When he was 12, Baseball America ranked Austin Jackson No. 1 in the nation in his age group. It was right about then that his father Albert built him a batting cage behind their house in Denton, Texas.
07/10/2012 9:58 AM ET
Austin Jackson makes his family proud
Tigers center fielder was influenced by father, older brother
By Bruce Lowitt / MLBPLAYERS.com
"It was pretty big, 70 feet," the Tigers center fielder said. "Not the biggest cage, but it pretty much took up the whole backyard. I would go out there after school and just hit off the tee. We finally got a pitching machine, and I would set it up and hit off that.
"Since I was serious about getting out there every day and hitting, my father really didn't mind taking up that much space to build it." Besides, Austin said, practicing in the backyard "keeps you occupied, keeps you out of trouble. You know where I'm at, in the cage, hitting and having fun."
Albert built it "in the backyard so he could play anytime," he said. "Sometimes he just didn't want to stop. He'd have played all night if he could've."
Lights were soon added. The pitching machine came later.
Austin first got interested in baseball because Jamaal Jackson, five years older, was into baseball. That's what kid brothers do.
"My brother played, and I'd go to his games and stuff like that," Austin said. "That's how I got started, and it's stuck with me ever since."
Up until high school Jamaal also played basketball, so naturally ...
"Austin wanted to play both sports," their father said. "He'd play basketball (at a nearby gym) and baseball, whichever one he wanted to do that day."
Albert Jackson had played basketball into college, and in November 2004, Austin committed to play at Georgia Tech, which would have allowed him to play baseball, as well. Then, the Yankees picked him in the eighth round of the 2005 MLB First-Year Player Draft.
"They didn't want him to play basketball anymore," his father said. "They wanted him to devote all his time to baseball."
Also entering into Austin's decision to give up his dream of a life as a point guard in the NBA: "Having the opportunity to get my career started at a pro level right away," he said.
He was 20 when he reached Triple-A in 2007, found himself in Double-A for the entire 2008 season and was back in Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre for all of 2009.
There was a surplus of Yankees outfielders in 2009 -- Brett Gardner, Nick Swisher, Melky Cabrera, Johnny Damon, Xavier Nady and others, although some would be free agents after the season.
"When I didn't get called up, I talked with the manager (Dave Miley) and coaches at Scranton," Jackson said. "They were telling me there just wasn't any room for me at the time. I understood that. I understand the business side.
"In the offseason, I was keeping in touch with my agent, talking about the rumors about me being traded. Being able to start on a team definitely sparked some excitement in me."
That Dec. 9, a three-way trade among the Yankees, Tigers and D-backs sent Jackson to Detroit and Curtis Granderson, whose position he would inherit, to New York.
Jackson started on Opening Day, April 5, 2010, getting a hit and an RBI in the Tigers' 8-4 win at Kansas City. With friends and family in attendance, he went 1-for-5 again in the Comerica Park home opener, a 4-2 win over Cleveland.
"It was just unbelievable, seeing him in Detroit Opening Day or seeing him on TV," Albert said. "My own son out there on a Major League field. It's a feeling you just can't explain."
And on April 25, with his parents, friends and neighbors making the one-hour drive from Denton to Arlington, Texas, Jackson rewarded them with his first Major League home run, against the Rangers' Colby Lewis.
"I have the ball," his father said.
Albert doesn't have a trophy case at home for it yet, "but we're working on that."
Bruce Lowitt is a freelance writer based in Tampa, Fla.