Commentary

Mixture of young and old in Detroit

Johnny Damon and Austin Jackson, the old vet and the touted prospect, have reunited

Originally Published: March 23, 2010
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Johnny Damon was oblivious to spring training workout schedules during his tenure with the Yankees, so coach Rob Thomson gave him a handy rule of thumb to ensure that he never missed a drill or a batting-practice session.

Tail the kid, Austin Jackson.

"I wasn't reading the board, and Rob said: 'Just follow Austin. He better be in the right place or he'll get in trouble,"' Damon recalled. "Every time we switched fields or we hit, I would follow Austin around, and he would get me to the right place."

There was no mandate back then for Damon to follow Jackson all the way to Detroit, where they now embark on a different phase of their careers -- Jackson as a touted prospect poised for takeoff, and Damon as a reliable veteran in search of a third World Series ring.

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Mark Cunningham/Getty ImagesAustin Jackson isn't a "burner," but the Tigers' new leadoff hitter will have the green light to steal some bases this spring.

Call it fate, coincidence, business as usual, or the magnetic pull of Comerica Park: Jackson left a trail of bread crumbs, and now he and his former Grapefruit League tagalong are reunited in Detroit.

As the Tigers try to resolve their back-of-the-rotation issues and challenge the favored Twins and White Sox in the American League Central, the biggest makeover is at the top of the order, where the theme is "erstwhile Yankees on parade."

Jackson, 23, came to Detroit in December as part of a three-way, seven-player, two-Jackson trade that sent Curtis Granderson to the Yankees and pitcher Edwin Jackson to Arizona. He'll play center field and bat leadoff.

Damon, 36, signed a one-year, $8 million deal with Detroit in February after the Yankees spent their free-agent money on Nick Johnson and Randy Winn. He'll spend most of his time in left field, mix in some DH appearances and hit second in the order.

The two outfielders will try to energize a Detroit lineup that relied much more on power than on speed in 2009. The Tigers ranked seventh in the league with 183 homers and 14th with 72 stolen bases. Granderson and Josh Anderson, who accounted for 33 of those steals, are no longer with the club.

With Jackson and Damon at the top of the order and rookie second baseman Scott Sizemore (who has averaged 17 steals in three full minor league seasons) at the bottom, the Tigers at least have a prayer of putting some pressure on a defense occasionally.

"We had Granderson before, but we never really had another speedster to back him up," Tigers third baseman Brandon Inge said. "When you're playing defense and there are a couple of burners at the top, you don't get tense. But you know you better be positioned right and do everything right, or you're going to be in trouble."

Scouts actually rate Jackson as an above-average runner rather than a "burner," but he's earned rave reviews this spring for his quick reads, solid routes and impressive closing burst in the outfield. His combination of instincts and fluidity should play well in the vast center field expanse at Comerica.

The big question is offense. Jackson posted a .356 OBP in the minors, but his 522-to-223 strikeout-to-walk ratio doesn't exactly scream leadoff hitter.

The Tigers have eased the transition by making one thing eminently clear: They don't want Jackson to be something he's not.

"He's a young hitter, and I don't want to put him in a hole by trying to work the pitcher and getting one or two strikes all the time," manager Jim Leyland said. "I just want him to be himself and swing the bat. And if he doesn't swing at balls, he'll get some walks."

Hitting coach Lloyd McClendon has made some adjustments to Jackson's approach in Florida. McClendon said Jackson had a habit of "swaying with his hips" in the minors, a glitch that caused his swing to break down and his leverage and power to suffer. McClendon has reintroduced a slight leg kick as a trigger mechanism, and Jackson has been hitting the ball with authority in spring training.

Leyland Anytime you get a veteran player, everyone wants to make a big deal about him being a good guy in the clubhouse. We got Johnny Damon because we wanted him to get some hits and score some runs. We didn't get him to tutor Austin Jackson. We got him to help us win games.

