In this case, father really knew best.
“I probably had to be in the hospital bed with my mom when my dad handed me a baseball,” Mitchell Jackson said.
Fast-forward more than 17 years later. Jackson is still gripping a baseball. But baseball has a grip on him.
“It’s just the one thing I fell in love with,” he said Wednesday night. “I remember pitching my first varsity game when I was a sophomore against Cahokia, and I was so excited that I couldn’t control myself.
“Every time I go on the mound, I’m excited. I become a different person. You’re involved in every single pitch and control the game. I love being in the moment, being the guy who can get the job done.”
As the stats show, Jackson certainly is getting the job done for Marion’s baseball team. After a 14-0, five-inning shutout of Goreville Monday, he owns a 4-1 record and 1.96 earned run average in 25 innings with 40 strikeouts and 11 walks.
But one has to look beyond those numbers and eyeball another set of numbers to understand why Jackson has already landed a scholarship with SIU for next year.
Six-five, 175 pounds, 87 mph fastball. College coaches and pro scouts drool at high school pitchers with those measurable.
“At the next level, the word is projectability,” Wildcats coach Marty Manfredo said. “Mitchell is long and lanky, and he hasn’t filled out just yet. He’s just going to get bigger and bigger. Once he gets to Southern and concentrates completely on baseball, he can really become a special player.”
Manfredo, who’s won more than 200 games in 12 years at Marion, has seen his share of good pitchers. But one look at Jackson when he entered the program in 2016 convinced him he could be special, as long as he took his time developing him.
“You knew he was a talented young man,” Manfredo said, “but he was so thin.”
Jackson is still thin, even with a change in diet. Although he eats more protein and pumps weight to begin the process of bulking up, getting past 175 pounds has proven to be more difficult than retiring high school batters.
Jackson can’t quite rear back and throw the high hard one past genetics.
“I have a real high metabolism,” he said. “I eat as much as I can. Sometimes, you have to force yourself to do it. But I’m slowly gaining weight and getting into the weight room as much as I can to get bigger.”
The other step Jackson has taken this year is working on his secondary pitches. No matter how fast you throw or how much your ball moves, you won’t win in college baseball with just a fastball. He is integrating a slider and changeup on a more consistent basis.
It’s a change that’s met with occasional resistance from his grandfather, of all people.
“He just wants me to pump fastballs by these guys,” Jackson said, laughing. “Maybe being a thrower will work in high school, but I have to tell him it won’t work at SIU. I’m trying to develop those off-speed pitches more. I’ll need them at the next level.”
Acknowledging that he wasn’t his sharpest early in the season after playing basketball – he started at forward and helped the Wildcats win 19 games – Jackson wasn’t comfortable on the mound until Goreville came to town.
Jackson ceded just one hit and fanned seven with no walks in a 59-pitch masterpiece, ending it in style by striking out the side. That win upped Marion’s record to 14-3, doing nothing to dissuade it of the notion that it can at least defend last year’s regional title, if not do better.
“If we set our mind to it, we can go all the way,” Jackson said. “As a team, our pitching is amazing.”
Especially from the guy who was already getting a grip not long after getting out of the womb.