An Ode to Conor Jackson

December 5, 2012 – The Orioles announce that they have signed 30-year old Conor Jackson to a minor league deal with an invite to Major League spring training camp.

April 14, 2013 – Conor Jackson announces his retirement from the Norfolk Tides and professional baseball.

Conor Jackson’s time with the Baltimore Orioles was brief – four months and change in total – but it was enough time for me to adopt the former Arizona Diamondback standout as my own personal favorite amongst all of the minor league depth acquisitions Baltimore made over the winter.

Jackson profiled as a player  that had all that attributes necessary to make a successful Major League comeback.  He had a history of sustained success.  From 2006 – 2008, Jackson’s OPS was .809, .836, and .823, respectively.  During those seasons (his age 24 – 26 seasons), the Diamondbacks first baseman looked like a budding star.  Not a superstar mind you, but an above average player that could get on base and provide some pop.  A player that was, perhaps, akin to the Orioles’ Nick Markakis.

Conor contracted Valley Fever early next season.  The fungal disease saps the strength out of an individual leaving it hard for them to function normally on a daily basis nonetheless function as an effective Major League Baseball player.  The 2009 season was a lost cause for Jackson.  He came back in 2010 and claimed the bout with Valley Fever was behind him, but he struggled at the plate and suffered additional injuries.  Jackson was traded to the Athletics and then to Boston over the next two seasons where he struggled with limited playing time brought on by injuries and being used as a platoon player.  He spent the entirety of the 2012 season playing for Charlotte in the International League as a member of the White Sox organization.  However, he remained relatively healthy (sidelined only briefly by a hand injury) and his numbers steadily climbed back towards his pre-illness levels.

Those two elements – a history of sustained success and a valid reason for his recent struggles – made Jackson a very strong bounce-back candidate – Nate McLouth 2.0, perhaps.  Jackson quickly became my and other’s pick as the under-the-radar player most likely to make a significant contribution to the 2013 Orioles.

That feeling only grew for me when I saw that Jackson had 10 at bats in the Dominican Winter League, collecting three hits, a homerun, and a walk.  He disappeared from Dominican League box scores soon after signing with the Orioles.  So much on the Conor Jackson bandwagon was I that I fretted for weeks that he had been injured in the Dominican – his comeback cut short before it could even begin.   I was concerned about why Jackson had suddenly left the Dominican that I thought about posing the question to Dan Duquette at Orioles Fan Fest in January before opting not to.

I never did find out why Jackson returned to the States so abruptly, although I imagine he simply was in the Dominican to try out for Major League teams and left as soon as the ink on his Orioles contract was dry.

Jackson jumped into Grapefruit League action in February and made an immediate impact.  All throughout camp, Jackson went toe-to-toe with Steve Pearce for one of the few open spots on the roster – the 4th bench player that would serve as a right-handed platoon partner in the DH spot with Wilson Betemit.  While it became obvious at a certain point that Jackson or Pearce would be fine fits for the role, I was still pulling for him.  Sadly, Jackson was the last player cut from Major League camp and the final big league spot went to Pearce.

Still there seemed to be little doubt that it was only going to be a matter of time before Conor Jackson was in Baltimore and contributing to the Major League club.  As stacked as Norfolk’s opening day roster was, Jackson was probably the odds on favorite to step into a starting role with the Orioles if a need arose.

That is of course until this past Sunday when Norfolk and the Orioles casually announced that Jackson elected to retire from professional baseball.

Norfolk manager Ron Johnson and Baltimore manager Buck Showalter have both since explained that Jackson’s heart was simply not in the game anymore.  His decision had nothing to do with any discontent with the Orioles organization, but rather a personal decision to move on and begin his post-baseball playing life.

Given my infatuation with Jackson since his signing in December, I felt I should write something about his retirement.  While as a fan of the Orioles I am sad to see him gone from the organization, I am happy for him that he was able to walk away from the game on his own terms.  Conor Jackson ended up not having the sort of career he and everyone else imagined he would have when he was a 26 year-old All-Star caliber player, but the three strong seasons he did have early in his career are three more than most get to experience.

Jackson nearly had the game ripped away from him by illness and injury but valiantly fought back and made several strong attempts at a comeback.  He came all-so-close to once again being a Major Leaguer this spring.  I have a lot of respect for a guy who can do all of that and still decide to walk away on his own terms.

So here’s to Conor Jackson – the greatest 2013 Oriole that never was.