FORT MYERS, Fla. -- He got to Fenway Park the first time when he was 5, by collecting enough cardboard tops from Frosted Flakes to trade in for Red Sox tickets.
"We left early," Kyle Jackson said. "My brother Aaron -- A.J. -- who was three years older than me, got sick. He ate a hot dog. We left in the third inning.
"We were sitting behind first base, a couple rows back. The game was against the Brewers. A.J. was on the aisle. He didn't put down his drink and hot dog when someone hit a foul ball toward us. The guy sitting next to him got it. That's what I remember most."
Jackson turns 23 on April 9, the day before the Red Sox play their home opener against the Seattle Mariners. Chances are, he won't be there, but the kid from Litchfield, N.H., just on the other side of the Merrimack River from Nashua, is close enough to imagine the day he walks back into Fenway through the players' entrance.
The pitcher is here in his first Sox camp, the No. 83 on his back the highest number in camp. When Mike Hazen, the Sox director of player development, called him in November to tell him he'd been added to the 40-man roster, Jackson said he was "lost for words." That may have been the greatest day of his baseball life since his mother, Connie, came running down to the Alvirne High School field to tell him he'd been drafted on the 32d round by the Sox.
The kid's got longshot written all over him. He didn't crack Baseball America's list of the team's top 30 prospects. But when you've gotten this far -- that was him the other day jogging alongside Daisuke Matsuzaka on the pitchers' mile and a half run, and that was his back that Terry Francona playfully stepped on while the pitchers stretched yesterday morning -- you don't rule out anything.
Before he came to camp, Jackson said, he received a text message from Bob Tewksbury, another Granite Stater who was drafted on the 19th round and wound up pitching 13 years in the big leagues.
"He wished me good luck and asked me what number I had, to see if he beat me," Jackson said. "He wore 75. I messaged him back and said, 'Hey, buddy, you got me.' "
The Sox think highly enough of the 6-foot-3-inch righthanded reliever that they promoted him to Double A Portland two years in a row, last season to help the Sea Dogs win the Eastern League title. They then sent him to the Arizona Fall League, where he developed a changeup to go with his fastball and power curve, then invited him last month to their rookie development program, where he and infielder Chad Spann stayed with a host family in the city and were schooled on the things you need to know when you get to the big leagues.
"From a role standpoint, Kyle will be in the bullpen in the minor leagues,'' Hazen wrote in an e-mail yesterday, "with Portland being the likely starting point. The continued use and development of his changeup is the big development factor we have discussed.''
Those are the kinds of things, Jackson said yesterday afternoon while sitting in the clubhouse, that are out of his control. He and Tewksbury have talked about the things you can and can't control. "My goal is to make the major league team,'' he said. "That's the goal of every player who is in big-league camp.''
There was a time when the goal was a bit simpler: helping his dad, Mike, get across the finish line on Lake Winnipesaukee faster than any of the other sailboats.
"We sailed when I was little," he said. "We had a racing boat, a J-27. Our whole family was into racing. My dad trained all three kids to be racers.
"I was the more competitive one. I'd go out there, go out on the bow, raise the spinnaker. We sold the boat when I was 14, because baseball took over. The first love for me was baseball."
Mike Jackson owns Jackson Insulators Inc. in Litchfield, with his brother, Leonard. That's how he puts food on the table. Most of the rest of his time is devoted to baseball. Call the family home, and it's Connie's voice on the answering machine, saying you've called Mike and Connie Jackson and the AAU Grizzlies. That's the team Jackson formed after Kyle already had played two years of AAU ball.
"He runs four teams now," Jackson said. "We just built a 30-by-90 steel building in our backyard. It holds two cages for his teams to practice."
Sox scout Ray Fagnant saw Jackson when he was 16 and playing in a showcase tournament for high school players in Lowell.
"He had a live arm and a good body," Fagnant said. "He was very young-looking, and a little bit of an awkward delivery."
Fagnant saw enough to want to keep tabs on the kid. His first impression was reinforced that winter when Jackson contacted the scouts in the area.
"He sent a very professional, mature letter to all the scouts, stating his desire to play pro ball, what his contact information was, and his high school schedule," Fagnant said.
The following spring, when Jackson was a senior, the Sox invited him to their predraft workout, which that year was held in Lowell. Wayne Britton was the scouting director then. He was there, along with Dave Jauss, now Grady Little's bench coach with the Dodgers but then working in player development. They knew Jackson had plans to go to college, but they elected to draft him and urged him to follow through on his plan to attend St. Petersburg (Fla.) Junior College, telling him they wanted to see him perform against better competition.
They signed him before the next draft. David Chadd was the new scouting director by then, and John W. Henry's group owned the team. "Technically," Fagnant said, "he became the first player the new owners signed."
First game he ever pitched as a pro came in the rookie league.
"Ted Williams's son was playing," Jackson said. "I was pitching when he broke his rib running into the camera well."
He struggled in 2004 as a starter for Single A Augusta (3-13, 4.64), was converted to relief, and showed enough that he was promoted to Portland by the end of the '05 season. Last season, his first full-time as a reliever, began in Single A Wilmington, where he was so successful (6-0, 1.59 ERA) that he was promoted to the Sea Dogs.
In 22 games with them, he was 3-1 with a 2.45 ERA, striking out 36 in 36 2/3 innings.
You pitch that well, you find yourself sitting in the same clubhouse as Jonathan Papelbon and Curt Schilling, and imagining what it would be like to stay there. Raise that spinnaker. The shore is dead ahead.
Gordon Edes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.