Jason Jennings still has desire to pitch
Righty enjoying time with non-affiliated AirHogs but hopes for big league chance
GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas -- Just a few weeks ago, after a turbulent return flight to Arlington, pitcher Brett Tomko sent a text to former Rangers pitcher and friend Jason Jennings describing the team's less-than-comfortable travel experience.
The text was received by Jennings on a sleeper bus that traveled through the night, carrying the non-affiliated Grand Prairie AirHogs through the heartland of the country toward the team's next destination on its American Association schedule.
Reclining in his seat, watching the Mavericks play the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals, Jennings realized he enjoyed the low-key nature of his newest job as the ace of the AirHogs' staff and sent a picture of himself watching the bus TV to his Rangers buddies with a note that said, "You enjoy your big league plane. I'm on a sleeper bus with my shorts and a T-shirt watching the game."
Jennings, a Dallas native, found himself with the AirHogs organization this May after several unsuccessful attempts to pick up an invitation to a major league spring training camp.
Recent injuries made Jennings too much of a question mark for affiliated teams to give him a shot, but his nine years of big league experience were more than enough for AirHogs manager Ricky VanAsselberg to make room for Jennings on his roster on two days' notice.
"He made a phone call to our office and it happened to ring on my desk," the manager said. "He said, 'This is Jason Jennings. I played ...' and I said, 'I know who you are.'"
Just three hours before the AirHogs were set to leave for their first road trip of 2011, VanAsselberg was able to make an opening for Jennings, and the unemployed pitcher met his new team on the bus ride to Kansas City.
VanAsselberg said he gave Jennings the option to come in every five days and pitch and spend the rest of the time away from the ballpark with his family in Frisco, but Jennings said veteran treatment is foreign to the baseball experience he has grown to love. Instead, he uses his veteran status to pour knowledge into younger, less-experienced AirHogs players who are looking for a shot of their own.
"A lot of guys look up to him and learn from him because he is humble," AirHogs closer Jon Hunton said. "He's not a typical major league guy who has 10 years and is kind of just here doing his own thing and is not worried about camaraderie or helping other people out."
In his own game, Jennings is trying to rediscover the pitcher he was a decade ago and show major league teams he still has the stuff that made him a first-round draft pick in 1999.
"I just want to get another opportunity," Jennings said. "That's why I came out here and called Ricky to see if he had a job for me -- to just give another shot. I think if I would have just called it quits in this offseason because I couldn't get a job, I would have regretted not giving it a shot, even though it's at this level -- I don't mind that. It's still pitching."
The product of Mesquite Poteet High School played his college career for another green-clad team at Baylor, where he racked up two Big 12 Player of the Year awards along with a National Player of the Year award in 1999.
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After two years of minor league grooming, Jennings set the bar for his career at a Hall of Fame pace by earning a complete-game shutout and hitting a leadoff home run in the top of the ninth in his first major league appearance with the Colorado Rockies.
The trend of good starts continued for several years in Colorado, earning him the title of the man who tamed Coors Field and a National League Rookie of the Year award in 2002 with a record of 16-8 and a 4.52 ERA.
Jennings came back home to Texas in 2007 after being traded to the Houston Astros, with which he spent one season. But the return home didn't fare as well on Jennings' elbow.
"Problems started to creep up on me," he said. "[I] tried to pitch through it because I've never really been one to quit and say I can't do it. By the end of '07 my elbow was killing me and it was time to get it repaired."
Jennings became a free agent after the 2007 season and moved back to his hometown to spend two seasons with the Texas Rangers. He was given one last shot in 2010 in the Athletics organization, but suffered another season-ending injury that closed the book on his stint in affiliated ball.
Now with the AirHogs, Jennings has found a resurgence being that veteran voice on the best team in the American Association through the first two months of play with a 5-1 with a 3.92 ERA in seven starts.
Jennings said despite the stigma that playing independent baseball brings on a player, he has found solace in the reduced stress that comes with playing in front of crowds that can be as small as a few hundred people and no media attention.
To watch him play at QuikTrip Park in Grand Prairie backs his claim. Every pitch comes in near perfect rhythm to the last, not pausing after a bad call from an umpire much less experienced than those he threw in front of in big league parks or stopping to bark a word of disgust into his glove after giving up a double in the gap. The flow is only broken when Jennings chooses to turn around to, with signals from his glove and pitching hand, make sure he is on the same page with his fielders.
"Here, there's not as many outside distractions," Jennings said. "It's more just playing ball on the field. Obviously there's not ESPN cameras at our games. There's no postgame interviews. It's just playing baseball."
While the media might not have interest in every one of Jennings' starts, VanAsselberg said scouts -- including some from the Boston Red Sox -- have made some preliminary calls and visits to see if Jennings is healthy.
Until he gets that second chance, Jennings is working every day to prove to not only scouts, but himself that he still has the stuff to tame a major league ballpark.
"I've had a couple of coaches tell me in my career to pitch until they rip the jersey off your back, and that's kind of the philosophy I'm taking." Jennings said.
Travis L. Brown covers high school sports for ESPNDallas.com.