- The Washington Times - Monday, May 16, 2005

All things considered, it wasn’t much of a homecoming weekend for Sonny Jackson, a Silver Spring guy who left the area more than 40 years ago to seek baseball fame and fortune with the expansion Houston Colt .45s.

Two hours before game time yesterday, Jackson stood in front of the Chicago Cubs’ empty dugout at RFK Stadium talking earnestly into his cell phone. There had been a misunderstanding with a hotel, which was threatening to pitch his wife into the street — at least figuratively.

For the two previous days, Jackson’s only familial duty had been to visit an ailing sister in the hospital before scooting off to the ballpark to perform various duties as special assistant to Cubs manager Dusty Baker.

“I’d like to spend more time seeing people,” Jackson said after straightening out matters with the hotel, “but there just isn’t time.”

Had things evolved differently, the name of Sonny Jackson could have been much more familiar in these parts. When he graduated from Montgomery Blair High School as a two-sport star in 1963, University of Maryland coaches Bud Millikan and Jack Jackson were panting to give him a dual basketball/baseball scholarship. This was a matter of some historical note because it would have made Jackson the first black athlete in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

So how close did Sonny come to signing his ?Roland Thomas Jackson? to a double-barreled grant-in-aid and becoming a Terrapin?

“Real close,” he said, “but I just figured going with an expansion club like the Colt .45s would give me an opportunity to get to the majors faster, so …?

Which is pretty much how things worked out. Jackson had season-ending sips of coffee with Houston the next three seasons, then arrived to stay as an infielder in 1966 with a .292 batting average and 49 — count ‘em, 49 — stolen bases.

Jackson played with first Houston and then Atlanta through 1974, batting .251 with 126 steals. More important, as far as his future was concerned, he spent the last seven seasons as Baker’s teammate and close friend on the Braves.

There isn’t much Sonny hasn’t done in baseball. He coached under Joe Torre for two seasons with the Braves, later did the same for Baker with the San Francisco Giants, managed for two seasons himself in the Class A South Atlantic League, scouted and worked as a roving minor league instructor.

Nowadays he’s a mainly a computer geek for Baker and the Cubs, among other things.

“Sonny’s a good baseball man and a good person,” Baker said. “He does all the paperwork for me, works on the field with the infielders before games and scouts our [upcoming] opponents. He takes an awful lot of stuff off my shoulders.”

Jackson, of course, returns the compliments. “Dusty is a good manager because he’s fair and he tells the truth whether people like it or not,” he said. “When it comes to the players, he’ll give you an opportunity, and he’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.”

(And, I might add, he keeps a lot of toothpick companies in business. When I found Dusty in the visiting manager’s office deep in the bowels of RFK, he had no wood tucked firmly in his mouth. Almost didn’t recognize the man.)

Before games, Jackson double-checks and prints out the computerized official lineup managers present to each other and the umpires. He also provides Baker with notes detailing each batter’s tendencies and tracks pitches during the game.

Anything else?

“Yeah. I have to be in uniform and know the signs in case something happens to our base coaches [Chris Speier at third, Gary Matthews at first].”

No wonder the guy had no time to kick back on the first visit to D.C. by a Chicago National League team since an outfit called (honest!) the Orphans dropped by in 1899. Maybe next time, meaning next season.

“I’ve been back a few times over the years,” Sonny said. ?But both my parents are gone now, and as far as class reunions and things like that … well, after traveling all season I pretty much just want to stay home [in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.].”

You know what?

At 60, he’s entitled.

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