Retired Pitcher Jason Jennings Still Pounds the Strike Zone
By Mark S. McDonald
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 Airdogs.
This sparked memories of a sun-splashed day in Coors Stadium in Denver, watching from the seats overlooking the first base dugout as Jennings 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 son RobRoy, “JJ” didn’t merely reach the big leagues. He exploded on the scene.
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, won 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 as the kid who used to play cup ball with the other kids at Buckner Children’s Home in Mesquite gave up 8 or 9 earned runs in a single inning of pain.
Big wheel keeps on turning … Jason, now 36, lives in Frisco, Texas, where he and wife Kelly are rearing three kids. Jason coaches youth baseball, just as his father, Jim, generously did for Dallas-area kids in the 1980s.
From all indications, Jason has kept it on the rails, saying he wants his student ballplayers to “embrace the baseball culture” but not get “caught up all that other stuff.” Meaning the race to grow up too soon, with too much pressure to win right now.
Unlike so many in pro sports, JJ is one gifted athlete who has resisted the gravitational pull of physics. For him, what goes up does not always come down, at least not all the way. Same, sadly, cannot be said for one particular Greek god of my past.
Paul Edward “Chick” Smith was one of the top five all-around athletes I ever saw up close. Others in the conversation for raw athleticism make up a short list:
- 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 boat-load of fast-twitch muscle and the poise of a diamond cutter.
As for Smith, you must know your 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, a Pro Bowl selection in 1972 and ’73, is in the Broncos Ring of Fame.
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 – perhaps more than any modern 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 national championship, and signed an NFL contract valued at $26 million. By 2012, Young was out of football, joining the 78% of former NFL players who, according to Sports Illustrated research, have gone bankrupt. Never a bad actor, just bad with money, Young appears to have sorted things out, and now works in the athletic department at Texas in Austin.
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 dead right arm might now only be used for hugging his kids, but in life, JJ is still pounding the zone. Still throwing strikes.
The author is working on his next book, “They Gave Us Baseball – Now Look What We’ve Done,” due for a 2015 release. He was never much of a high-jumper.