‘Looks like he’s 12, acts like he’s 30’: How Jackson Holliday handled the pressure of his debut

Sports

It was 2:30 p.m. ET Friday, nearly five hours before second baseman Jackson Holliday‘s first game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

He was the only player on the field, and working on only a few hours of sleep after a late-night flight from Boston, but he was full of life as he posed for a baseball card shoot with Topps. Out of the Milwaukee Brewers dugout came another phenom, outfielder Jackson Chourio. The Jacksons embraced, then posed for pictures.

A writer approached Holliday and said, “Got your hands full?”

He smiled and said, “Yes, always.”

Those hands have been full most of his life, but they are big hands, sturdy hands — hands capable of juggling much more than a 20-year-old has a right to.

“He looks like he’s 12, he acts like he’s 30, and he has handled it all beautifully,” Baltimore Orioles catcher James McCann said. “He came to [big league] spring training for the first time, and it seemed like it was his 14th. I went to college [at Arkansas], I played in the SEC, we played before 10,000 people every game. … He came from Stillwater, Oklahoma. Two years ago, he was playing in front of … parents. And then his first game is at Fenway Park.

“Amazing.”

Holliday smiled. “That was an incredible place to start a career,” he said. “It was awesome.”

Holliday was called up on April 10, just 10 games into his season at the Triple-A Norfolk Tides, and played two games against the Red Sox. He went hitless, as he did again in his first game at Camden Yards. After an 0-for-13 start that included nine strikeouts, he got his first hit on Sunday, a single that eventually allowed him to score the deciding run in the Orioles’ 6-4 win.

“It’s a lot, but it’s been fun. It’s quite an experience. I don’t think I would ever take it for granted, the experience that I’m having,” Holliday told reporters after the game. “If you go 0-for for three or four games, it’s going to happen in baseball. I’d prefer it not to be at the beginning of my career, but it’s going to happen. I’m glad to hopefully learn from it.”

Even on a young team — the Orioles are the sixth-youngest team in MLB — Holliday is notably green, two years younger than shortstop Gunnar Henderson and four years behind Colton Cowser and starting pitcher Grayson Rodriguez.

The Orioles’ oldest player, closer Craig Kimbrel, is 35.

“When I started my career, he was … born,” Kimbrel said, smiling. “He is comfortable here.”

And Holliday is comfortable, despite his age, because he grew up in a major league clubhouse with his dad, Matt Holliday, a career .299 hitter, and arguably the greatest player named Matt ever to play in the major leagues. Jackson was constantly at his dad’s side, even at preschool age.

“Show Mr. Kurkjian your Ichiro batting stance,” Matt said to his son 15 years ago.

Five-year-old Jackson did Ichiro perfectly, then the stance of many other major league hitters. So when Jackson was called up, Matt received hundreds of text messages from former teammates — Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina, Aaron Judge among them — from his time with the Rockies, A’s, Cardinals and Yankees. They all sent messages because Jackson is their major league son, too. They all played catch with him.

In February 2008 in Tempe, Arizona, Brewers manager Pat Murphy, then the baseball coach at Arizona State, rented an adjoining house to Matt and Leslee Holliday for that spring training.

“Every time I looked out in the backyard,” Murphy said, “Jackson was hitting with my son.”

Matt, Leslee and their younger son, Ethan, were in Boston for Jackson’s major debut.

“For my debut,” Matt said, “I was scared to death. He was not.”

The Hollidays were in Baltimore for Jackson’s home debut, too. They left the next morning because Ethan, a tremendous high school player in Oklahoma, was missing too many games.

“He’s in high school, he’ll be OK,” Jackson said, smiling.

The pressure is enormous being the son of a major leaguer, being considered the best prospect in the minor leagues and being one of the final pieces in what could be a dynastic next five to 10 years in Baltimore. But Jackson Holliday has an advantage: He is not being asked to save the franchise, as perhaps catcher Adley Rutschman was when he was recalled in May 2022. The Orioles won 101 games last season. They are loaded with talent; even today, much of that talent remains in the minor leagues.

Holliday won’t be the last piece, but he might be the biggest piece — perhaps even bigger than Rutschman and Henderson — given his background and how he has overpowered the game at every stop. Yet he hit ninth in his first five major league games.

When was the last time he hit ninth?

“I did in spring training,” he said. “Before that, it was a while.”

In Holliday’s second game as a big leaguer, the Orioles put five No. 1 picks in order in their lineup: third baseman Jordan Westburg, outfielder Colton Cowser, Holliday, Henderson and Rutschman. But only Holliday was given a sacred number in Orioles history: No. 7, last worn by the late Cal Ripken Sr., one of the most important and instrumental figures in Orioles history, the man who personified the Oriole Way.

Matt Holliday, who wore No. 7, called Cal Ripken Jr. for permission to wear his dad’s number.

Ripken, part of the new ownership group with the Orioles, gladly agreed.

“Now wear it with pride,” Ripken said.

So far, Jackson Holliday has. It has been a wild week, but he has handled most everything with great poise. Outfielder Kyle Stowers is taking care of his dog in Norfolk. Cowser gave him a ride to the ballpark before the first game at Camden Yards.

He is where he is supposed to be. And now he has the first of what will surely be many, many hits.

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