It’s hard to find a more decorated Baylor baseball player than Jason Jennings.
In his three years as a Bear, 1997-99, Jennings was an All-American each season, winning National Player of the Year as a junior. Jennings did a little bit of everything that season, racking up 13 wins and 172 strikeouts on the mound and hitting .386 at the plate.
But if stats aren’t enough, Jennings’ No. 17 jersey was retired in 2014 and adorns the rafters at Baylor Ballpark. Oh and by the way, the do-it-all player from Mesquite Poteet High School was inducted into the Baylor Athletic Hall of Fame in 2009.
All of this came about because Jennings felt he wasn’t ready for professional baseball after his senior year of high school. The Arizona Diamondbacks took the two-sport star in the 54th round of the MLB draft that year, only to be turned down.
“Physically, I was still soft and mentally I wasn’t ready for that world,” Jennings said.
That was a good thing for Baylor. The following summer former Baylor head coach, Steve Smith, and company watched Jennings in a summer league game and immediately offered the stocky, hard-throwing pitcher/catcher combo a scholarship.
“Baylor came knocking, offered me a scholarship and told me as long as I passed, (the scholarship amount) wouldn’t go down,” Jennings said.
Jennings was awarded the Big 12 Player of the Year in both 1998 and 1999 as well as pretty much every collegiate honor available. His stellar college career led the Colorado Rockies to select him in the first round of the 1999 draft.
After two years of working his way up through the minor leagues, Jennings got the call every minor leaguer dreams of. Mentally, he felt like he was ready, but his wardrobe wasn’t.
“The day I got called up, I had to rush off to a suit store in Denver because I had no sports coat, I had nothing,” he said. “ So we got that taken care of, got on the plane and flew to New York for my first series at Shea Stadium.”
August 23, 2001, would be a day Jennings will never forget. Jennings was set to face a stout ineup, including eventual Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza. But it was what Jennings did on the mound and in the batter’s box that would put his name in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
“I watched Mike Piazza hit a home run off the camera tower earlier in the series against Mike Hampton, so I got a little nervous watching that,” Jennings said. “I didn’t know if I had anything to throw that guy.”
Jennings battled an hour rain delay the day of his MLB debut, putting more doubt in the rookie’s mind with every passing minute.
“Every level you go through, you don’t know if you’re good enough to compete with these guys,” he said.
But once Jennings got through the first few innings unscathed, he knew he might be able to hang with the sport’s most elite.
“I thought, if I can hit my spots, keep the ball down and change speeds, I might can pitch here,” he said.
As the game progressed, Jennings continued to put up zeroes on the scoreboard and with the aid of his teammate’s bats, the Rockies built a sizeable lead. It was now up to Colorado manager, and former Texas Ranger, Buddy Bell to decide Jennings’ fate that night.
“He asked me what the highest pitch count I’ve ever had was,” Jennings said. “And I told him 120 or something like that. So he kept me in the game late.”
It was Bell’s confidence in his rookie pitcher that propelled Jennings into Major League Baseball history.
Jennings’ last at-bat of the night, a game in which he already had two hits, came in the top of the ninth in a game in which the Rockies were ahead 9-0.
“I didn’t have my own bat that game,” he said. “ I was using Juan Uribe’s bat. But I stepped into the box knowing I was fond of the fastball so that’s what I looked for.”
Mets pitcher Donne Wall was finishing out the game for New York and in a twist of fate, Jennings took Wall’s first-pitch fastball for a ride over the fence.
“I was just a rookie, so he didn’t know who I was, so I hit it out,” Jennings said. “I think there was about 17 people left in the stands and they all stood up and cheered for me. To get a standing ovation from 17 Mets fans, that’s something.”
That night, Jennings became the first player in the modern era of baseball to pitch a shutout and homer in his MLB debut. It became a night that would catapult Jennings into the Rockies history books, as the following year Jennings posted a 16-8 record and garnered National League Rookie of the Year honors.
“Sometimes I wish I would have pitched six innings, given up three runs,” he said jokingly. “I think I set the bar way too high.”
Jennings’ pro career would span nine seasons — six with the Rockies, one with the Astros and two with the Rangers. Overall, the former Baylor great won 62 major-league games.
It’s hard to say goodbye to a lengthy career like Jennings enjoyed, but life after baseball has seen the game Jennings dominated for so many seasons stay near and dear to him.
Jennings is the founder and owner of the Pastime Training Center in Frisco, a baseball training facility for youth of the area. Under his watch since 2009, Jennings and his crew oversee 13 youth baseball teams with a focus on teaching kids to play baseball the right way.
“We try to do it a different way, to see things from a different perspective,” he said. “Most of these kids are going to grow up doing something else besides baseball, so I want to give them good memories they can remember when they get older.”
Jennings’ goal is to keep his kids loving baseball and not to get worn out on the sport at far too early an age.
“We have a structure in place that our parents have bought into,” Jennings said. “We don’t play a hundred games a year, just play a couple of tournaments a month. We have a ‘mom and pop’ metal building up in Frisco, nothing fancy. I find good instructors and good people to help me out and I feel like the kids benefit from it and are getting a good experience.”
Jennings lives in the area with his wife Kelly and three children, Keathan, Bailee and Braden. Braden is following in his father’s footsteps and giving the baseball thing a twirl. Jennings sees a lot of himself in his oldest son while coaching his team.
“These last six months, he has been getting some warning track (power) and has been hitting some doubles off the wall,” Jennings said. “He’s definitely a late bloomer, just like his dad.”