Ronnie Jackson still works his wizardry at shortstop, making the exceptional look routine. Jackson’s hitting is not quite at the same level as his junior year for the Westhill baseball team, but he continues to spend extra hours in the batting cage after practice.
Jackson has to make up for a lot of lost time.
Jackson, a Division I prospect at the end of the 2012 season, missed almost the entire of what should have been his senior year at Westhill to go back for eight months to the Dominican Republic, where he lived until he was 14, to care by himself for his ailing grandmother.
“She had a heart attack before and was still dealing with heart disease, and she was the person who raised me,” Jackson said. “Since I was little she took care of me. When I heard about her illness I wanted to take care of her. I wanted to pay her back.”
Jackson said his family had limited options. He has never met his father and is estranged from his mother. Jackson was brought up by his grandmother and now lives with an aunt and uncle. Jackson said it was not financially viable for either of them to give up their jobs.
“It was on me,” Jackson said.
Jackson departed for the Dominican Republic in November of 2012 and returned last June.
“I remember it like it was yesterday, I was home sick and he sent me a text saying I have to talk to you and said he was not going to be here for the rest of the year,” said Westhill coach DJ Mulvany. “He was very persistent. We wanted to make sure he could handle it, and he said, ‘Coach you don’t understand how much she means to me.’ Selfishly we wanted him to stay, but it was something he had to do.”
Jackson said almost all of his time in the Dominican Republic was spent assisting his grandmother with her daily needs. He said he did not attend school because the closest one was full, another was for students 18 and over and Jackson was 17 at the time, and a third was two hours away.
There were some distant relatives who lived nearby, but Jackson said he did not have much of a social life and did not play any baseball while he was there.
“To be honest at first I was happy because I was going back to where I was from,” Jackson said. “Once I got there I realized how hard it was going to be for me. I was leaving behind the life that I had here. At first it was hard because I had like depression. School, baseball was all gone. Once time flew I was fine and I knew it was best for both me and my grandmother.”
Jackson said his grandmother became well enough to care for herself last June and he returned to Stamford.
Jackson said he has changed in a number of ways from the experience.
“Most of the time I feel more mature,” Jackson said. “Sometimes people here say stupid things, that I wasted time going there because now I’m a year behind.”
A solid but unspectacular student, Jackson has received straight A grades in the classroom all year.
“He’s a lot more mature,” Mulvany said. “Baseball aside, he’s really locked in academically. I think he’s playing a little looser on the ballfield. He’s always smiling. Everyone looks to him as a leader and a go-to guy.”
Jackson won an appeal to the CIAC, the state’s governing body of high school sports, to play this year for the Vikings because of the circumstances.
“I hadn’t played at all so I had to get back on my feet,” Jackson said. “I had to go through a lot. Every day of the winter I was working. I had missed out on a year and had to make up for it.”
Jackson’s return has contributed to the Vikings’ current 5-5 record, 5-3 in league play, tied for sixth-best in the conference. The top eight teams earn playoff spots.
“Everyone’s eyes gravitate to him not because he’s flashy, but he makes tough plays look fundamental,” Mulvany said. “After each game an opposing coach comes up to me and says ‘Your shortstop is some player,’ and it is nice to hear that.
“It looks like it comes easy but after practice he goes on his own for more batting practice. He’s a gym rat. Offensively, I think his numbers could be better and he agrees with that. He’s starting to have some good at-bats. I think people pick him out in the order and say we’re not going to let this guy beat us. He’s probably seeing about 75 percent off-speed pitches.”
At the end of last season Jackson was attracting interest from top college programs like Indiana and Florida Southern.
“He left a lot on the table,” Mulvany said. “It was a big risk that he took but he put his family first, and you have to respect him for that.”
Jackson has attracted some interest from a few area schools and is also considering going to a junior college for two years.
“It was hard. At first it was one of the hardest decisions ever, but I learned so much from it,” Jackson said. “It’s taught me so much and helped make me the man I am today.”