Austin Jackson Stands Poised At Center Of A Tradition




TOLEDO—Is there a position more celebrated in baseball than center field in the Bronx?

As strange as it seems today, the Yankees entered the 1927 fall classic having gone 1-3 in World Series play. They won that series, of course, and went on to win seven of the next 14.

Not coincidentally, the '27 Bronx Bombers benefited from the emergence of center fielder Earle Combs, who eventually earned passage to the Hall of Fame. It's a formula the Yankees have seldom strayed from in the course of winning 26 World Series titles. From Combs to Joe DiMaggio to Mickey Mantle to Mickey Rivers to Bernie Williams—the best Yankees teams have featured a strong center fielder.

These days, Yankees fans hope that Austin Jackson soon will begin to state his case to join that group. That's also the wish of the 22-year-old Jackson, the Yankees' eighth-round pick in 2005 who this season has patrolled center for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

"I'm not going to say I've never thought about (playing center field in New York)," Jackson admitted. "That's a dream I've always wanted to come true. I understand those are big shoes to fill, but I'm willing to work hard and step up to the challenge."

As if that wasn't enough, Jackson entered this season ranked as the Yankees' top prospect, a position fraught with its own pressures and perils.

"There's a lot that comes with that, but you have to throw some of that stuff out the window," Jackson said. "You're in the minor leagues for a reason: to develop. I understand that, and the Yankees do, too.

"I'm a work in progress, and it isn't going to happen overnight. I expect a lot more out of myself than the Yankees do, because I know I can become a good ballplayer one day."

Plenty Good Already

Jackson already has established that he's a good player right now. A product of Ryan High in Denton, Texas, his career started slowly when he struck out 151 times in just 535 at-bats for low Class A Charleston in 2006.

He returned to Charleston in 2007 and earned a midseason promotion to high Class A Tampa, and that's when his career took off. Jackson tore up the Florida State League, batting .345/.398/.566 with 10 homers in just 67 games. He earned a ticket to Double-A Trenton, where he helped the Thunder win an Eastern League playoff title.

Jackson returned to Trenton in 2008 and batted .285/.354/.419 in 131 games, contributing nine home runs and a career-best 69 RBIs. In the playoffs, he hit .259 with two homers and seven RBIs in helping the Thunder repeat as league champs.

This season, the 6-foot-1, 185-pound Jackson was batting .307/.372/.425 with four homers and 20 doubles through 374 at-bats. He ranked among the International League leaders in average, hits (115) and triples (six), while leading all Scranton players with 19 stolen bases in 22 tries.

"If you would have asked me what I wanted A.J. to be hitting at the end of July, I would have said I would be very happy if he was hitting .260-.275," Scranton batting coach Butch Wynegar said. "He's gone over and above what I've expected him to do.

"We want him to finish strong, but this kid hasn't shown me anything that would make me think he can't go to the big leagues and become a full-time player."

Offensively, Jackson was working on eliminating the drift in his swing; on his stride toward a pitch, Jackson said his hips tend to go forward, causing him to lose some power from his swing and allowing pitchers to jam him with inside offerings.

"When I'm going good, I'm going to right-center," he said. "I'm a guy who's going to get on base, steal some bags to get into scoring position, and score some runs.

"I want to improve in basestealing, and I want to be more consistent. I want to learn, and then I want to put it into effect on the field."

Thinking Big

Defensively, Jackson ranks among the better center fielders in the IL, having made just two errors in 194 chances while picking up four assists. But he says he still has things to work on in the outfield.

"I'm working on jumps and reads and things like that," he said. "That's a big part of playing center. If that first step is in the right direction, it gives you a better chance to make a play."

Wynegar, who spent five seasons in the Big Apple, knows what pressure Jackson faces from the New York media and fans. And he thinks the young outfielder is up to the challenge.

"He's a great kid—good makeup, always happy, always with a smile on his face," Wynegar said. "He's a tremendous athlete with good work habits who's very coachable. He does so many good things.

"His makeup is such that I think the media and the fans are going to love him. He's such a good kid who has an infectious smile. He never gets too high or two low, and that's going to be a great attribute that will help him in New York."

But is Jackson capable of starring in such a combustible cauldron? Wynegar wisely hedged his bets when answering that question.

"You don't want to short-change A.J., but you want to be careful not to go too overboard," Wynegar said. "I'd take him as my son—that's how great a kid he is.

"There's no doubt in my mind he's going to be an everyday player in the big leagues."

Jackson's breadth of tools has many Yankees supporters dreaming big—a career in center field at Yankee Stadium, smack in the middle of another one of the franchise's dynastic runs. It's a dream Jackson shares with fans of the club.

"I went to the old stadium last year, and it was pretty exciting, especially thinking of all the great players and teams that had played there," he said. "I got chills the first time I walked in there.

"I try not to think about that too much, because I try to take care of the things I control now and not worry about the future. But I do try to use it as motivation—I want to get there and stay there."

John Wagner covers the International League for The Toledo Blade