-- Tigers manager Jim Leyland

"I think I have power," Jackson said. "It's just a matter of taking the swing I have in batting practice into the game, and I haven't quite figured out how to do that yet."

Some things can be addressed through hard work and discipline. Jackson has shown a surprising ability to lay off high fastballs and breaking balls in the dirt during early Grapefruit League games, and he's diligently working on adding a new element to his arsenal.

Every other day, he spends 10-15 minutes with bench coach Gene Lamont laying down bunts against a pitching machine. It's just something for him to stow in his back pocket when the hits aren't coming and there's a Zack Greinke or Josh Beckett lurking around every corner.

"He's a very intelligent kid, and he's able to take what you give him and process it, analyze it and apply it immediately," McClendon said. "I have a sneaking suspicion he's the kind of kid who isn't going to be overwhelmed by big-time situations. They'll probably motivate him more than anything."

Jackson comes from Denton, Texas, the same town that produced former Miss America Phyllis George and Dallas Cowboys fullback Walt Garrison. He was skilled enough in basketball to earn a scholarship offer to Georgia Tech, but he turned it down to sign with the Yankees for an $800,000 bonus as an eighth-round pick in 2005.

Inge, who has yet to meet an athletic endeavor that he can't excel at, already has issued a personal challenge to Jackson.

"He and I talk about it all the time," Inge said. "I tell him, 'I'm going to dunk on you someday.'"

Jackson smiles softly and shakes his head in response.

"No," he said. "That'll never happen."

Leyland is giving Jackson a green light to steal bases in spring training to see how well he handles the responsibility. Damon, as a left-handed hitter, should benefit from the hole on the right side of the infield, and his track record shows he's willing to take a bunch of pitches.

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AP Photo/Eric GayJohnny Damon won't miss team stretching in Detroit, because he once again has Austin Jackson to get him where he needs to go.

In this, his fifth career stop, Damon has also shown he can handle a change of scenery. Damon's pseudo-negotiations with the Yankees in the offseason produced lots of "he said, he said" behind the scenes. Depending on your vantage point, Damon and agent Scott Boras scared off the Yankees to the point of no return with their early demands, or New York management decided from the outset that it wanted to go in a different direction.

Now that the ordeal is history, Damon said he continues to hear from former teammates who express regret that he's not still in the fold. Even though Damon says all the right things about Detroit, a part of him seems to share that opinion.

"If they really wanted me back, I would have been back and there would have been more negotiations," Damon said. "I know there are a lot of upset former teammates over there right now. That's too bad."

After 15 big league seasons, Damon still has the same youthful physique that's allowed him to stay remarkably durable and productive. He's working on a streak of 14 straight seasons with 140 or more games played, and he's 575 hits short of the 3,000 mark.

And he's still willing to pay the price. Damon spends much of the offseason cranking away on a stationary bike and an elliptical machine, then begins his sprint work in late January to get the fast-twitch muscles going. He does pushups by the hundreds, hits the weights harder than ever, and stretches constantly.

"I do it even though I'm not a good stretcher," he said.

Leyland, though cognizant of Damon's intangibles, downplays the notion that Damon can have a major impact on Jackson by passing along his accrued knowledge as a leadoff hitter. Damon has made 1,523 of his 2,013 career starts at the top of the order.

"Anytime you get a veteran player, everyone wants to make a big deal about him being a good guy in the clubhouse," Leyland said. "We got Johnny Damon because we wanted him to get some hits and score some runs. We didn't get him to tutor Austin Jackson. We got him to help us win games."

That said, if Jackson wants a tutorial in game awareness, he can always study the video clip of Damon's double steal against the Phillies in Game 4 of the World Series. It was one of the most stunning, memorable, intuitive plays in postseason history.

"Yeah, I saw it," Jackson said. "He just caught everybody sleeping."

The kid has a thirst for knowledge, and the veteran has some tricks left to share, and they'll try to do it in tandem this summer in Detroit. If they reach their desired destination, it won't really matter who leads and who follows.

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License To Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer