When the Tigers acquired Austin Jackson from the Yankees prior to the 2010 season, they did more than simply replace the popular Curtis Granderson in center field. They brought to Motown one of the few players who can match Granderson’s charisma. The 24-year-old Jackson isn’t a star — at least not yet — but he possesses an enviable mix of thoughtfulness and amiability. He can be serious, he can be fun-loving, he can even be baseball’s black Bugs Bunny.
David Laurila: Why do you play baseball?
Austin Jackson: I play baseball, basically, because I’ve always played baseball. I had an older brother that played and I think that’s a big part of why I started playing. Growing up, I mostly played it for fun; it was something I enjoyed as a kid. I started getting a little more serious when I was in high school, because I realized I actually had a chance to make a profession out of this.
I had another sport and kind of swam my decision of whether to enter pro baseball or go to college and play both basketball and baseball. That was a tough decision coming out of high school — as an 18-year-old — to choose to make a little money and do something you love, or go to college and see which way that takes you.
DL: Does being African American impact that type of decision?
AJ: It definitely has some impact. I can remember one year where there were only two or three other black guys on the team. I always wondered, growing up, “Why not more?” I wondered why there weren’t more African Americans playing baseball and that’s a question I’m still kind of confused by. Even so, I see certain things in the community that may [impact] the decision of why black kids don’t play.
DL: Sixty-plus years after integration, do African-American fans pay more attention to race than white fans?
AJ: I think they probably do, and I think it’s one of the reasons why more black kids aren’t playing. They don’t see as many African Americans playing baseball; they see them more in football and basketball.
I also think it’s advertised differently. You see the slam dunk, you see the hard hit in football, and baseball is one of those sports that you really have to appreciate. You really need to know what’s going on out there in order to sit and watch a nine-inning game. Maybe it’s a no hitter going for both teams, and you really have to appreciate something like that.
DL: Can players such as yourself impact future generations of young African Americans?
AJ: I definitely think so. I watched Ken Griffey, Jr. when I was growing up, and I did everything like him. I wore his cleats and his number; I even went as far as trying to hit like him. I was up there as a righty trying to hit like Ken Griffey, Jr.
DL: Have you ever tried to imagine what it was like to play during the early years of integration?
AJ: That would have been tough. To go out on the field at a time where we pretty much weren’t accepted — we were kind of looked down upon — would have been a completely different mindset. Struggling in baseball is one thing, but going out there knowing you’re not wanted out there is something else entirely.
DL: Are the early decades of integration fully appreciated by today‘s players?
AJ: Maybe not all, but from the guys I’ve talked to, I think they mostly are. Playing baseball, and understanding what those times were like — not only in baseball, but in life in general, every-day life — you have to appreciate it.
I’ve talked to Willie Horton, Reggie Jackson, and guys like that, who have told me that I have it a lot easier than they had it back in their day. And I think that’s what made guys like that who they are today. They had to be tough to get through those times. A lot of people couldn’t have made it through those times.
DL: Willie Horton went into the streets, in full uniform, hoping to help quell the 1967 Detroit race riots. What does that say about him?
AJ: Wow. It shows a lot about who he is. I think it shows how that meant a lot more to him than just the game of baseball — politics and how blacks were treated at that time. He stood up for blacks.
DL: With the city itself in mind, what was your reaction to being traded to Detroit?
AJ: With a city like Detroit…if you watch TV, it gets a bad rep from a lot of people — watching the HBO series and things like that. But personally, it was nothing like I expected. There’s crime everywhere in the world, so Detroit maybe has a worse rep for that than it should.
[The ethnic makeup] never really crossed my mind too much. I didn’t really think about Detroit being a majority black, when I got traded.
DL: What about the baseball side of the trade?
AJ: As a human being, I think you’re naturally confused. You’re a little frustrated, maybe even a little mad, but only because you feel you never got that opportunity. I didn’t get the opportunity to play at that level in New York. That was the part that kind of got me, but coming to Detroit was also a great opportunity to make a big-league ball club. I can’t complain about that.
DL: Is it easier to play in Detroit than it would have been in New York?
AJ: I would say that it is, for the simple fact that…nobody told me to be like somebody. I wasn’t expected to fill a Hall of Famer’s shoes. It was more like, “Hey, this is your time to come and show what you can do.” I wasn’t being compared to Hall of Famers.
Talking to Jim [Leyland] when I first got to Detroit, he was telling me, “Just go out and be Austin Jackson.” That put me at ease and allowed me to play my game. When you hear that from the manager — “be you; be yourself and your own personality” — it puts you at ease.
DL: The media presence is obviously greater in New York.
AJ: Yeah, I got a little bit of that in spring training, in big-league camp with the Yankees. There were reporters there all the time, although not for me. I got to see A-Rod, Jeter, Cano and Posada go through that. They’re pretty good at it, though. They know the right things to say. Getting a chance to be around them, and around that type of atmosphere, you kind of learn some things. You pick up some tips.
DL: Can where you play impact your performance?
AJ: I think it can, at least for some people. Mentally, it can weigh on some guys a little bit, depending on where you play and how the fans react. To a certain extent, you know [what the fans are saying]. You try to stay away from that, because when you’re not playing well, everybody is going to have something to say. A good thing about baseball is that you can forget about what you did yesterday and focus on what you have to do today. It helps to understand that.
DL: Earlier, you mentioned getting a chance to be yourself and your own personality. Do you have any thoughts on that subject?
AJ: Well, I can tell you that when I’m at home relaxing, I like to watch cartoons. Old-school cartoons, new-school cartoons — it keeps me in a playful mood, so I’m not so serious all the time. I enjoyed watching them when I was a kid, and they put me in a good mood then, so why not continue that?
If I was a cartoon character, I think I’d be Bugs Bunny. I’d be the baseball Bugs Bunny, because I’m kind of sneaky a little bit.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.