Livin' the Dream
This article appears in the March 2005 edition of SchoolSports magazine.
There's an edge to his voice — a fusion of disbelief, gratitude and excitement. An edge that borders on exhilaration and boredom, nostalgia and caution.
He knows that throwing in the mid 90s when you're 18 years old and forging a reputation as a right-handed rendition of Randy Johnson are equivalent to winning the lottery.
And although there's a world of possibilities waiting for him outside the northern suburbs of Phoenix, he's not looking ahead. Or at least he's trying not to.
Such is the case with Cactus Shadows senior Brett Jacobson, a SchoolSports All-American pitcher who is months away from making a difficult decision about whether to accept millions of dollars to play professional baseball or honor his commitment to lace up the spikes for up-and-coming college baseball power Vanderbilt.
You could say he's stuck between a rock and a hard place. Not that it's a bad place to be stuck.
"I'm living the dream," says Jacobson, whose older brother, Gus, was drafted by Tampa Bay in the 35th round of the 2003 MLB Draft and now plays at Western Michigan. "It's a mind-boggling thing to think about. It's totally surreal. It's been my long-term goal since I was about 2 to make the major leagues. It's not something I expected to happen to me."
Cactus Shadows head coach Tom Scala isn't so shocked.
Although he's only in his third year with the Falcons, Scala has taught middle school in the district for 22 years and has known Jacobson since he was a seventh-grader.
"I always knew what kind of athlete he was," Scala says. "I could see his arm strength when he'd throw the ball. Every time you'd see him, he'd get stronger and better. Knowing that kid, he'll be in the majors.
I hope he remembers me and gets me some tickets."
Major League Baseball's best minds seem to agree. Agents have told Scala that his ace could be selected in the first 10 picks of June's MLB Draft.
And why not? At 6-foot-6, 190 pounds, Jacobson is a prototypical power pitcher who emulates Chicago Cubs ace Mark Prior and has a penchant for attacking batters by throwing inside.
Jacobson's fastball first hit 90 mph when he was 16, currently tops out at 95 mph and typically hovers in the low to mid 90s. His out pitch is a sharp-breaking hard slider, and he sporadically tosses a circle changeup to keep batters off balance.
After only playing in the outfield as a sophomore because of a tender right shoulder, Jacobson coasted to a 7-2 record last spring with 79 strikeouts in 62.2 innings pitched and a 2.31 ERA, which would have been considerably better if not for an eight-run disaster in a loss to Greenway. He was Cactus Shadows' top offensive threat as well, batting .366 with six home runs and 28 RBI as the Falcons finished 22-6-1 and lost in the Class 4A state quarterfinals a year ago.
Although Scala says Jacobson is a talented enough outfielder and hitter to succeed at the next level, there's no denying his biggest upside is on the mound.
"He could be the future right-handed version of Randy Johnson," Scala says. "The potential that is there is unbelievable. He's just going to get better and better."
It's just a matter of where.
Jacobson spurned scholarship offers from schools like Stanford and UCLA to sign with Vanderbilt in November. And even though he could be offered a multi-million-dollar pro contract — last year's No. 10 draft pick inked a deal that included a $2 million signing bonus — he says playing for the Commodores wouldn't be a consolation prize.
"It would be hard to turn down that much money to go do something I love," says Jacobson, who is rated the No. 9 high school baseball prospect in the country by Baseball America. "I'm not one of those kids who's going to blow my money on cars or partying. I could deal with the money and everything. But I can also go to school for three years for free, then get the money. But there's the ‘what if I hurt myself?'"
The truth is that "what if" isn't at the forefront of Jacobson's mind. Let's just say the kid isn't exactly what you'd call cautious.
This winter, for example, he starred on the Cactus Shadows basketball team. And although his draft stock can only go down with a mediocre senior baseball season, Jacobson is attacking his last prep campaign with a no-holds-barred attitude.
"My goals for the baseball season are to get my team to the state championship," he says. "If I go 5-5 with a 5.65 ERA but we win the state championship, I'll be happy. I'm just playing for my school to win."
But most dangerous to that priceless arm was the time Hall of Fame manager Tommy Lasorda had Jacobson snap off about 120 curveballs after a bad outing last summer while playing for a club team at Dodger Stadium. Lasorda pulled Jacobson aside to teach him the same breaking ball he taught Pedro Martinez, and there was no way the awestruck teen could say no.
You see, beneath all the hoopla and high-stakes decisions, Jacobson is like a 6-year-old watching his first game with his father when it comes to baseball.
"My passion for baseball is overwhelming," he says. "Any time I go onto the field or even watch a game, it's fun for me. If there's a game on TV, no matter who's playing or at what age level, I can watch it and enjoy it."
However, if you see Jacobson moments before he takes the mound, words like "fun" or "enjoy" would be the furthest thing from your mind. The kid approaches opposing batters with the same ruthlessness as 50 Cent when he battles on his latest album.
In fact, Jacobson's own teammates won't even talk to him before games.
"I'm kind of a perfectionist when I'm pitching," he says. "If I don't hit a spot and somebody gets a hit, I'll yell at myself. But I'm not that hard on myself. There is a fine line. If I do something bad, I look at it as something I need to fix."
Jacobson credits his competitiveness to his brother. Although only two years older, Gus always provided a standard for Brett to live up to. Or better yet, exceed.
Two years ago, Gus and Brett hit fourth and fifth, respectively, in Scala's lineup. Whatever Gus did at the plate, Brett looked to do better. It wasn't exactly a revelation when the two hit back-to-back shots.
"I'm the little brother — I try to be better than my older brother," Brett says. "Unless it's natural, that's the only reason I can think of that I'm competitive. It's been that way since second grade. I can't let anybody outdo me in anything."
Luckily for Jacobson, that's rarely a problem.