Jackson Finds Critics Hiding in Each Corner : Baseball: Padre center fielder wants to prove he belongs in the starting lineup.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Padre center fielder Darrin Jackson knows they're watching. They're the scouts with radar guns and notepads. They're the opposing pitchers. They've even in his clubhouse.

They are the skeptics.

They're the ones who wonder whether the 1991 season--in particular the second half--was a fluke. How can a guy who had been given up by the Chicago Cubs, and buried on the bench with the Padres, suddenly become one of the top power-hitting center fielders in baseball?

For that matter, how can a guy who was sitting on the bench behind Shawn Abner, Jerald Clark and Thomas Howard become a statistical freak?

Jackson averaged one home run every 17.1 at-bats in 1991, the fourth highest rate in the National League behind the Giants' Kevin Mitchell (13.7), the Mets' Howard Johnson (14.8) and the Padres' Fred McGriff (17.0). Jackson became only the third player in National League history to hit more than 20 homers with fewer than 50 RBIs. And he was the only National League player to have started at least one game in eight different spots in the batting order.

Yet, when a man hits more home runs, 21, in one season than the previous three years in the major leagues combined, eyebrows tend to rise.

"I know there are people out there who think last year was a fluke," Jackson said. "You can tell by talking to some people that they don't think I can do it again.

"That's fine, because most of the same people never thought I could do what I did in the first place."

Jackson, who for the first time in his career enters spring training as the man to beat, was purely an afterthought last season. Although the Padres told him he would have every opportunity to win a starting job out of spring training, he never got a shot.

The center field job was going to Shawn Abner. Left field was going to Jerald Clark. And that was that.

"I didn't play left field. I didn't play center field," Jackson said. "I was the last resort."

When Abner failed at the outset of the season, instead of Jackson, they turned to Bip Roberts.

When Clark's swoon began, instead of Jackson, they turned to Howard.

After everyone was given first, second and third chances, then, it finally was Jackson's turn.

He became the Padres' regular center fielder Aug. 11 against the Cincinnati Reds. He hit a three-run homer against Geno Minutelli in the fifth inning, and remained in the starting lineup.

"It took a while, but things finally turned out all right," Jackson said. "I mean, it was obvious the plans were not for me to be their starting center fielder. Basically, I was the last guy, but I was the guy they ended up being happy with."

Said Padre Manager Greg Riddoch: "Let's face it, he was our most pleasant surprise of the year."

Now the burning question is, will Jackson do it again? He batted .262 with 21 homers and 49 RBIs in only 359 at-bats--including 112 at-bats in the first half. So what will happen in a full season?

"There's no question he's got to prove whether he can do it again," said Joe McIlvaine, Padre general manager. "That's what everyone wants to know."

Riddoch is trying to convince Jackson that there is no pressure. He told him the first day of spring that he would be the starting center fielder, so how can there be pressure?

"I don't want people to focus on the 21 homers," Riddoch said, "wanting to know if he can hit 21 again. Believe me, it's not like it's the home runs that got him playing. He's there because he's one of the best defensive center fielders in the league."

Jackson tries to shrug off the attention. He knows he's not going to average one homer every 17 at-bats again. He's not going to hit 40 homers in a season simply because he's an everyday player.

He's just grateful to change the perception that he's more than a platoon player or role player.

"It feels really strange," Jackson, 28, said, "because I really thought I didn't have too much time left in the big leagues. Guys who spend their careers on the bench don't last that long. I was hoping just to hang around long enough for expansion."

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