Jackson joined the @MetsRewind podcast from his hometown in Opelika, Alabama where he serves as a pastor for his church. We spent time talking about his life growing up in the Deep South, segregation, racism and how that shaped his life. We also dig deep into that day in 1980 when he attended a team Bible study and the transformational experience that repurposed his life over the last 40 years.
Oh, sure, we talk about his days in the New York Mets organization, pitching at Shea Stadium, his friendship with teammate Pete Falcone and his gift to sing which resulted in two appearances singing the National Anthem while pitching for the Blue Jays.
CONDENSED TRANSCRIPT: ROY LEE JACKSON
MetsRewind: You grew up in Alabama in Opelika, Alabama. That was back in the day of a lot of segregation, how did you experience shape you?
Roy Lee Jackson: To be quite honest with you. It wasn’t that much mentioned in my family, in my neighborhood, because you kind of grew up, and maybe not even knowing the reason, but that this is just the way that it was supposed to be. So we did dwell on it. We have so many family members and friends that lived in the neighborhood, that the majority of our time was spent playing sports and those kinds of things within a neighborhood. My parents, they never, ever taught me that was that much of a difference. The one thing that my teachers would teach with would tell us was that, you know, you’re going to have to work twice as hard as others. But there was never a racism factor that was built into what they were studying.
They would encourage you weren’t a victim that you could be whatever you wanted to be, but you just gonna have, you were going to have to at least work harder at it than others. That’s just kind of the way that I grew up. They didn’t preach that victim mentality. They encourage you that even regardless of circumstance, that you could make whatever you wanted to make of your life …
So the racism, prejudice, and all of that stuff, you know, it really wasn’t that big of a deal … I think we had one minor incident that involved my brother and he got in a fight with a guy because the guy called him the N-word and my brother broke his nose.
I’ll make that my phone ringer for, for the future. Uh, so it reminds me so much royally of a conversation I had with, um, I was doing research when I moved to the South about. Athletes. And, uh, the division there was in the sixties because of racial divide in so much tension in our country. And I had an opportunity to meet the first, um, player who integrated the college of Charleston basketball team.
And his name was remiss. Harper. And, uh, he talked about the difficulty and the struggle that he faced on the court and off the court, but he, he made one central point to me, which is so parallel in, in right spot on with what you were telling me. He said, racism is a learned behavior. And what, what you said to me about.
This is what my parents taught me. And it happens at a very young age. And if they shape you to say, you may be different in color, in skin, color, in gender, whatever, but you’re no different than the next person. You may have to work a little harder because your gifting is a little bit different or there are some challenges moving up the ladder.
MetsRewind: You were drafted in the 12th round of the 1972 MLB draft by the Astros. You didn’t sign with Houston and instead decided to go to college at Tuskegee … You finally signed with the Mets in 1975. Did just thinking about it, you know, if you sign with a major league franchise, did you relish the idea of the hope of one day pitching in New York?
RLJ: I never thought about pitching in New York and it definitely wasn’t intimidating because I think things that you experienced growing up kind of like shape how you deal with things. I’ve always been even keeled pretty much about everything. Honestly, I never researched it or nothing like that because I never just pursued it in my life. It just kind of happened, you know?
MetsRewind: By 1977, late in the season, you make your MLB debut at Olympic Stadium in Montreal. You did pretty well. What are your memories of that game?
RLJ: I’ll be honest with you. I don’t even have any members of that … When I signed with the Mets it was as if they didn’t really try to develop players. I remember one year, which was really embarrassed and I think we lost a hundred games. Even at that, they had been bad the year before, but they will never, ever try to develop the younger players.
When I was in Tidewater in AAA we had five guys from not mistaken. It was me, John Pacella, Mike Scott, Jeff Reardon and another guy … we could all bust 90 mph, but some of those guys, they just kind of let those guys fall to the wayside. I honestly believe the only reason I didn’t totally fall by the wayside because I was more determined to prove people wrong. Honestly, I didn’t let that bother me because I played the game because I loved it.
