By STEVE KRAH
Jeff Jackowiak has dedicated his life to teaching the fundamentals of baseball.
The former Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association first-team all-stater and 31st overall pick by the Detroit Tigers in the 1977 Major League Baseball draft pick does not do his teaching on a field.
Jackowiak offers indoor lessons year-round. He currently rents space across the state line at the School of Hard Knocks facility in Niles, Mich.
Jackowiak grew up on the west side of South Bend, played for coach Dan Cunningham at St. Joseph’s High School (the Indians lost 2-0 to LaPorte in Jeff’s senior year of 1977) and in the summer for American Legion Post 357.
Since 1993, he’s been passing along his knowledge as an independent instructor.
“We must teach the fundamentals,” says Jackowiak. “They are the things in sports that allow you do things correctly more times than not.”
Recently, Jackowiak sat down for an IndianaRBI Q&A session.
Q: What is “old school”?
A: “I consider myself a dinosaur. Even though I’m only 57, I’ve been through a lot of guys who played a lot of baseball without a lot of gimmicks. They just played hard, play with a lot of heart and figured out their game at the park in competition with their neighbors. They kept playing everyday during the summer. That’s where you really were made as a youngster … You can’t chance progress, but ‘old school’ is people who made it by playing everyday.”
Q: Can you throw too much?
A: “I don’t think you can throw too much from a certain distance. You have to look at how hard and what pitches you’re throwing. How many curve balls are you throwing? … Growing up, I threw a lot of baseballs and it didn’t hurt me one bit. It strengthened me. But I wasn’t infatuated with a lot of things that could have hurt my arm …There are all kinds of ways to throw a baseball. First of all, you have to have elasticity and be loose when you throw a baseball. You can’t be weight-bound.”
Q: Why is baseball such a great game?
A: “Because of failure. As a batter, you fail and you have to wait eight more guys to hit again. You miss a ground ball and you don’t know when the next one’s coming to you. As a pitcher, you can have a great game and the next game you can get shelled or walk a lot of guys and get pulled early … It helps in life. Life is ups and downs. That’s what baseball is.”
Q: What would you change about baseball?
A: “We have to understand that baseball is not instant gratification. Kids need to know that you must play a lot, play catch a lot , play sand lot a lot and do a lot of things. That’s the key to it … They know themselves if they’re getting better.”
Q: What gives you the most satisfaction about teaching the game?
A: “The satisfaction comes from seeing a kid that isn’t very good who improves and does what you ask him to do … Teaching is a process. If the process continues and the parent allows the process to continue and the kid says I like this guy, the process will continue and that’s how teaching evolves. It doesn’t happen in a week’s or half hour’s time … Teaching is about information … You have to prepare for a lesson. You have to impress me. In impressing me, you’re going impress yourself. I’m not easy on kids. Sports is about performance. Guys who don’t perform, don’t play. They sit the bench … Keep at it or you’ll regress. Use it or lose it.”
Q: Here’s a two-parter: Can you work too much at baseball and do you believe in burnout?
A: “Burnout occurs when there is so much going on and you have to pick and choose where you spend your time. Life presents a lot of things that kids want to do … You can get burned out if there’s not a balance in your life. You have to work a lot, but there has to be a balance in time management … I ask the kids to work out 5 minutes a day because that’s achievable. I don’t think you can get burned out by doing that. Make it a priority.”
Q: Did you ever imagine there would be so many training facilities?
A: “I owned Grand Slam USA (in Elkhart) from 1993-99 and that was a training facility. It was really neat. Kids really took to it. We had hitting leagues and a lot of things that promoted repetition. But it wasn’t like today … We need to allow kids to learn and not think they’re pros. They’ve got to learn fundamental, easy ways to start the process … There are so many training facilities because of travel baseball.”
Q: What did you learn while playing for Jim Leyland?
A: “Jim Leyland was a very cognitive manager. He was thinking all the time. That’s what he wanted you to do. I learned from him that you go out and give it your best because that’s why you’re here … Jim Leyland did not teach me how to pitch, he gave me the confidence to go out and pitch … Jim Leyland gives people the opportunity to go out and spread their wings … He’ll sit on you if you go beyond what he thinks is right … He was the kind of guy that was hard on you, but you knew he had your back.”
Q: What’s the current state of Indiana baseball?
A: “Being in a cage for 24 years, I don’t see a lot of games and I teach all ages … But I know the coaches that want to win state championships, those are the ones who are successful. Don’t say sectionals, regionals and semistates. If you have state championships in mind, you’re going to do something better. Why lower your expectations? High schools have to understand that it’s hard game, a dedication game … How do you put all players on the same page? … And the talent starts in the sixth, seventh and eighth grade, not high school.”
Q: Can you tell me about American baseball the way it was when you played for South Bend Post 357?
A: “When you were picked for American Legion Baseball, you were considered an all-star … The coaches were not parents … American Legion is great baseball and I hope it takes off again.”
Q: How fierce was baseball competition when you were growing up?
A: “It was real fierce. Everybody loved baseball and that was their ego …. We wanted to win, no matter what we did growing up … It was about coaches like Lenny Buczkowski, Jim Reinebold, Ric Tomaszewski and Ken Schreiber. They brought that to high school baseball. They were pretty tough guys … There was that edge.”
Q: Can you tell me about your HotZones throwing system?
A: “In 2008, I developed what I thought was the best target for kids to throw to and better their technique. They can throw the ball high, low, inside or outside within the strike zone … I also developed it for (non-pitchers) because if you can’t throw a baseball, you can’t play this game. Defense comes first before hitting and all good coaches know that.”
Jeff Jackowiak with his HotZones target throwing system.