Jackson Tacka may have never thrown a pitch in a regular-season game during his junior and senior seasons on the Gilman varsity, but that didn’t stop him from earning a baseball scholarship to the United States Naval Academy.
On June 25, the Catonsville resident, who missed his junior year because of injury and this season because of the coronavirus pandemic, will head to Annapolis for six weeks of Plebe Summer.
His interest in the Navy began in middle school and peaked when he attended summer baseball camps there after his freshman and sophomore years at Gilman.
“I had always had an interest in serving, so just for a week, to see what it was like, I went down to the Naval Academy for a baseball camp,” Tacka said.
That experience came after he had a standout freshman season on the Gilman JV that earned him a promotion to the varsity for the playoffs, where he had an effective outing against Calvert Hall.
“Coach (Larry) Sheets had put me in and gave me the opportunity to get the feeling of what it was like on varsity and that’s still one of the most distinctive memories I have of playing for Gilman,” Tacka said. “It’s definitely crazy to think about, but I’m very thankful for everything I’ve had with Gilman baseball.”
In his first camp at Navy, he was awarded one of the handful of leadership awards given out for his age group.
“I had an absolutely fantastic experience, loved all the coaches, loved the entire week and had an absolute blast,” he said.
He pitched on varsity his entire sophomore season at Gilman and threw his last pitch in the playoffs against Archbishop Curley when he came on in relief and got out of a bases loaded jam.
That summer, he went to another more demanding baseball camp at Navy and his father, Tim, a 1987 Cardinal Gibbons graduate and standout athlete in baseball and soccer, saw a difference in his son.
“Not only did they have a baseball camp, but you would wake up in the morning and do calisthenics and stuff with one of the Midshipmen,” his father said. “He liked the patriotism part, serving his country and he loved his three coaches, and the rigorous part, to do the work, and everybody was there to work, it’s not a deal where you have some guys who are just there to be showboat-type guys.”
There is nothing flamboyant about Tacka and nobody saw that more than one of his former baseball coaches for the Baltimore Redbirds and his personal trainer, Tim Bishop.
“I think he’s the perfect candidate for the Naval Academy,” said Bishop, who was the strength and conditioning coach for the Baltimore Orioles from 1992 through 2006. “He shows all the traits that I am guessing they are looking for in work ethic and leadership and dedication and all that stuff. He’s got it all.”
Tacka knew, after competing at the two summer camps and when the Navy expressed interest in him, that the Naval Academy was his primary destination.
“Once I saw that and once I had the experience of going to a couple of camps and had that same great experience, I had a one-track mind about Navy – that was where I was going to go and I was going to do everything in my power to make sure I got there.”
“I would say even before he was my actual coach of my team, just in the backyard helping me out and teaching me the ways of the sport, and I think as much as he taught me with the sport through baseball, he was able to teach me so much about life as well, which is something I’m very thankful for,” he said.
Along with his passion for baseball came the realization that he had to do different things on the mound to get batters out because he didn’t throw as hard as some of the bigger guys.
His smaller hands proved to be a blessing in disguise. While playing catch in the backyard one day, his dad threw some knuckleballs and Tacka got curious.
That’s when he invented what is now known as the Jackball, a pitch that he invented and tweaked.
His arm speed makes it look like a fastball –halfway to home it resembles a knuckleball – and around the plate it drops like a nasty sinker.
“I tried to mimic him and when I went to mimic him, because my hands were so small, instead of putting the knuckleball up on my fingertips, I got it down on the first knuckle and when I would throw it I would flick it out of my hand and would get that tumble to it, and that’s basically how we developed it,” Tacka said.
As his hand grew, he refined the mutated knuckler and still throws it along with a knuckleball and fastball that has peaked at 85 miles per hour.
Both off-speed pitches are hard to hit because they can be 15 to 20 miles an hour slower, but the movement on the Jackball has confounded his own catchers as well as opposing hitters.
“It looks like a meatball coming in and these guys just really want to hit it and then it just dumps,” his dad said.
Knowing how to set up hitters and make them look awkward at the plate is not uncommon for Tacka.
During one summer league season with the 25-1 Catonsville Cubs 14U team, Tacka was 10-0 with 70 strikeouts and he pitched a no-hitter.
“He was always advanced in his knowledge of the game and understanding that pitching is not just about velocity,” Bishop said. “It’s about location and changing speeds and he learned that very young, his velocity climbed, but also the combination of knowing how to pitch at the younger ages equals a Division I pitcher.”
While he refined his pitching knowledge, he also developed a wicked pickoff move.
“I made sure I had that consistency between my move to first and my movement going home, so I could pick off as many people as possible,” Tacka said.
He also knew he had to get stronger and increase velocity. That necessitated sessions with Bishop for baseball specific training.
“It was strength and conditioning and speed and agility,” said his dad, noting he would go see Bishop three times a week when he was in school during the offseason and every weekday during the summer.
“Once when I got into doing the squats, that’s really where I started to notice a pick up in the velocity,” Tacka said.
“His velocity went up and I think his confidence went up, he learned how to attack hitters and not be afraid, he was never afraid on the mound, that’s for sure,” Bishop said. “He had a big heart and a lot of courage and he loves to attack hitters.”
His toughness and determination showed on the facial expressions he made every time he threw a pitch.
“He’s had that look on his face since he was throwing at six of seven years old,” his father said.
The grappling years and beyond
That competitive spirit also flourished onto the wrestling team, where he competed as a sophomore and part of his junior year.
“I broke my nose at the end of my sophomore year in the JV state championship,” he said. “I broke my nose and had it reset on the mat so I could go and finish the tournament wrestling.”
His junior year was curtailed by complications from the nose injury.
“Junior year, I had some issues with that where it just wasn’t feeling great, so, with going into Navy, I wanted to make sure we had everything right, so we ended up having deviated septum surgery to fix that,” he said.
Going from being a wrestler to a Division I baseball player is a rarity in sports and Bishop recognized it.
“To do that shows you his bulldog attitude, like ‘I don’t care if you are a hitter or down on the mat, I’m going to go after you and I’m going to give you everything I got,’ ”Bishop said.
Tacka’s junior season never materialized on the baseball diamond because of a stress fracture in his back.
That didn’t stop him from staying involved with his school and earning a perfect 800 on the math portion of his SATs.
He was also selected to the Gilman Honor Board in his senior year and was managing editor for the school newspaper his junior and senior years.
Tacka played trumpet in the Gilman School Band and Gilman Jazz Band and was selected first chair his sophomore year.
Perfect Game USA, the world’s largest baseball scouting service, didn’t hear his music, but they were tuned into his medley of sometimes unhittable pitches on the mound.
In 2019, Perfect Game selected him as a pre-season All American and he was ranked top left-hander in the state for the class of 2020.
In 2020, he was also a pre-season All American, but Gilman played only two games before schools shut down and Tacka didn’t pitch.
He most likely would have pitched the week after the shutdown.
“As sad as this quarantine has been, to not be able to finish out my senior year, it has definitely given me the opportunity to feel very confident going into plebe summer and going into my freshman year at Navy,” he said. “I’m feeling as strong mentally and physically as I’ve ever been in my game of baseball.”