Denton Ryan High junior phenom Austin Jackson won't ever apologize for what Major League Baseball scouts see as his biggest — if not only — flaw.
Nor should he have to. After all, he's only 17 years old, and this so-called flaw is nothing more than an innocent passion for basketball.
But scouts don't just see a kid when they look at the SchoolSports All-American outfielder. They see a ridiculously talented prospect with unlimited potential. They see his 6-foot-1, 180-pound body of fast-twitch muscles tailor made for professional baseball and his never-ending 1,000-watt smile and are reminded of a young Ken Griffey Jr.
"He's a guy who can run, throw, and hit for power and average," says Denton Ryan 10th-year head baseball coach Bret Warnack, who guided the Raiders to a 29-8 record and the Class 4A state finals last spring. "He's got tremendously quick hands at the plate and doesn't swing at bad pitches. [Scouts] see a guy who, when they get him and start working with him, there's no telling what he can do."
And that's the problem. Many major league scouts worry that because of basketball, they'll never find out exactly what Jackson can do on the diamond. They worry that his passion for hoops is a sign that he might not be truly dedicated to baseball.
They look at his radiant stats — a .423 batting average with five home runs, 34 RBI, 28 runs scored and five stolen bases as a sophomore following a freshman season in which he hit .457 with four home runs, 20 RBI, 37 runs and 10 stolen bases — and wonder how much better those numbers would be if Jackson didn't suffer through what Warnack describes as annual early-season slumps caused by the transition from basketball to baseball.
In short, many scouts think Jackson flirts with the enemy by starting at guard for the Denton Ryan basketball team. And their concerns are definitely not kept on the down low.
"They keep saying that I should quit (basketball), but I keep telling them the same thing," says Jackson, who played right field as a freshman and sophomore before taking over at center this spring. "They should know the answer by now — I'm not going to quit basketball."
After all, Jackson never asked for all this attention. It's not his fault he's been in the spotlight longer than LeBron James. Since 1999, to be precise. That's when a Dallas-area New York Yankees scout discovered Jackson while watching his own son play youth baseball at Arc Park in Fort Worth.
"Here's a guy who was 12 and hitting the ball out of the park against 14-year-olds," the scout says. "I went to his parents, introduced myself, gave them my card and told them I'll be back in four or five years."
Just a few months later, Baseball America declared Jackson the best 12-year-old baseball player in the nation, and the hype has been full throttle ever since, as scouts from every major league team have closely followed his career.
Jackson has done nothing to cool the fire, following up his stellar freshman and sophomore campaigns by hitting .440 with 24 RBI, 28 runs and 13 stolen bases through the end of the regular season this year. And last June, he proved he's clutch by pounding a three-run homer off Corpus Christi Calallen ace Jordan Chambless in the top of the seventh inning to give Denton Ryan a 3-1 win in the Class 4A state semifinals. The Raiders then lost to Hewitt Midway, 3-1, in the state title game.
Of course, baseball scouts aren't the only ones having trouble finding flaws in his game.
For Jackson, basketball was once an escape, something he loved to do while alone in thought. But by dominating the local hoops scene, he has evolved into a blue-chip recruit getting looks from several big-time college basketball programs, most notably UConn, Georgia Tech, Illinois and Oklahoma — schools that have told Jackson they'd allow him to play both sports.
"I think that people always telling me that I need to quit (basketball) made me a better player," he says.
This winter, Jackson made a seamless transition from point guard to shooting guard, averaging a team-high 22.5 points per game in his first season as the Raiders' No. 1 scoring option after playing second fiddle as a freshman and sophomore to Brett McDade, who recently finished his freshman year at Tulsa.
"He has a great passion for basketball, and along with a great passion, he has great ability," says Denton Ryan first-year head basketball coach Bryce Overstreet, who led the Raiders to a 15-13 record this past season. "His athleticism is just extraordinary He's one of those guys who surprises you every day — he's jaw dropping. I think that if he keeps improving like he has during the past three years, he might have an opportunity to play at the highest level."
Which is why Jackson just says no to baseball scouts who think he should give up basketball and why coach Warnack has his back 100 percent.
"He deserves to be a kid," says Warnack. "He doesn't have to be driving himself 12 months a year. I think a lot of kids are in danger of getting stuff rammed down their throat. It shouldn't be a job yet."
But baseball could soon be just that. Although he's no longer Baseball America's prodigal son, the publication still ranks Jackson the nation's No. 5 prospect in the Class of 2005, and he's a lock to be an early selection in next June's Major League Baseball Amateur Draft.
If, of course, he gives up basketball.
"He's got all the tools to [be drafted] early," says the New York Yankees scout. "If he wants to play college basketball, it's his decision. But he's not going to get paid the same way if he does."
The scout notes that even if Jackson decides to play college hoops, he'll still be selected in the MLB Draft because teams are so intrigued by his upside that they'll be willing to let him play college basketball during the offseason. But how high he'll be drafted and what kind of signing bonus he'll receive is anyone's guess.
Jackson is no fool. He knows this is a decision most teens would kill for, but that doesn't make it any easier. He says he hasn't ruled out playing college baseball, but ideally, he'd go pro in baseball and go to college for hoops.
"Honestly, I like both," he says. "I can't see myself liking one more than another. Hopefully I'll be playing both sports and trying to go professionally in both. I'm going to continue playing both of them until…"
The truth is, he doesn't know. Jackson says once he's actually drafted and receives what he hopes will be a multi-million-dollar contract offer, he'll have to discuss his future with his family. But that decision won't have to be made for at least a year. After all, he's still got his senior year of high school to get through first.
Until then, he's going to keep doing what he's always done: dominate on the baseball field and basketball court and just be a kid.
"He's always got a big old smile on his face," says Warnack. "That's what it's about. We've got to remember sometimes that we're just playing a game, and that's just what he reminds you of when you see him every day."