Conor Jackson of the Arizona Diamondbacks has an extremely bright future at first base or whatever position he settles on.
Throughout his career, the up-and-coming star has changed positions more often than a hyperactive yoga instructor on Red Bull. Yet, he’s excelled at all of them. He played shortstop in high school, third base in college, outfield in the minors and now first base (and a little left field) in the Show. Known for this versatility, along with an amazing batter’s eye and the ability to hit the ball to any part of the park, Conor is destined to do big things somewhere.
After hitting .291 in 2006 and .284 in 2007, the 6’2”, 225-pound rightie is well above the .300 mark this season, with an on-base percentage that would make even the grumpiest manager giddy. Conor’s success started early in his MLB career, and no one was surprised. In his final season at the University of California, he hit .388, with 10 homers and an OBP of .538. He then traveled around the country by bus for three seasons, beating up Minor League pitchers with an average of .423. The 19th overall pick in the 2003 MLB Draft has so far lived up to his billing, and the only question remaining is where will he leave his mark?
Once STACK pinned Conor down to one spot, he told us about making moves, his first Big Leagues dong and a few freakish bouts with bad luck.
STACK: Considering all the positions you’ve played throughout your career, how difficult was it to make each change?
Conor Jackson: I played shortstop in high school, believe it or not. I was pretty skinny back thentall and lankyso I could move around pretty well. I played third base in college; and after I signed, I moved to outfield immediately. I played there for all of my time in the Minor Leagues. Then in ’05, they thought playing first base would [make it quicker] for me to get into the Big Leagues with Arizona, because they had Shawn Green in right and Luis Gonzalez in left.
Without a doubt, changing positions is tough, and it’s especially hard to learn in the Big Leagues, which I did with first base. Fans really underestimate that position. They think you can stick anyone over there, and it’s not that hard of a position. But you’re involved with the play almost as much as the catcher. You’re involved in everything, and the expectations to field and catch everything are on you. It takes a lot of concentration.
I take pride in the fact that I’ve been able to play well at a variety of positions. Versatility is a great thing. I even played a little outfield this year, because one of our outfielders was on the DL. The more positions you can play, the more valuable you become. It’s a great way to make it to the Big Leaguesand stick around for a while. I like outfield the best and feel the most comfortable there; I felt comfortable there the minute I started playing it.
STACK: When did playing professional baseball, at any position, first become a dream for you?
CJ: Oh man, probably in high school. That’s when I got serious about it and realized I could probably take it to the next level, college. The most appealing thing to me is that baseball opened the door to get a college scholarship using this ability to get a great education. God forbid, if baseball didn’t work out, I’d have a degree I could use.
STACK: How important was your father’s role in the development of your game?
CJ: My dad was definitely a big influence for me. He’s an actor, so he didn’t have the typical 9-to-5 job. He had time off to throw BP and help me with whatever I thought I needed to work on. He was always around and willing to work with me.
STACK: Any other major influences on your game?
CJ: My college coach, Dave Esquer at Cal, was really important, too. He is very knowledgeable about baseball, and I felt like I was kind of a novice about the game going into college. It was really overwhelming how much I didn’t know about it. He definitely introduced me to many aspects, and he was able to do it slowly.
STACK: How did your game develop during your college career?
CJ: The game moved really fast for me freshman yeardefinitely wasn’t high school any more. We played a lot more games, [which] I was juggling with college classes and everything else. I struggled at first. I was used to hitting .500 in high school; and in college, I was back down to reality, hitting about .290. I went to the Cape after my freshman year, which was a blast. Then when I came back for my sophomore year, I really turned it on and put myself on the map for the MLB Draft. I would advise any young athlete to go to college, man. I really want to stress that. The experience I had in college was priceless; I wouldn’t trade it for the worldnot for a $4 million or $5 million signing bonus. You can’t beat that atmosphere.
STACK: Do you remember when scouts first started showing up to your games?
CJ: About midway through my sophomore year. I started hitting homeruns, I was walking a lot, my on-base percentage was high and my power numbers started coming. Playing in front of scouts is really nerve-wracking. You can fall into the trap of playing for them and not your team. And it’s a curious feeling; you’re always wondering what they’re writing down. If you make a bad play, you think they’ll say you can’t play defense. That was a very difficult time for me. Of course they have to do their job, but for the individual player, it takes a little bit of fun out of the game.
STACK: What’s your best Major League memory to date?
CJ: Without a doubt, my opening game at Wrigley Field. You can’t beat having your first Big League game at Wrigley with a couple of knocks. I had a go-ahead knock in the eighth.
STACK: You needed only a double to successfully hit for the cycle earlier this year. Tell us about your decision to round second and go to third.
CJ: [Laughs] Of course I was thinking about hitting for the cycle, but one out with a runner on third is much more appealing than one out with a runner on second. You can’t be worried about individual stats. Of course it crossed my mind, because not a lot of people have done it. But to tell you the truth, two triples, a single and a homerun is better to me than hitting for the cycle.
STACK: What do you think are the most dangerous aspects of your game?
CJ: I really pride myself on my hitting, my understanding of the strike zone, knowing when to take a walk and being able to put the ball in play. When you can put the ball in play, a lot of things are going to happen. I can also drive the ball to the opposite field, so I’m not your typical four-hitter, I guess. I’m not going to hit 40 homeruns, but I can do a lot of things, like get hits and score runs.
STACK: Tell us about the couple instances of bad luck you’ve had.
CJ: That was crazy stuff [laughs]. I was playing in Tacoma, and it’s kind of a weird set-up there, because the locker room is outside, near left field. I was out there talking on the phone during BP and someone hit a homerun over the fence. You can’t see because the fence is almost 20 feet high. The ball came over the fence, hit me in the head and knocked me out cold.
Another time, in Atlanta, I got smoked in the eye. I was getting ready for a pinch hit my first year up in ’05, and I smoked a ball off the metal pole of the cage. The ball came back and got me in the eye. My eye puffed up like crazy. Hopefully, I’m done with all that bad luck.
STACK: When in your career did you really see yourself separating from other players your age?
CJ: The first instance was Area Codes in Long Beach. I had a really good Area Code life at the plate. I swung the wooden bat really well, and I think that’s what opened eyes and put me on the map.
STACK: What do you remember from your college recruiting process?
CJ: It was a very interesting period. All those coaches are coming in and telling you how good you are. I was pretty naïve back then; it was very difficult for me to say no to people, which was a big problem for me to overcome. It’s very hard to say no, flat out, to a college coach from a prestigious university when he comes knocking. When it came down to it, I made a decision that was best for me.
STACK: What was it like to hear your name early in the first round of the draft?
CJ: Getting taken in the first round of any draft is exciting. It was a blast and took a lot of hard work.
STACK: What goals have you set for yourself for the next couple years?
CJ: I always want to be getting better. It’s such a grind of a game, and some days you feel good and some you don’t.
STACK: What is your off-season training program like these days? How is it different from when you were younger?
CJ: I go to Athletes’ Performance for about seven weeks before the season starts. I get there right after New Year’s. I train hard from the beginning of January all the way up to spring training. It gets me good; it gets me right. Before that, it’s a little bit here and there to maintain, but it gets intense once I get [to API]. It’s all day, from nine to five with two workouts a day and baseball in between. It’s all geared toward getting you stronger and better. I didn’t do any training in high school, so I can’t really compare it. This training craze wasn’t really around then.