Miami Star Gets Defensive

Jackson goes into action to improve bat

MIAMI—When Miami shortstop Ryan Jackson is around, no stick is safe.

"We can be walking down the street," Hurricanes closer Kyle Bellamy said, "and if he sees a broom or something else he can use, he will practice his swing and his stance. And he always takes his bat to the weight room. We just laugh."

It's funny, perhaps, but also smart. Jackson, rated the best defensive player in college baseball and a potential late first-round pick, knows his offense is what scouts question.

"Defense has always been my thing," said Jackson, a 6-foot-3, 185-pound junior who earned first-team all-Atlantic Coast Conference honors last season. "It's something I take pride in, and it's what's always come easiest to me.

"As far as hitting, I am working hard every day to improve."

Hurricanes coach Jim Morris said Jackson's work ethic is beyond reproach.

"I ask the infielders who takes the most ground balls, and they immediately point to Jackson," Morris said. "And that carries over to how hard he works on his hitting. He is maybe the hardest-working player I've ever coached."

There is more work to be done, however. The Miami native played at three high schools in four years, breaking through as a senior at Florida Christian (.443 with six homers and 27 RBIs). The previous year, he hit .360 with one homer at Miami's Gulliver Prep.

Then, after struggling as a Miami freshman (.236/.319/.313 with no homers and 25 RBIs), he made excellent progress last season (.360/.422/.496 with four homers and 50 RBIs). This past summer, Jackson left the country for the first time, touring the Netherlands and the Czech Republic as part of USA Baseball's collegiate national team. Using wood bats, he hit just .232 with four extra-base hits in 69 at-bats.

He got off to a slow start this spring (.274/.360/.421 with three homers and 19 RBIs through 95 at-bats). And after making just eight errors all last season, he already had five through 27 games.

"I got a couple bad bounces," said Jackson, who added that he admires Ozzie Smith and Omar Vizquel as shortstops who starred defensively and improved gradually on offense.

Scouts have no doubts about Jackson's glove, arm and good feet. But even one scout who is high on Jackson said the prospect "is a below-average runner with holes in his swing."

Jackson, though, said his goal is to make baseball's Hall of Fame and won't let anyone get in his way.

"I'm not going to pay attention to critics, and I am not going to sell myself short," he said. "Derek Jeter didn't have a great first year in the minors, and then he turned it around. I feel I am a late bloomer.

"I am just focusing on staying back and not jumping on the ball. Defensively, the only time I get in trouble is when I'm not low enough."

Another scout who has watched Jackson often is encouraged by his bat speed and power potential. He said Jackson could evolve into a 15-to-20-homer player in the big leagues.

That optimism is based in part on Jackson's size. As a high school sophomore, he shot up from 5-foot-4 to 5-foot-10, and he said he has grown a half-inch every year since.

"I'm still growing," said Jackson, who added that he has relatives as tall as 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-6.

Morris said Jackson has put on about 20 to 25 pounds of muscle since he arrived at UM. "I feel stronger, even in batting practice," Jackson said. "My hits are carrying deeper to left field."

Morris, though, doesn't think Jackson's game is about power.

"I see the game in the big leagues changing from the era where everyone hit more than 30 homers, if you catch my drift," he said. "And old-time baseball, which starts with defense up the middle, is perfect for Ryan.

"Look, I go by CHP. That stands for: Can He Play? And Ryan can. Some guys can hit them over the lights but strike out all the time. Ryan makes contact. He led our team in doubles last year. He has shown he can get it done."

Jackson, who boasts a 3.4 grade-point average and made the ACC's 2008 all-academic team, is majoring in sociology with a minor in sports administration.

But Jackson said any future goals would involve playing and/or coaching baseball.

"I know how to teach the proper fielding mechanics," he said.

Jackson made it clear he would "jump at the chance" to turn pro if everything goes well in this year's draft.

But before he gets to that, he wants to lead Miami back to the College World Series, where the Canes have played 11 times in Morris' 15 years in Coral Gables.

Getting back to Omaha will be much tougher this year, considering the Canes lost eight players to the draft last June, including three first-rounders. Jackson and Bellamy have filled the leadership void and are the Canes' co-captains, leading Miami (19-5) to a No. 7 national ranking.

But just because Jackson is a serious academic-minded team leader doesn't mean he can't surprise you every now and again with something goofy.

During the March 20-22 road trip at Virginia, Jackson and two of his teammates got Mohawk haircuts.

"I had to laugh because it is the complete opposite of Ryan's personality," Morris said. "He's usually very conservative. He spends almost all his off-the-field time studying."

And carrying that bat around.

Walter Villa is a freelance writer based in Miami.