In the fall, DeSean Jackson won The Times’ Glenn Davis Award as the top high school football player in the Southland.
In the winter, he accepted a scholarship offer from California, choosing to play wide receiver for the Golden Bears over dozens of high-profile programs, including USC.
And this spring, Jackson may make news again, except this time on a different playing field.
The Long Beach Poly senior is a top baseball prospect who could be an early-round choice in the Major League Baseball draft next month.
A switch hitter who plays center field for Poly, Jackson wowed scouts with his play last summer at the Area Code Games, an annual showcase of the nation’s top high school players.
“It’s like being recruited all over again,” Jackson said of the baseball draft.
There are five tools major league scouts seek: hitting for average, hitting for power, arm strength, fielding ability and running speed. Jackson’s best attribute is his speed. His hitting skills, however, are relatively unpolished.
Jackson is batting a modest .296 with only two extra base hits for Poly, which finished third in the Moore League and will open play in the Southern Section Division I playoffs Friday against Pacific League champion Crescenta Valley.
In Friday’s game, Jackson probably will face right-hander Trevor Bell, another top senior prospect whose fastball has been clocked as high as 94 mph.
Chris Gwynn, a Poly graduate and a former major leaguer who works as a scout for the San Diego Padres, said a prospect such as Jackson offers a baseball team plenty of risk and reward.
“The risk would be that football is still his premier sport,” said Gwynn, whose older brother, Tony, starred at Poly, San Diego State and then for the Padres. “He hasn’t got that out of his blood yet. The reward is you’re getting somebody that has athletic ability you don’t see in too many kids.”
Jackson, who is 5 feet 11 and 185 pounds, said he will sign a professional baseball contract if the money is right, but he’s not sure how much it will take to make him give up his football scholarship. He is considering playing both sports.
Jackson said he has permission from football Coach Jeff Tedford to play both at Cal. Jackson said some teams have talked about signing him to a contract that would allow him to play rookie ball during the summer and play football in college.
Matt Ware and Ricky Manning Jr., former standout defensive backs at UCLA, had similar deals. Before joining the NFL, each struggled against minor league pitching, but the paychecks made the strikeouts more tolerable.
Ware, who hadn’t played baseball since his freshman year at Los Angeles Loyola, was selected in the 21st round of the 2001 draft by the Seattle Mariners and signed for $200,000 over five years. After his junior season in football, Ware was selected in the third round by the Philadelphia Eagles.
Manning, chosen by the Minnesota Twins in the 22nd round in 1999, had set Central Section records for career hits and stolen bases at Fresno Edison. He earned $70,000 each summer until he was drafted by the Carolina Panthers in the third round in 2003. He has become one of the league’s top young cornerbacks.
“Some of these athletes, they try to make something out of [playing two sports],” Chris Gwynn said, “but they’re probably more comfortable playing football. Sometimes the money changes the equation.”
It won’t be a surprise if Jackson develops into an NFL prospect. He caught 58 passes for 1,075 yards and scored 15 touchdowns last season, including eight of 60 yards or more, and led the Jackrabbits to the Southern Section Division I title. He was chosen the division’s player of the year and earned recognition on several All-American teams.
Then again, in baseball everyone seems to agree that Jackson has the makeup of a future major leaguer. Clearly, his best asset is his acceleration and speed, which allows him to steal bases with relative ease and track down fly balls seemingly destined for the gaps.
“I saw him run down a ball earlier this season,” said Brendan Hause, a scout for the Padres. “He just glided to it. It looked like a wide receiver going for a long pass.”
He did it on two occasions in a recent league game against Lakewood, each time with two outs and a runner on second base, helping preserve a 1-0 victory that lifted the Jackrabbits (16-10-1) into the playoffs.
Because he has always had football commitments, Jackson has never played baseball year-round. Still, his natural abilities have allowed him to steal 25 bases in 28 attempts and record six outfield assists while going errorless in 20 games this season.
He has, however, struggled to hit quality pitching. His average would be suffering more had he not gone 12 for 18 against the Moore League’s bottom three teams.
“He would definitely have to spend time hitting, as well as on his overall game,” Gwynn said. “He just has a little further to go, but somebody as athletic as him can make strides real quick.”
Jackson has struck out 18 times in 78 plate appearances, but he has limited his strikeouts to four in the last seven games.
“I’m starting to feel a rhythm at the plate,” Jackson said before a game last week in which he had a double and a home run in a 10-0 victory over Long Beach Jordan. “I’m starting to see the ball coming out of the pitcher’s hand.”
His ability to change a game was on display in another recent game, a 5-4 victory over host Long Beach Millikan, which came into the game atop the league standings.
Jackson led off with an opposite-field single, stole second and third, and later scored the first of five runs in the first inning. Then, with the Jackrabbits clinging to a two-run lead in the sixth, Jackson chased down a run-scoring line drive that bounced off the wall in right-center field, turned and made a perfect relay throw to the shortstop, who threw the batter out at third.
Jackson has been selected to participate in the All-American Baseball Game, which will be held June 13, six days after the amateur draft, at Isotopes Park in Albuquerque and will be televised live by FSN.
A nice honor. But again, nothing new.
Jackson has already had national television exposure. He was selected the most valuable player of the U.S. Army All-American Bowl after he caught seven passes for 141 yards and threw a 45-yard touchdown pass to lead the West team to a 35-3 victory on Jan. 15 at the Alamodome in San Antonio.
“Being one of the top players and being looked at, it’s something that I’ve worked real hard to do and I deserve it,” Jackson said. “When you work hard and it pays off, it’s a good feeling.”
And that goes for either sport.