The Twists and Turns of Edwin Jackson

Baseball News
6 months ago

It is 2019, and Edwin Jackson is making his first major league start of the season.

As far as games in mid-May go, this is not a particularly compelling one. The Blue Jays are not very good, and neither are the Giants; it is a sleepy grey afternoon in San Francisco, cool and windy. The Giants do have Shaun Anderson making his major league debut, and the Jays have the constant allure of Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. There is little promise, though, of fireworks on the pitching side.

Jackson is a veteran right-hander filling in a vacancy in a weak rotation. There is no expectation of transcendence here. He opens the frame by hitting Joe Panik with a cutter; he follows that up with a four-pitch walk to Steven Duggar, he of the 5.0% walk rate. Two men on, nobody out.

Jackson doesn’t seem frazzled. He gets ahead of Evan Longoria, and then, on a 93.6 mph fastball, induces a double play ball. And though he doesn’t emerge from the inning unscathed thanks to a Pablo Sandoval double, the damage is minimal. One run comes across; the game is tied.

When the third out is recorded, Jackson walks back to the dugout, having finished his first inning on a new team for the 14th time.

***

It is 2003, and Edwin Jackson is far from home.

Which is to say, he’s far from the place he has called home most recently. That would be Jacksonville, Florida, where he plays with the Double-A Jacksonville Suns. Despite the name, he’d only been there for a year. The year before that, he was in Albany, Georgia; the year before that, he was in Vero Beach with the GCL Dodgers. Before that, before professional baseball, he lived in Columbus, Georgia, and in Germany, and in Oklahoma, and Louisiana, and in Germany again before that. Today is his 20th birthday, and he’s racked up more steps on his proverbial pedometer than many people accrue in a lifetime. Today is his 20th birthday, and he is standing here on the mound at Bank One Ballpark, taking the injured Hideo Nomo’s spot in the Dodgers rotation, ready to make his major-league debut against none other than Randy Johnson.

“I’m still like a little kid when you take him to Disney World,” Jackson had said, on the occasion of his arrival in Phoenix. “Eyes open and admiring where you’re at.”

There are a lot of eyes on him tonight. The Dodgers, though far behind in the division, are still gunning for a wild card spot here in early September. They are putting their faith in Jackson, an erstwhile teenager, to help carry them to the finish line. And they are putting their faith in him as hope for the future. Along with fellow teen pitcher Greg Miller, Jackson is supposed to herald a brighter future for a recently-weak Dodgers farm system. The Dodgers drafted him out of high school in Columbus, converted him from an outfielder to a pitcher, and found a durable arm with a fastball that could touch 98. If everything goes right, Jackson could be the next homegrown Dodgers franchise pitcher.

On his 20th birthday, in his major league debut, he beats Randy Johnson 4-1. Six innings, one run, four hits, four strikeouts, no walks. Eric Gagne closes the game for his 50th save, and the storybook beginning is complete. Everyone who sees him raves about him. Easy gas. Dwight Gooden, Jr. The future of the Dodgers — and he’s right here. The assumption being, of course, that he wasn’t going anywhere.

Two years later, with 75.1 innings pitched in the major leagues and a 5.50 ERA, Edwin Jackson was traded for the first time.<

***

Few players have been on the journey that Edwin Jackson has been on. Octavio Dotel played for 13 teams; Mike Morgan, Matt Stairs, and Ron Villone each played for 12. Following Jackson’s start for the Blue Jays yesterday, though — the second time he has been traded to the team, the first time he will actually appear — he now stands alone at the top of that well-traveled list, having appeared on 14 major league teams over 16 seasons. The statistic itself is, as Jackson himself has described it, little more than scoreboard trivia when it comes to evaluation one might consider meaningful in a baseball sense. Playing for 14 teams in 16 seasons is, in essence, coincidental, the result of a convergence of random circumstances from which no grander meaning can be derived.

