E.A. Sports Today

Duty dilemma

Former Oxford right-hander Stephens pitches in Birmingham for first time as a pro Friday, while dad honors commitment to current Jackets

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

When Jackson Stephens signed his first pro contract out of high school it was understood that no matter where he played anytime his dad could get to see his son pitch he was going to be there.

The former Oxford right-hander turned Cincinnati Reds pitching prospect will be as close to home as he’s ever been in pro ball this weekend, but his dad just can’t be there the day he faces the Birmingham Barons. He has another commitment he can’t in good conscience break.

Jay Stephens is Oxford’s pitching coach and the eighth-ranked Yellow Jackets just happen to be playing their second-round doubleheader in the Class 6A playoffs Friday – the day Jackson is scheduled to start for the Double-A Pensacola Blue Wahoos at Regions Field.

Dad will be there for Thursday’s series opener and all the other games of the five-game series, just not the one Jackson pitches.

“There’s no doubt going to see him pitch would be Priority One most of the time and I do get to go watch him pitch other places,” the elder Stephens said. “At the same time when you’re in an occupation or commit to something, you finish, and if it allows you to miss something along the way, whether it be a practice or a single game or a doubleheader or something like that, you might make some different decisions if it’s OK with the one who hires you.

“But when you’re committed to something and you’re dealing with state playoffs, area games, Calhoun County Tournament, it’s sort of like you’ve got 25 other kids who are your kids and you just have to say, you know what, I committed to this and I’m in; that’s just the way it is.

“It’s no tough decision for me. These kids need you, too. Hopefully there will be another day I can go watch Jackson pitch and I’ll definitely be thinking about him and checking the score if I can. It’s not a difficult decision. It’s one I wish I could do both, but you can’t do that. He knows if Dad can be there he’ll be there. I just can’t be there Friday.”

He wouldn’t have been in that position if the business of baseball hadn’t intervened.

The Wahoos’ rotation is such their starters go every fifth game. When they mapped out the season Stephens was slated to pitch against the Barons on the series Sunday — the day of the Sprint Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway. And it was that way all the way up to last week.

The plan was disrupted when the Reds sent Anthony DeSciafani to Pensacola for a rehab start and another pitcher in the Wahoos rotation went on the 7-day DL and his replacement pitched well.

That pushed Stephens’ Birmingham start back to Thursday, which was still good for the whole family – and the Jackets’ baseball team – to see him pitch. But then the Reds sent Homer Bailey down for a rehab start and that moved Jackson’s scheduled start to Friday.

“Which would have been the worst day of all for Mr. Stephens,” Jay said. “But it’s good for the rest of the family. They’re good to go.”

Oxford coach Wes Brooks had given his blessing for his pitching coach and team bus driver to miss the doubleheader with Homewood to attend his son’s start and was moved by Jay’s immediate response to staying with the Yellow Jackets.

“It all stinks because everything didn’t line up perfect,” Brooks said. “We were kind of hoping and praying it’d get moved.

“I told him Coach Brooks’ feelings will not be hurt at all if you go, but he said I’m going to be here; I’m not missing. It wasn’t like he said I’ll get back to you in a couple days. It was I’m committed to these kids. Don’t get me wrong, I want to be there for (Jackson), but I coach Oxford baseball and we’ve got a game.”

So mom will be in the stands at Regions Field and dad will be in the dugout at Choccolocco Park trying to stay close to some kind of electronic device to check on Jackson’s progress — just as they were when Jay missed Jackson’s first home start in Pensacola because of a similar playoff conflict.

Brooks said he wouldn’t mind it either if Jay has “something in his pocket” to provide live updates during their game. If the doubleheader gets over early enough, Brooks may even try to have the Barons’ radio broadcast piped through the stadium’s speaker system for the fans to hear.

“It sucks he can’t be there, I’m not going to lie, because Dad taught me everything,” Jackson said from Pensacola Wednesday night. “When I was a little munchkin running around the backyard, he was coaching me.

“It’s always great to have your role model in life there. He’s been to plenty of games, but the first time I get to pitch in Birmingham he can’t be there and it upset me. But it upsets him more. It tears him up when he can’t go.”

When Jackson does take the mound Friday night, it will be eight days since he has thrown in a game.

He has been with the Double-A club from the start of the season after leading the Florida State League in wins a year ago. He is 1-1 with a 3.12 ERA in three starts this season with 21 strikeouts in 17 1-3 innings. He’s also batting for the first time since homering in the 2012 state championship game; he’s 0-for-3, but 4-for-4 on sacrifice opportunities.

Dad should get plenty of chances to see his son pitch after the Jackets’ playoff run a lot closer than driving to Pensacola. The Southern League has teams in Montgomery and Chattanooga.

On the cover: Cincinnati Reds pitching prospect Jackson Stephens still has Oxford sports in his system and takes in a Yellow Jackets’ game whenever he’s home.

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