By Michael Haag | Sports Writer
A couple months ago, former MLB and Baylor pitcher Jason Jennings was awarded the 2021 Keeper of the Game Award for his exceptional work around special needs kids. Over 20 years later, he still looks back on his first visit to Waco with former head coach Steve Smith and said he never regrets his three years as a Bear, as it shaped him as a person and an athlete.
“It was never in doubt after that meeting and everyday since, there’s never been one regret,” Jennings said.
Something you don’t see everyday is the fact that Jennings turned down the chance to play in the MLB straight out of high school. He was a late-round pick as a teenager, but said the money didn’t entice him enough to jeopardize gaining maturity at the collegiate level.
He gained a lot of attention from schools in central Texas, but ultimately chose between Baylor and Texas A&M University. After weekend visits to each institution, the Aggies offered him a decent scholarship that was not guaranteed, and Jennings didn’t like the uncertainty. The following weekend he took his visit to Waco and had a meeting with coach Smith.
“I sat down and he gave me a scholarship which was very generous and said, ‘As long as you pass [your classes], it’ll never go down,’” Jennings said. “Just him saying that was a no-brainer because I knew grades wouldn’t be a problem and just the commitment he and the baseball program showed as opposed to the week before when it’s like, ‘Hey, your scholarship might go down.’ Well, I didn’t come from a lot of money, so that’s not really something I wanted to risk. I knew even if I never got drafted I had a chance to finish out my degree at Baylor and have a good college experience there.”
Not only did the competition of playing in the Big 12 help Jennings, but adding years of experience under his belt before the MLB propelled him to a long career.
“I think my growing up the way I did and then definitely my experience at Baylor helped me prepare and just last a lot longer than most guys would in pro ball,” Jennings said. “The average career for a pitcher is between two and three years I believe, so the fact that I was able to stick it out for almost 10 is just a blessing and something I’ll never take for granted.”
Current Baylor baseball players share that same love for the institution as a whole, something senior infielder Esteban Cordoza-Oquendo embraces.
“I think Baylor does a great job of shaping the athletes as people,” Cordoza-Oquendo said. “Baylor athletics and Baylor University do a great job of taking care of their athletes and giving them the resources that they need to succeed, not only in sports but also in life.”
Fifth-year senior left-handed pitcher Tyler Thomas feels the same and he uses his veteran prowess to give younger guys a similar experience.
“We’ve got a lot of things instilled in us,” Thomas said. “I’ve had the luxury really of being around a bunch of different coaches, different staff, weight trainers, nutritionists, everything, and you take something from all of them. So really, my goal is just [to] kind of share some of that with each young guy and hope it continues.”
The players, led by head coach Steve Rodriguez, are gaining that same foundation Jennings did two decades ago. Rodriguez loves to see the impact on how his guys approach acts of kindness.
“When you start to see the amount of community service, when you start to see a lot of the things that these kids do at the university, in the community and just kind of at-large; When you start to see a lot of the emails I get from people going, ‘Hey, we had a couple of your players come over to our school and read to the kids,’ I mean it really means a lot to know that they’re not forced to do a lot of things, but they love going out and doing it,” Rodriguez said.
The athletes are expected to compete at a high level night in and night out, but still find joy in doing positive things when the cameras aren’t on.
“I think there’s a great testament and a neat ability to be a person who can do that,” Rodriguez said. “When you get on a baseball field, you’re going to do everything you can with a vigorous intention to do what you’re supposed to do on the baseball field, but then you still have the ability to kind of step away from that and be able to go do some community service. It takes a special person to be able to delineate between the two and I think we have a lot of guys who can do that.”
All of it falls under the Baylor Family, something the university prides itself on, due to it’s close-knit atmosphere. No matter how far you go or how long it’s been since you left, you never lose being a Bear.
“We were a family,” Jennings said. “I think that brotherhood and that family aspect really carried over. I still see some of the guys and we run across each other here in the DFW area, and I had umpteen different locker rooms in pro ball and probably, gosh, thousands of teammates, but none of them compared to the three years at Baylor and the friendships that were made. The bonds that were made and have been kept – gosh what’s it been – over 20 years now, there’s something to be said for that.”