TEMPE, Ariz. – Dirt covered the front of Brett Jackson’s blue-and-gray uniform. That all-out hustle – and the fearlessness that led him to run into a wall last season – could one day make him a fan favorite in Wrigleyville.
But before Jackson gets back to the North Side, the Cubs intend to send him to Triple-A Iowa, no matter what he says about planning to make this team and having no intention to go to Des Moines.
Jackson unveiled his new swing during Saturday’s Cactus League opener at Tempe Diablo Stadium, blasting two triples to spark an 11-2 win over the Los Angeles Angels. That won’t get him a seat on the United charter flight to Pittsburgh for Opening Day, but it had to feel good seeing immediate results.
“I’m focused and determined to be the player I want to be,” Jackson said. “I’ll keep working until I am that player. I think I’ll be that player sooner than later. And I think my work ethic and my passion for the game dictates how I’m going to make that adjustment – fast – if I haven’t already.”
Jackson went back to the drawing board after a lost season where he kept getting caught guessing, stuck in between too many pitches. Between Iowa and Chicago, he struck out 217 times.
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The 2009 first-round pick has a bit of a stubborn streak, and maybe he needed that shock to the system. He traveled to the Cubs complex in Arizona for a minicamp with manager Dale Sveum and hitting coaches James Rowson and Rob Deer last November.
Fast forward three months and Jackson has strengthened his top hand, lowered his elbow and shortened his swing.
On a sunny, 62-degree afternoon with the wind blowing out, Jackson lifted one ball over the head of Peter Bourjos, one of the best defensive centerfielders in the game, and drove another to the gap in right-center field.
Berkeley-educated, Jackson is the picture of California cool. To get a sense of the type of student he is, know that his Spanish was good enough to get the story from Jorge Soler on how he defected from Cuba.
Deer – an all-or-nothing hitter who led the American League in strikeouts four times during a career in which he blasted 230 home runs – might be the perfect teacher.
Sure, hitting drills are important, Deer said, but it’s also being able to share. “Back when I played…” stories might get old, but who else can get inside Jackson’s head?
“I know what it feels like to be booed in front of 50,000,” Deer said. “I know what it feels like to get a standing ovation in front of 50,000. So I try to use that in my coaching to be able to say: ‘Hey, you know what, everybody struggles. You’re not going to be on every single day. It’s how you handle it.’
“I’m good at being able to understand that guys are not sleeping good at night right now because they’re up thinking about too much stuff. Because I’ve been there. I wasn’t a .300 hitter. Yeah, there were times where I was struggling. There were times where I was like: ‘How am I going to make contact?’ And then there were times where I was hitting homers every other day.
“I try to use that in my coaching, to let them know it’s OK. I’ve known a lot of great hitters that really don’t know how to talk about hitting because they’re so good it just came natural. I had to work at it. I know how it feels to go down to the cage and grind it out until you find something.”
Deer – who’s been friends with Sveum for almost three decades after playing together on the Milwaukee Brewers – believes Jackson has found something.
The 2.0 version can still cover a lot of ground – see the highlight-reel catch that almost blew out his knee last season at PNC Park – and the ball still jumps off his bat when he makes contact. That’s the all-around player valued by Theo Epstein’s front office.
If the next wave of prospects like Soler is going to push Jackson, well, he loves the energy they bring to the clubhouse. Across the next several weeks, it should be fun to watch Jackson try to make the leap.
“I’ve put last year behind me,” Jackson said. “I’m moving forward.”