The first day Joe Jackson showed up for baseball practice at The Citadel, TV cameras from Major League Baseball were on hand to mark the occasion.
JACKSON’S PROGRESSCareer numbers for Citadel catcher Joe JacksonYear G Avg. HR RBI2011 54 .302 0 232012 58 .279 1 262013 49 .352 11 50Totals 161 .309 12 99
“We were like, ‘We got dang MLB.TV out here,’ ” recalled pitcher Austin Pritcher. “We all said, ‘Who is this guy?’ ”
This guy, of course, is the great-great-great nephew of “Shoeless Joe” Jackson, one of baseball’s legendary figures, a great hitter who played a central role in the 1919 “Black Sox” scandal.
In the three years since that opening practice, Joe Jackson has made a name for himself as the Bulldogs’ catcher and one of the top pro prospects in the Southern Conference.
He also has picked up a few nicknames, none quite as classic as “Shoeless Joe.”
“We call him Jo Jo, Jonathan Johnson, Joe Johnson, Shoes, Shoe-y,” Pritcher said. “Pretty much anything but Joe Jackson.”
Jackson, a sturdy 6-1 and 195 pounds, was drafted in the 50th round by the Royals in 2010 coming out of Mauldin High School, and is a good bet to get picked again in the Major League Baseball draft in June. Baseball America ranked him as the SoCon’s No. 8 prospect before the season started.
If anything, Jackson has improved his draft stock by hitting .352 so far this season, with 11 home runs and a team-best 50 runs batted in. He’s among the many Bulldogs enjoying a bounce-back season at the plate — he hit .279 last year with just one homer and 26 RBIs.
“The biggest commitment Joe made was playing in the Cape Cod League last summer,” Citadel coach Fred Jordan said. “He really gained a lot of confidence there because of the caliber of pitchers there, and in the weight room this fall he really improved his strength. That has carried over to his offensive game.”
Jackson hit just .213 in 29 games at Cape Cod, but the experience was enough to boost enough his confidence.
“Last year, I wasn’t that smart of a hitter,” Jackson said. “I would chase a changeup, get myself out. Every fastball count, they’d throw me off-speed stuff and I had a hard time adjusting to it. This year, I kind of a have an idea what they will throw me, and that’s really helped me have a better approach at the plate.”
Jackson also has polished his defensive skills — opponents have stolen a SoCon-low 36 bases in 58 attempts against The Citadel this season, the throw-out rate of 36.5 percent the best in the SoCon.
“He has a great arm and loves to throw behind guys,” Pritcher said. “But as a freshman, maybe he tried to do too much, especially with his arm. Coach Jordan talked to him about just catching it and throwing it, and blocking up stuff when you can. Now, when he throws a guy out, teams don’t want to run so much.”
Jackson has been known to get in the face of one of his pitchers, an emotional side he’s trying to harness.
“He’s a little fiery at times,” Jordan said. “At the same time, he can put his arm around somebody. That’s one aspect of his game he’s improved a great deal, and still needs to continue to improve.”
All of that means there could soon be another Joe Jackson playing pro baseball, but Jackson is not yet ready to ponder that possibility.
“We are having a good year right now and are trying to win the SoCon,” he said. “Whatever happens after the season happens. Right now, I’m planning on coming back to The Citadel. But obviously, I want to play pro ball and I’ll have to weigh my options if it does happen.”
Losing two out of three games to Davidson on Saturday might have crushed any hopes the Bulldogs (28-21, 15-9) had of an at-large bid to the 64-team NCAA tournament. The Bulldogs’ RPI plummeted from No. 46 to No. 78, and they are three games behind first-place Western Carolina (33-17, 18-6) with six games left in the SoCon regular season.
The Citadel hosts rival College of Charleston (26-20, 14-9) this weeknd in the final regular season meeting between the teams as SoCon rivals, and then travels to UNC Greensboro (21-27, 8-16).
“We need to finish strong in the league,” Jackson said. “You’ve got to start playing well now to have confidence going into the SoCon Tournament. If you don’t have confidence going in, it’s hard to go out and think you are going to win it.”
Perhaps it’s a good omen for The Citadel that the SoCon Tournament is in Greenville — Shoeless Joe Jackson’s hometown.