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Tears, Love and Finally Opportunity

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sylvia Jackson remembers lying in bed night after night, pondering the welfare of her six children, terrified of the future and angry at the world. She’d usually fall asleep with her pillow case moistened with tears.

Sylvia could tolerate the pain and heartache of being a single parent. Three husbands had come and gone. Considering the way her relationships had gone with men, she could do without them. But her two young kids, the babies of the family, were the ones who caused the sorrow.

When Sylvia walked into the grocery store or shopping mall with her two youngest, there were always stares. Whispers would follow. Crude, vulgar remarks sometimes followed.

“Thank God they would never say anything to the kids,” Sylvia Jackson said, “but there were a lot of times they would say something to me. It was like I was to blame. I was the problem. You can’t imagine the stupid things people would say.”

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It was the same hatred and prejudice that forced her to leave her hometown of Wichita, Kan., and move to Culver City. It was the same ignorance that caused her parents to desert her, saying they no longer wanted her to live in the same state with them.

While her two oldest sons and two daughters are white--born during her first two marriages--her two youngest sons are black, products of her third marriage.

And Sylvia Jackson just happens to be a white, Midwestern woman with red hair.

“I’ve gone through some rough times,” she said. “There were times where I couldn’t even get a job. People just didn’t want to hire a woman who had black children.

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“You’ve got to remember, people during that time weren’t used to anything like that. Those things just didn’t happen. There was a lot of prejudice.”

Sylvia Jackson then reflected on what has transpired the past 27 years since her youngest son was born. She held back the tears while trying to contain her emotions.

“Right now, I feel like the luckiest woman in the world,” she said. “I can’t believe I have a son in the major leagues. And the kind of man he’s grown up to be, you couldn’t ask for a better person.”

His name is Darrin Jackson. He plays center field for the Padres.

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“There’s lots of times when people ask how I got to be where I am,” Jackson said. “They ask who I owe my success to. There’s a lot of people who helped me along the way, particularly my wife.

“But the one person who stands out, the one who has meant more to me than anybody in the world, is my mom. She’s the one responsible for all this. She’s the one who’s done more for me than any mother I can imagine.

“Sometimes I can’t believe the things she had to go through for me. It’s hard imagining, especially during those times, what people must have been saying about her.

“When guys start talking about what their parents have done for them, I always say, ‘Hey, wait ‘til you hear about my mom.

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“ ‘You’re not going to believe this.’ ”

Darrin Jackson never got to know his father. George Jackson left the family when Darrin was nine months old. He came back briefly, but left for good in 1965.

Darrin was two years old, and his brother, Randy, was three.

“I probably only saw him two, maybe three, times in my life growing up,” Jackson said. “Everyone used to say I got my baseball talent from him. They say he used to be a pretty good ballplayer.

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“But I don’t know. You hear all kinds of things. I don’t know what’s true or not. He wasn’t around when I grew up, so it wasn’t like he was instrumental or anything in why I chose baseball.

“He can’t take credit for what I’ve done, or anything like that.”

Sylvia was solely responsible for the upbringing. When she wasn’t working to provide for the family, Sylvia expended all her energy making sure the kids were being raised properly.

It would have been nice if her friends were around to lend a helping hand. It would have been ideal for her parents to be around, particularly her father, to provide that needed influence. Instead, everyone was back in Wichita.

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Sylvia Jackson was not invited to return.

“It was pretty bad,” Sylvia said. “I remember meeting Darrin’s father at a dance on an Air Force base in Salinas, Kan. That’s where it started. We used to have to sneak around just to see each other.

“When we talked about getting married, my parents were pretty upset. They told me if I marry him, I would have to leave Kansas. I look back now and think, ‘How could they have made me leave Kansas?’

“But I didn’t want to cause trouble. I didn’t want to make them unhappy. So we left. We packed all our bags and never came back.

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“When I look back, it was the best move I ever could have made. I mean, there still weren’t any black people in our neighborhood. It was all white. But everybody liked Darrin and Randy. They never had problems at all. They were accepted by everybody.

“I was the one they discriminated against.”

The kids never knew about the racism. They never were exposed to the hatred. Darrin and Randy grew up not knowing what the Watts rioting was all about or that there ever was racial disharmony.

“The way we were raised,” Darrin Jackson said, “no one ever knew anything was abnormal. We never thought about it. And considering my mom and our family, there was never a prejudiced bone in our bodies.

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“Really, it wasn’t until I got into baseball when I started to hear about things. Things that make you sick. Things that get you so mad.

“But because of my upbringing, maybe that’s why I can deal with a lot of stuff people can’t handle.”

Perhaps Jackson’s background enhances his popularity. Maybe it’s his zany personality, in which he teases anyone and everyone. Whatever the true reason, there’s not a soul in the Padre clubhouse who isn’t rejoicing along with Jackson over his newfound success.

