As the son of a former major league baseball player, Jaron Shepherd understands that playing baseball for a living is not a birthright.
It’s a blessing.
The Tri-City Dust Devils outfielder is back for his second professional season, and he’s looking forward to building on the momentum he gained last year as a rookie out of Mississipi State.
“I grew a lot as a player and as a person,” said Shepherd, a Kilgore, Texas, native who hit .272 in 30 games last season after being selected by the Colorado Rockies in the 33rd round of last year’s draft.
But the 6-foot-2, 180-pounder earned his playing time down the stretch, hitting .333 (9-for-27) over his last nine starts in August. Then he jumped off the page during the Northwest League playoffs, hitting .471 (8-for-17) with three runs and three RBIs in five postseason games.
What Shepherd enjoyed most was being a part of a strong playoff run in his first pro season.
“That type of season doesn’t happen every year. It was pretty fun,” he said.
“He got hot right around the playoffs. He was giving us a lot of quality at bats,” said Tri-City manager Fred Ocasio, who didn’t forget about Shepherd’s defensive contributions, either.
The Dust Devils skipper said Shepherd’s full-extension diving catch in right field during a late-season loss in Spokane was the best defensive play he has seen since joining the Tri-City coaching staff in 2001.
“I just love running down balls in the outfield,” Shepherd said.
Dust Devils hitting and outfield coach Anthony Sanders said the fleet-footed 23-year-old is already one of the top defensive outfielders in the league.
“His defense is one of the best tools he has. He has as much ability as anybody,” Sanders said. “He’s been one of the most improved players from the beginning of spring training. For a lot of these guys, it’s about just getting a chance.”
Part of that ability comes from his father, Ronald Shepherd, who played for the Toronto Blue Jays from 1984-1986 before becoming a full-time minister. He said one of his biggest highlights was helping lead the Blue Jays to their first American League East Division championship in 1985.
But nothing comes close to his pride in Jaron.
“I think I’m more proud of his character,” Ronald said. “God gave him these physical gifts, but the way he reacts with people makes me proud of the person he’s become.
“And he never complains. You can’t say the same thing about dad. He’s just happy to play.”
Jaron is looking forward to both his parents visiting Pasco for the first time this season for a game. But he said Sanders has been one of the biggest factors in his development.
“Sanders is one person who has really helped me out. It’s so valuable to know somebody with his experience to help you through your first year. Fortunately for me I had a dad who made it, so it wasn’t such a shock,” Shepherd said.
Jaron was versatile enough to play all three outfield positions, but he also had the ability to hit in virtually any spot in the lineup. When Ocasio moved him into the leadoff spot, Shepherd found his comfort zone.
“You’re trying to find your weaknesses and continue working offensively to find out what type of offensive player you are,” Shepherd said. “In my case, it’s about getting on base and putting up runs.”
But Shepherd has found another role on this year’s Tri-City squad — father figure.
“He likes to consider himself my dad,” joked Dust Devils teammate Dillon Thomas, a 19-year-old fellow outfielder out of Houston, Texas. “It helps to have somebody you can tell things to and who will look out for you.”
As far as being a steady hand of leadership, Shepherd is as natural in that role as any.
“Dillon’s a good kid with a lot of power. We both seem to feed off each other,” Shepherd said. “It really helps we’re from the same area.”
This year, Shepherd hopes they can both arrive — along with his Tri-City teammates — in the NWL championship series.
“I just love playing the game. My passion for it is unreal,” he said.