The baseball was launched into the furthest, most terrifying reaches of Comerica Park, where the only ball caught is on a bounce or scooped up to stop it from rolling.
As it climbed into the June night’s air, you could hear an entire crowd of 17,000-plus gasp, as if they all had been simultaneously slugged in the gut.
If it was possible to read the minds of such a throng, you could do so in two words, only one fit for print here. The first was “Oh.”
The Indians’ Mark Grudzielanek smacked the pitch from the Tigers’ Armando Galarraga so far into the depths of center field that you not only didn’t expect Austin Jackson to catch it, you were half expecting him to arrive in a taxi.
The baseball was hit so high and so far, it went back in time, because suddenly it was 1954 in the Polo Grounds in New York.
It was 1954 and Austin Jackson was Willie Mays of the New York Giants, tearing after a drive off the bat of Cleveland’s Vic Wertz in the World Series.
But, it was 2010, and this wasn’t the World Series—it was something more, though it was again an Indian hitter who was about to be victimized.
Such is the greatness of baseball that a seemingly run-of-the-mill game played on June 2nd can turn into a heart-stopping, thrilling spectacle whose attendance will grow from 17,000 to 170,000 as more people purport to have been in the stands that evening.
For at stake when Jackson was on the run was Galarraga’s pitching masterpiece—his almost-perfect game that was, at the time of Grudzielanek’s blast, still perfect.
It was the ninth inning, nobody out. Galarraga had set down the first 24 Cleveland Indians in order. But when Grudzielanek took Galarraga to the deepest part of the ballpark, the perfection looked to be gone.
Suddenly, here was Jackson, arriving in time to reach out with his left-gloved hand and stab at the air where he hoped the baseball might also be.
It was, and it was being snared by the pocket of Jackson’s glove below waist level as he raced, full bore, toward the center field fence, clearly putting his physical well-being aside for the moment.
The crowd erupted after its few seconds of gasps followed by disappointed silence.
Tigers TV announcer Mario Impemba screamed, “He CAUGHT it!,” as if he’d just seen Humpty Dumpty fall and not break.
Jackson’s play was the greatest catch I’d ever seen in a regular season game.
It wasn’t just the catch itself; it was when it occurred and what was at stake at the time. If Galarraga’s gem hadn’t been spoiled two batters later by an umpire’s inopportune time to be human, Jackson’s catch would be talked about as long as the perfect game. You couldn’t talk of one without speaking of the other.
Yet, umpire Jim Joyce’s blown call doesn’t take away from the magnitude of what Jackson did that night, for at that moment, we knew that the rookie center fielder—sometimes known as, “The Man Who Replaced Curtis Granderson”—was capable of special feats of greatness.
Playing center field is unlike any other charge in pro sports.
Center field isn’t a position, it’s three area codes. Depending on the size of the stadium, the center fielder has to take care of an area that, if it was a public park rather than a ballpark, would be assigned to a staff instead of a person.
Jackson played the position marvelously last season; his first in the big leagues. He also batted lead off and acquitted himself well, batting over .300 for most of the year.
Jackson did a lot of great things in 2010, which is nice because he just happens to be the most important player on the Tigers.
Don’t look at me like that.
No, I haven’t forgotten that guys named Miguel Cabrera, Magglio Ordonez and Victor Martinez are under contract by the Tigers too.
Jackson is the most important because if he gets a case of the sophomore jinxies, and the Tigers don’t have a reliable leadoff hitter, then the house of cards that is the team’s offense gets blown down.
Jackson strikes out a lot, which is understandable for a young player—but also more tolerable when that young player is hitting .300. It’s not so great if the batting average is .250 or .260.
Jackson has to get on base for the Tigers to be successful—he just has to. He struck out 170 times last year, but he also scored 103 runs. Lord knows how many times he scored off the bat of Cabrera.
But if Jackson doesn’t hit so well, if he isn’t getting things going by getting on base, innings will change noticeably. The big boys will be doing a lot more hitting with two outs and no runners in scoring position than you’d like.
The dreaded sophomore jinx is more likely to manifest itself with the bat, rather than the glove. But if Jackson falters there too, then you have just another average center fielder hitting .260.
The Tigers offense doesn’t look like such hot stuff under that scenario, no matter who his hitting third, fourth and fifth.
Big league ball teams don’t put bums in center field and bat them lead off. You do one or the other, you’re a valuable guy. You do BOTH? You’re off the charts valuable.
For all the brute strength of Cabrera, for all the sweet swings of Ordonez and Martinez, the Tigers need Austin Jackson to be the burning fuse at the top of the order. If the kid fizzles out, well, the Tigers will save a lot of money by not having to print playoff tickets.
Fiddlesticks on the pressure. We already know that Jackson can do some great things when the stakes are high. Just ask Armando Galarraga.