“I think everyone in here wants to see Darrin do well,” said Padre right fielder Tony Gwynn, perhaps his closest friend on the team. “I don’t know anyone in here who doesn’t like him. He’s impossible not to like.

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“And if Darrin doesn’t like you, well, you better look in a mirror and see what’s wrong.”

It has been 10 years since Jackson signed his first professional baseball contract--receiving a $77,000 signing bonus from the Chicago Cubs out of Culver City High School. For the first time, he finds his name consistently in the lineup.

“It’s really the first time,” Jackson said, “anyone gave me a chance.”

Considered nothing more than an extra outfielder throughout his major league career, Jackson has won the Padres’ starting center field job. No longer does he play only against left-handed pitchers. No longer does he have to wait for the club to experiment with the so-called young kids. Center field has become Jackson’s job to lose.

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“For two years,” Gwynn said, “he told me that if he ever was in the everyday lineup, he’d bat .280 and hit 25 home runs. I never knew if he could, so I always just took his word for it.

“Now I’m finding out his word’s pretty good. It’s obvious he can do it.”

Jackson ranks third on the Padres with a .278 batting average, is tied for second with 12 homers and is first with a .516 slugging percentage. It is remarkable, considering he was nothing more than a platoon player until two weeks ago.

He had to sit on the bench while the Padres gave Shawn Abner his opportunity at the starting center-field job. He sat around while Thomas Howard was given his shot at the job. He started to play a little more frequently when they allowed him to platoon with Howard. And now, albeit he will occasionally sit against certain right-handed pitchers, it’s Jackson’s turn.

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“I can’t tell you how much I’ve been impressed by Darrin, how much I respect him,” Padre veteran pitcher Larry Andersen said. “There’s a lot of guys who would have been bitching and moaning in his situation. Guys who would have been stirring up all kinds of crap in the clubhouse.

“He never said a word about it. He was still outgoing, still waiting for his chance. So when guys like that finally get their chance, and do something with it, you can’t help but pull for them.”

Said Gwynn: “I talked to Darrin all winter about this season. He thought he’d finally get a chance to prove himself. I think he knew Jerald (Clark) was going to get the left-field job, but he still thought he had a shot at center.

“So the first day of camp comes along, and (Padre Manager) Greg (Riddoch) has this team meeting. He’s talking about how everyone’s got to play hard, and everyone’s got to pull for each other. He says, ‘If Shawn Abner goes over the wall to make a catch, I want you guys to get excited. Or if Shawn Abner hits a home run, stand up and greet him in the dugout. Or if Shawn Abner . . . ‘

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“DJ just looked at me, and said, ‘Ah, hell, I know who’s got the center-field job now.’ ”

Maybe a few years ago, Jackson would have been discouraged over being overlooked once again. Perhaps he would have lashed out in disgust. But when you realize you’re fortunate to even be alive today, your disposition has a way of changing.

It was Sept. 21, 1987. He was supposed to be in center field for the Cubs that afternoon. Instead, he was lying on an operating table, undergoing surgery for testicular cancer.

“I was devastated,” Jackson said. “I couldn’t believe I had cancer. I had waited all my life for this opportunity, and now they were taking it away.

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“It was like, ‘Now I’ve got cancer, now of all times! I just got to the big leagues. God, don’t do this to me now. Wait. Can’t we wait for awhile on this?’

“Baseball meant absolutely everything to me. I really couldn’t believe this was happening.”

While Jackson’s concern was the termination of his baseball career, his family wondered aloud if this would be the end of his life. They could have cared less if he ever saw another fastball. They just wanted him to live.

“That was the worst time of my whole life,” said Sylvia Jackson. “I just about lost my mind. None of us knew what would happen.”

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Said Randy Jackson: “It was an unbelievable time for the whole family. I mean, he was only 23, and you just don’t think something like that can happen. My little brother, cancer?

“And my mom was just a wreck. She was an absolute wreck. It was a nightmare. I think we were more concerned about her than Darrin. If anything had happened to Darrin, oh my God, I don’t know what would have happened to my mom.

“I mean, that’s how close they are. That’s her baby.”

Jackson underwent the initial operation and, 39 days later, was back in the hospital for a second operation to remove lymph nodes, making sure the cancer had not spread. There were 52 lymph nodes removed from his body and not until three months later was he able to even walk again.

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It has been four years, and the cancer is in remission. The memories, however, refuse to fade. Darrin Jackson doesn’t need to look at the 16-inch scar running from the middle of his chest to his groin to remind him how his life has changed.

“Before that happened,” Jackson said, “baseball was everything to me. I had to get to the big leagues. I just had to.

