Detroit fans have not seen much of Austin Jackson since that emotional day at Comerica Park when he suddenly became an ex-Tiger. Though we have heard him: last summer Jackson joined the team’s radio booth to call a three-game series.
But Jackson was never known for his words in the five years he wore the Old English D. The quiet outfielder was better known for his glove play in center field, where he reminder a lot of Detroiters of Chet Lemon.
Surely, the Tigers hadn’t seen as great a defensive center fielder since Gary Pettis, and while “Ajax” never won a Gold Glove Award, he carved a neat place for himself in Tiger lore by helping the team to four straight division titles.
Roaming Comerica Park, But Rarely Diving
Most Tiger fans will think of defense when they think of Jackson, who played 667 games in center for Jim Leyland from 2010 to 2014. He was noted for playing relatively shallow, but had the skill to turn his back on the infield and go get the baseball deep in the expansive regions of Comerica Park’s outfield pasture.
He was an instinctive center fielder who hated to dive for the baseball, and Jackson was an excellent leaper. His first step was usually the correct one.
“We have one of the best [center fielders] out there,” said Leyland in 2011, when Jackson committed just three errors while posting a range factor 10 percent better than league average. His teammates appreciated his effort.
“He gets balls out there that make me shake my head,” teammate and pitcher Rick Porcello said in 2012.
The Last To Know He Was Traded
At the trade deadline in 2014 the Tigers wanted to add a starting pitcher. The previous three seasons the team had won the AL Central, but been eliminated in the Championship Series twice, and in the World Series in 2012. It was a star-studded team, but the front office craved one more piece to push the team over the top.
Just before the deadline, Detroit finalized a three-team deal with Tampa Bay and Seattle to get All-Star southpaw David Price, one the game’s best lefties. The cost was steep: Jackson, pitcher Drew Smyly, and minor league shortstop Willy Adames to Tampa Bay. The nature of the trade, completed as close to the deadline as nearly possible, meant the Tigers needed to remove Jackson from the game they were playing at Comerica Park immediately.
Jackson was called in from center field and told he had been traded to Seattle. There was much speculation that Jackson might be dealt, so it wasn’t a shock. But on the other hand, to a player who had debuted as a Rookie for Detroit, it was a shocking moment.
Seeing as how everyone had cell phones in their pockets, the fans knew what was going on and gave Jackson a standing ovation during his last act as a Tiger as he trotted in from center. Teammates hugged him, including Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander.
Years in Detroit were Special
In spite of his unceremonious exit from the Motor City, Jackson enjoyed the finest years of his career as a Tiger. He almost never played for the team, however. It was only after the Tigers front office insisted that he be included in a trade that he joined the organization.
Jackson arrived in Detroit as part of a trade that should go down as one of the best in Detroit sports history. At the 2009 winter meetings, the Tigers acquired Jackson, relievers Phil Coke and Daniel Schlereth, and a pitcher named Max Scherzer in a three-team trade with the Diamondbacks and Yankees. It was orchestrated by general manager Dave Dombrowski, one of the best front office minds of his generation.
Scherzer went on to win a Cy Young Award in Detroit, and is well on his way to a Hall of Fame date in Cooperstown. Coke was maddening, but in 2012 he caught fire and saved several big games down the stretch and in the postseason. And Jackson: he became a staple at the top of the lineup and out there in center field.
In 2010, Jackson finished second in AL Rookie of the Year voting when he hit .293 with 103 runs scored, 34 doubles, 10 triples, and 27 stolen bases. In his first month as a Tiger he led MLB with 36 hits in April. That’s how you win fans over.
Jackson led the league in triples in each of the next two seasons, and hit .300 in 2012. He batted .353 with a home run in the 2012 ALCS sweep of the Yankees.
Teammate Don Kelly said that the media got Jackson all wrong.
“People think [he’s] shy or quiet,” Kelly said in a 2013 interview with the Free Press, “but he is silly and fun in the clubhouse around the guys. I love him as a teammate.”
After Detroit, Jackson ping-ponged around baseball, playing for the Mariners, Cubs, White Sox, Indians, Giants, and finally the Mets in 2018. He tried to secure a roster spot in 2020 during the pandemic but didn’t get an offer. He was still thinking of himself as a player in 2021, but after a season where his phone never rang, he quietly retired.