Long Beach Poly's DeSean Jackson will play football for Cal but also is a top baseball prospect who could be an early draft pick
By Dan Arritt, Times Staff Writer
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."