SARASOTA, Fla – Conor Jackson finds himself without the same advantages that most big leaguers have this time of year.
While spring is typically the time for players to find themselves before a grueling 162-game season, the 30-year-old from Austin, Texas is trying to earn a job.
After landing a non-roster invite to spring training with the Baltimore Orioles, Jackson knows he doesn’t have the opportunity to waste.
“I think it’s kind of a do-or-die mentality,” said Jackson, outside Ed Smith Stadium. “I don’t have the luxury of having slow springs anymore. I’m not guaranteed a roster spot.
“I’m taking every at bat like its game seven of the World Series. It’s the approach you have to take when you’re battling for a spot.”
Jackson has been making an impression early at Orioles camp, as the right-hander is sporting a .378 average in 37 at bats this spring.
With his team-leading three home runs, he’s also showing off some of the power that he demonstrated during the 2006 and 2007 seasons, when he hit 15 homers as a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
“Sometimes, it’s about timing and getting a guy at the right time,” Orioles Manager Buck Showalter told Roch Kubatko of MASN. “This is a guy who’s hit .300 in the big leagues with 600 plate appearances in a year. Not a lot of them floating around.”
His early success at camp was almost hindered in late February, when Jackson left a workout with a sore back.
“You can’t impress anyone on the training room table,” said Jackson. “You gotta play through some stuff, especially when you’re battling for a job.
“Obviously, it’s something you keep track of and you don’t want it lingering throughout the year, but you gotta power through it.”
Powering through it is something Jackson has been doing throughout his career.
After three successful seasons with the Diamondbacks – where he averaged 14 home runs, 71 RBI’s and hit .292 – Jackson’s career ran into a roadblock in 2009 when he contracted Valley Fever.
A fungal disease that is inhaled and found in parts of the southwestern United States, Valley Fever attacks the lungs and as Jackson described it, is “mono on steroids.”
“There weren’t a lot of positive days,” said Jackson, who lost 35 pounds during his illness. “It’s physically and mentally debilitating. When you lose so much weight and miss a full year in your prime, you lose so much and it’s kind of an uphill battle.”
In what was meant to be the prime years of his baseball career, Jackson spent the next 10 months fighting questions.
“There were a lot of days where I didn’t think that I would play baseball again.”
When he was well enough to return in 2010, Jackson had already lost his starting job in Arizona and struggled at the plate due to missing the previous year.
After hitting only .238 with one home run in 151 at bats, he was traded to the Oakland Athletics and continued to bounce around the next two years after not finding success in California.
A brief stop in Boston, followed by little over a month in Texas and finally a minor league offer by the White Sox, left Jackson with little opportunity to get the playing time he needed to get his career back on track.
“The last few years … I was a platoon guy and didn’t get that many at bats so I think that it was two-years searching for a swing that I had lost,” said Jackson.
The White Sox hung onto Jackson and sent him to their Triple-A affiliate in Charlotte, providing him the chance to be an everyday starter.
“I think last year gave me the ability to go down and get every day at bats and I think that benefited me quite a bit,” said Jackson. “To get right and see pitching every day, have consistency and knowing your name is in the lineup every day. I think that’s what it did for me.”
The opportunity would land Jackson a non-roster invite with the Orioles, an opportunity Jackson has been waiting for years and he’s making the most of it.
“That’s the goal,” said Jackson when asked if he’s aiming for the major league roster. “That’s always been the goal, just to get back to the player that I was before 2009.”