and when you miss a full year when you’re in the prime of your career, it’s difficult to get back on track. And then once you come back to the game and you’re platooning, you lose your starting job, it’s tough. It’s tough.”
Showalter mentioned a few days ago how Jackson finally is regaining the strength that had been lost during his illness. Two long home runs yesterday, wind or no wind, provided further evidence.
“Sometimes, it’s about timing and getting a guy at the right time,” said Showalter, whose club is off today. “This is a guy who’s hit .300 in the big leagues with 600 plate appearances in a year. Not a lot of them floating around. And he played a lot of games at first base, some in the outfield.
“He’s in the mix with some other people we’re looking at for that role. Some other guys are doing well, too.”
Considering what he’s gone through since 2009, Jackson is just grateful for the opportunity.
“Coming into camp, I knew that I had to come out strong right away to have a shot at making the club,” he said. “That’s my goal. Kind of focus, as clichÃ© as it sounds, every day and every at-bat, you’ve got to grind it out and you’ve got to take it like it’s Game 7 of the World Series. That’s kind of my mindset right now.”
His body finally is allowing him to do it.
“I think last year, the ability to go down to Triple-A and play every single day is something that I missed,” Jackson said. “The last two years I was platooning in Oakland and in Arizona and it’s tough to get your stroke back, especially when I missed all of 2009. I think last year helped me out quite a bit, to kind of hone down and get those everyday at-bats. I’m happy where I’m at right now this spring, but there’s a long way to go.”
Chris Davis is the starting first baseman at this point, and he’s done nothing defensively to bring doubt to Showalter’s mind. Jackson could be the backup while also playing the outfield corners and maybe platooning at designated hitter with Wilson Betemit, who’s much more productive from the left side of the plate. But he’s got to beat out Steve Pearce and Danny Valencia, among others, to become a right-handed bat off the bench.
“Wherever they put me, I’m going to play,” Jackson said. “I can play left, I can play right and I can play first. I think I’m keeping all my gloves available.”