By Mark S. McDonald
FRISCO, Texas — A couple years ago, word reached this concrete bunker that a certain Jason Jennings was pitching for a professional baseball club called the Grand Prairie Airhogs.
This sparked memories of a sun-splashed day in Coors Stadium in Denver, watching from the seats overlooking the first base dugout as the kid we called “JJ” beat Bobby Bonds and the San Francisco Giants.
A graduate of Mesquite Poteet High, the Dallas select leagues and conference player of the year Baylor, the kid who occasionally slept over with my son RobRoy didn’t just tap on Major League Baseball’s door. He kicked it open.
Jennings was the first pitcher since 1900 to pitch a shutout and hit a home run in his major league debut. Indeed, JJ beat the Mets with a complete-game, 10-0 shutout and had three hits, including the homer, and two RBIs. That year, Jason, quietly earned National League Rookie of the Year honors.
But after six years with the Rockies, arm trouble found Jason and sent him to various jobs with the A’s and finally to the Astros. In horror, I watched on TV from a safe distance as the family friend gave up 8 or 9 earned runs in a single inning of pain for the Astros.
Jason, now 36, lives in Frisco, Texas, where he and wife Kelly are rearing three kids. Big wheel keeps on turning … Today, Jason coaches youth baseball, just as his father, Jim, generously did for Dallas-area kids back in the ‘80s.
From all indications, Jason lived within his means and socked away the money he made early in his career. So far, Jason – unlike so many in pro sports — is one gifted athlete who averted the rise and fall of a walking Greek god from my past. For Paul Edward Smith the descent from on high was a free-fall.
Smith was one of the top five all-around athletes I ever saw up close, ranking him among the likes of the SMU shot-putter Michael Carter who played nose tackle for 49ers championship teams. The late Jack Mildren, from Abilene Cooper, Oklahoma University and the New England Patriots, had a special gift, too.
As for the freakishly gifted guy we called “Chick,” you must be an expert on NFL history to remember that he was a highly respected defensive lineman with the Denver Broncos, by way of the University of New Mexico and Roswell (N.M.) High.
Smith was a senior at RHS when I was an 8th-grader at then-new Sierra Junior High. We did not so much look up to Chick as we stood agog, slack-jawed in the presence of his athletic power and grace. Smith was one of the few varsity athletes who would even acknowledge the pups who fairly worshipped him.
“Hey,” Smith would say with a nod, causing us kids to gasp and lower our heads, as if not worthy.
One memorable spring day, against top competition from southern New Mexico and West Texas, I saw Smith win the shot put, the discus and, get this … clear 6-4 to win the high jump and run on the sprint relay. With the baton in his hands, surrounded by mere mortals, this sculpted creature with freakishly broad shoulders and a six-pack was a Gulliver amidst Lilliputians.
In football, when Chick was interested, he could take over a game, dominating the line of scrimmage in ways we would rarely see again until the Vikings’ Purple People Eaters and Bob Lilly, but few others. Today, Smith is in the Broncos Hall of Honor.
In 2000, while still in his early 50s, Chick checked out on us. Pancreatic cancer. By then, this larger-than-life figure from my childhood was a shell of his former self, a street person living day-to-day on handouts.
It’s no secret that, as a society, we Americans — more than any other culture — create an elevator of fortune and fame that can take a man or woman to the penthouse. But the elevator has “down” buttons, too.
As recently as 2006, Vince Young’s future seemed paved with gold after he led the Texas Longhorns to a Rose Bowl victory and signed an NFL contract valued at $26 million. Today, Young is out of work, taking his place among the 78% of former NFL players who, according to Sports Illustrated research, have gone bankrupt. Word has it he is now back home in Houston, looking for a job.
Gravity of reality remains an unseen force that inevitably brings anointed athletes back to terra firma, often with a thud. Not so Jason Jennings. His PastTime training academy in the Dallas suburb of Frisco, Texas is a bee hive of baseball activity.
His right arm, merely human now after countless pitches and two surgeries, is now mainly used for hugging his kids, but in life, JJ is still pounding the zone. Still throwing strikes.
Mark McDonald, a member of the Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, escaped starvation while serving on the sports staffs of five major dailies in Texas. After coaching 22 years of summer ball, his next book, “They Gave Us Baseball: Now Look What We’ve Done” takes a clear-eyed look at the art and science of developing a young ballplayer. It is due for release in early 2015.