How’s this for an intemperate statement?
I’m ready, just 60 games into his first Major League season, to declare Austin Jackson the greatest centerfielder of the Tigers modern era.
Say what? Yup, I mean it. You knew something was up with this kid when Al Kaline was quoted — in two separate statements — by Lynn Henning of the Detroit News (the best day-to-day baseball writer in town) as predicting “superstar” status for Jackson before this season began. Those kind of predictions just don’t come from Al. When he says something like that, people — even a dumbass like me — pay attention. And the kid thus far has proven Kaline to be on the money. His fielding has been nothing short of stunning, and the fact that he’s showing a terrific hitting eye and is a constant threat on the bases only further support my claim.
Those incredible catches he’s making in deep left-center and deep right-center field, where he races across acres of grass to make Willie Mays-like over-the-shoulder basket grabs are unlike anything I’ve ever seen from a centerfielder for the Bengals. Go down the modern list, and you might agree with my point.
From the 1950’s on, the Tigers regularly had phenomenal outfielding from Kaline in right field, but rarely had outstanding accompaniment for Al in center field. For much of Kaline’s career he played alongside good-field, mild-hitting Bill Tuttle. Those of us who grew up listening to Van Patrick call the Tigers games on radio got used to hearing bombastic Van excitedly placing Tuttle “back, back, back on the warning track!” … invariably followed by “Tuttle leaps! ……….. (long pause) ……. and makes the catch!” Granted, Tuttle was a good centerfielder, but that good?. After his retirement as a baseball announcer, Patrick allowed that he may have “exaggerated” Tuttle’s performances a little, just to goose up the excitement for his radio listeners. (Of course Van said the same of his announcing of Lions games, claiming that he helped make Joe Schmidt’s fame by exaggerating Joe’s performance on the Lions defensive side. He was probably lying about that; nobody who ever saw Schmidt play felt he needed any boosting from Van. And Patrick’s claim REALLY annoyed Joe.)
The ’68 Tigers had what I had considered the best modern centerfield play, pre-2010, as personified by Mickey Stanley. The Mick, no great threat offensively, was smooth as silk in center, a worthy sideman to Kaline, and had the potential to make some eye-popping grabs himself. But I feel Austin Jackson has already made more incredible catches in this partial season than Stanley made in his entire top-notch career. I know Chet Lemon had a good reputation in the ’80s as a defensive centerfielder, but that was the extent of it as far as I was concerned: Merely good. Granted he covered a lot of territory in Tiger Stadium, but I don’t recall the kind of amazing catches that Jackson is making look routine. Lemon had a career-grab in the ’84 postseason, going really deep into centerfield, almost to the flagpole, to grab a long drive. But Austin Jackson — to me — already has passed the fielding exploits of Lemon.
I’m telling ya — the kid’s that good. And what a thrill that he plays for us. He’s so good that he looks like the kind of young star we’re used to seeing coming to town with the Yankees or the Red Sox. It’s a pleasure to watch him play, and a kick just to see him in the Tigers’ everyday lineup. The BEST centerfielder of the modern Tigers era? Ladies and gentlemen … enjoy the magic … of Austin Jackson. Long may he reign.
(And an after-note: I once asked Sparky Anderson why Chet Lemon had that weird habit of sliding head-first into first base every now and then. His Sparkyesque reponse: “Tommy, you don’t know why he does that, do ya? Well let me tell ya, I don’t know why he does it. And more than that … HE don’t know why he does it.”)