MetsRewind: One of the things I noted while I was researching you is while you were playing for the Mets, you had a serious smoking habit, didn’t you?
RLJ: Yeah, I did. I probably smoked two packs of cigarettes a day. Most of that was because it was just frustration. It was just didn’t have like an outlet … I really felt like when I was playing with the Mets that there wasn’t very much development and I really kind of became a recluse almost. I never liked being around big crowds. I couldn’t deal with the noise and all of that stuff. So when all that stuff was happening, you didn’t have anybody, you could talk to you just go about your own business and kind of separate yourself from people. That kind of contributed to that, that bad habit. I remember going to spring training and going into the clubhouse every morning: Cigarette, coffee and newspaper every morning.
MetsRewind: Who were you close to on the team? Who were you stationed by in the locker room? You are a quiet guy, but were there a couple guys you could confide in or kind of hang around with when you were with the Mets?
RLJ: John Milner was one. He just took me under his wing and looked after me and show me the ropes … Being from Opelika, I mean, I wouldn’t say I was ‘country as corn,’ but I was pretty close. He took me to this restaurant one time and he said I want you to try this right here, you know? I’m from Alabama, and we’re talking fried okra or fried chicken, that kind of stuff. But eh said, ‘I want you to try this, and what it was stuffed flounder with crab meat and all of that. So I tried it and after he showed me that I had to have that every time I went out.
MetsRewind: Who taught you the most about pitching?
RLJ: Believe it or not, that happened when I was in Opelika. In the Mets system there was really no pitching coach. Honestly, I developed on my own when I was in the Mets system because I was very observant. I learned from the good and I learned from the bad.
I remember we had this one guy, he would come in and try to change something, just to say that he did something and quite honestly, I was rebellious to that. I’ll be honest with you, because I’m thinking, why is he trying to change stuff? I’m not really having an issue. So I told him to his face, I said, I’m not doing that.
MetsRewind: I was recently talking to Pat Zachry, and he said he didn’t like pitching at Shea Stadium because of the noise of those low flying jets. Did you enjoy pitching at Shea?
RLJ: No, I feel like Zack. Basically the same thing: all of that noise going over the top of the stadium. It was distracting. When you were out on the mound you could be zeroed in and in the frame of mind of what you were doing and then you’d hear all of that noise and stuff. All of a sudden you’re out of your comfort zone. So it could be distracting.
MetsRewind: 1977 to 1980, those four years, you pitch for the Mets that the team really piled up a lot of losses. It was not a good time for the organization. Did that have an impact on the attitude of the team or your attitude not being competitive?
RLJ: The attitude of not being competitive was mainly because, as I said earlier, they had good young talent pitching standpoint and they never really did anything to develop that. At least if they had a plan and we know that we are going to suffer some losses, but we’ve got this talent in our organization. So we’re going to start developing talent, you know, in some organizations took that sacrifice and they were rewarded for it later on, simply because they had a plan. During those years to meet the Mets, never had a plan. They would bring in older guys that literally their careers were over Mickey Lolich, Randy Jones, I think even Nelson Briles, you know? He probably could have been my granddad.
MetsRewind: When you became a Christian in 1980 — I’m thinking about that atmosphere — being surrounded bythe city of New York, all the temptations, the professional athlete lifestyle. Was it ever a struggle in the clubhouse? Did they reject you?
RLJ: When I got saved, the next day I went to the ballpark and I was sitting in my locker and this one guy, I won’t call his name, but it was a friend of mine came up to me. And so we started talking, I said, man, I got saved. I’m a Christian. He wanted me to go out with him after and I said, no, I don’t do that anymore. And he said, ‘What’s wrong with you? I don’t knock you like that.’ I mean, he was literally yelling at me … and honestly, the things that God took from me, I never had to try to give him up. He just took them away from me.
I lost every friend I had that day. Except for Pete (Falcone). They looked at you like you were crazy, like you lost your mind. They called you passive. They called you somebody that didn’t care and your performance and your effort never dictated that you didn’t care. I genuinely fell in love with Jesus. I did not care what anybody thought I was going to serve Him.