It is in that very randomness, though — the sheer volume of lines intersecting at just the right points — that you find the marvel of Jackson’s career. Jackson has been traded for Max Scherzer and, funnily enough, Octavio Dotel; he has had a locker next to Rickey Henderson; he has played in two World Series, one for the American League and one for the National League, and won a ring once. He has pitched in an All-Star Game, thrown a no-hitter, set the White Sox record for strikeouts in a home opener, and led the league in losses. His career has been characterized by an anonymity of performance that has kept him nomadic. But the sheer volume of lines he has drawn on the map through his travels have created more opportunities for intersection. While Jackson’s career might not seem in its totality to suggest much in the way of greatness, the trivia of his long years of travel create something entirely unique in the history of baseball. It is hard to think of someone else who has interacted so much, played so much as teammate and opponent, with all the primary players of an entire generation.

And through all the inconsistency, the constant moves and the fluctuations in quality of play and the more-than-occasional wildness, Jackson has maintained a remarkable level of steadiness. His average fastball velocity in 2018, at age 36, was not far off from where it was when PITCHf/x first started tracking velocity in 2008. He has never been injured — Jackson claims to never so much as iced his arm. When he debuted, they called his stuff “easy gas.” He may not have ended up being the next Doc Gooden, but on some level, it has come easy for Jackson. Whether he is in Los Angeles or Phoenix or Chicago or Detroit, whether it is 2005 or 2014, his pitches sail in much as they always have.

Jackson’s childhood in a military family, moving from continent to continent three times over the first eight years of his life, prepared him exceptionally well for the transient existence that awaited him as a major leaguer. After all, Jackson was given far more practice than the average person at adjusting to new environments, accepting the movement of life. He knew to keep things loose, keep his eyes open, appreciating the places around him as they changed. His attitude has remained grounded, whether he was the Dodgers’ rookie sensation, the Tigers’ All-Star, or the Cubs’ pariah. Perhaps that’s what has allowed him to stick around this long. His career has been nothing if not resilient. Most people would get worn down from all that movement eventually.

***

It is 2010, and Edwin Jackson has just thrown a no-hitter.

It is serendipitous, perhaps, that Jackson’s no-hitter comes against the Rays, that first team he was traded to. And serendipitous again that the team for whom he was pitching, the Diamondbacks, was the team he opposed in his debut half a decade ago. And that Randy Johnson, the pitcher he beat that day, is the only other Diamondbacks pitcher to throw a no-hitter. And it seems fitting that this no-hitter developed in the specific, unlikely way that it did: with seven walks and 70 pitches thrown through the first three innings, with an error and a hit batsman — and at the end of it all, Jackson emerging somehow victorious, leaping into the air with his glove raised high, his teammates crowding around him.

Right now, it doesn’t matter that Jackson wasn’t the pitcher the Dodgers wanted and expected him to be. It doesn’t matter that, when he was traded away from the Rays after three seasons, that Rays GM Andrew Friedman neglected to tell him where he had been traded or that his breakout season with the Tigers in 2009 was followed by yet another move. It doesn’t matter that in a decade people on the Internet will call his the worst no-hitter ever, scoff at his achievement, say his name with the words “no-hitter” with a little laugh hidden in them, as though they couldn’t possibly fit together. He had to throw 149 pitches to do it — but he did it. He stuck around, all the same. 

***

Jackson’s Blue Jays debut, in the end, is not all that inspiring. But it’s not bad, either. It’s serviceable: five innings, three runs (two earned), two walks, a strikeout, and a hit batter. He started a bit wild, but he settled down. He gave the Jays, a team whose chance of winning are generally poor, a chance to win.

Before the game, Jackson told Sportsnet, “I’m not coming in to be a superhero or a save-the-team-type guy. I’m just coming in to be myself and I feel like myself is enough.” It’s been enough for 16 years, and it’s been enough for 14 teams. Yesterday, too, it was enough.

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