“Don’t get me wrong, I still want to play this game for 10 years, but if I don’t, it’s not the end of the world any more. My perspective changed.

“Maybe that’s helped me deal with everything I’ve gone through in my career.”

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The biggest obstacle in Jackson’s career simply is shedding the image of being an extra outfielder. There are few people who question his ability, but he is always mentioned as a role player when his name surfaces in organizational meetings.

He’s a fine defensive outfielder, perhaps the best on the Padres. He has plenty of power, as evidenced by his rate of one homer every 15.8 at-bats. The rap on Jackson, though, is that he can’t hit right-handed pitching. They cite his age and act as if it’s too late to give him a chance to prove himself.

“That’s the thing that gets me,” Jackson said. “No one’s ever given me that chance. It’s like I’m an old guy or something. Hey, I’m 27 years old. Twenty-seven. But I’m considered the old guy and everyone else is considered young.”

Few people realize Jerald Clark actually is 18 days older than Jackson, who turns 28 on Thursday. They don’t realize Thomas Howard only is one year younger.

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“That’s the scary part,” Jackson said. “I’ve got almost 200 at-bats this year, but I have no idea how many more I’ll get. I’ve done everything they’ve asked. I don’t know what more I can do. Hopefully, now I can get that extended look.

“My greatest dream is for someone to say, ‘You’re our center fielder.’ That’s my dream. It’s always been my dream. And it won’t go away.”

The Padres have not officially stated that Jackson is now the center fielder, but he has started 14 of the past 17 games. And he has begun to dispel the notion he can’t hit against right-handed pitching. He’s batting .272 off right-handers this season with four homers in 93 at-bats. Off lefties, he’s batting .286 with eight homers in 98 at-bats.

“I actually see right-handers better than lefties,” Jackson said, “I really do. But when you don’t get a chance to face them every day, you get rusty. I think they’re starting to find out what I can do.”

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The Padres, who have been searching for a starting center fielder all season, are cautiously optimistic when talking about Jackson. They want to find out by the end of the season whether he can do the job. If he can, it’ll be one less position they’ll need to fill in the off-season.

“I’m in a tough situation right now,” Jackson said, “because my future’s in their hands. If they go back and just bat me against left-handers, it’s so easy for my career to go backward. And when you’re a bench player, you’re very expendable. You can be out of this game before you know it. If you don’t do your job, you’re gone.”

The Padres aren’t making any guarantees, but it looks like the job will belong to Jackson as long as he continues to perform. And since June 30, no one has been better. In his past 23 starts, Jackson is hitting .348 with eight homers and 14 RBIs.

“When you get on a roll like he’s been on,” Gwynn said, “if he’s not in there, I think it’s a little tough for all of us to understand.”

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Patience, it seems, has this habit of running in Jackson’s family. When his father and mother split in 1965, they never bothered to get divorced. Instead, as Sylvia Jackson says, “it was the longest separation in marital history, 26 years.”

It wasn’t until early last December that Sylvia Jackson even filed for divorce. She figured as long as she still was legally married she would not even think of marriage again.

When Christmas came around, Darrin and his wife, Darlene, invited her to join them for Christmas at their home in Gilbert, Ariz. Sylvia did not know Darlene also invited George Jackson, Darrin’s father. Likewise, George didn’t know Darlene was coming.

“It was all my wife’s idea,” Jackson said, “and when she told me, I said, ‘Oh my God, I don’t know about that.’ She kept insisting, so I decided to go along with it.

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“We didn’t know what would happen. I mean, we were panicking. We thought this would be either one great Christmas or the worst one of our lives.”

The result?

It was like old times. Sylvia and George Jackson hit it off like they were childhood sweethearts. They now talk frequently on the phone and George has even made plans to see Sylvia at her home in Temecula in the next couple of months.

“It has been 26 years, but the final chapter hasn’t been written yet,” said Darrin Jackson.

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Said Sylvia Jackson: “I was totally shocked, totally shocked. It’s been 11 years since I’ve seen the man, and everything worked out so well. That would be really ironic, wouldn’t it, after all those years?”

Sylvia Jackson’s voice trailed off. She started to rave about her son, wondering how she could be more proud. That son of her’s . . . how could she be so fortunate?

“It’s unbelievable how close they are,” Randy Jackson said. “She always tells us, ‘There’s six kids, and I love you all the same.’ But we all know there’s that special love between Darrin and my mom.

“Darrin’s her baby and, no matter how old he gets, he’ll always be her baby.

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“You know, I don’t know what my mom and brother would do without each other.”

Said Darlene Jackson: “What’s happened is that this child, which was born out of a union that no one would honor, now has vindicated his mom. Now she can say, ‘Look at my son. Look at what he’s done.’ ”


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