By Erik Harris
For The Tribune
PINSON — Like any other mother, Paulette Jennings loves watching her son take the diamond to play America’s pastime.
After logging another day of work at Gardendale Elementary School, nothing makes her happier than taking a seat and becoming the biggest fan in attendance.
But unlike the parents of most ballplayers, Paulette has been cheering for her slugger for more than 20 years. It’s not her unwavering commitment to be her son’s No. 1 fan that sets her apart from most mothers, but her willingness to travel more than 600 miles to do it. That is, if she’s not rooting from afar via ESPN.
“I just love watching him,” Paulette said. “It doesn’t matter, I can sit in front of the TV or I can be cooking and watching. It doesn’t matter, wherever he’s playing I’ll be trying to watch him.”
It was 21 years ago that she signed Desmond Jennings up for little league baseball. This was Desmond’s first experience with organized sports, yet that wouldn’t stop him from shining.
This newfound success motivated the youngster to strive for more. Soon thereafter Desmond was displaying his talents on the gridiron and the hardwood. It was at this moment that Paulette knew her son, with the proper guidance, could achieve excellence.
It came as no surprise to her that she was standing before the crowd in Mike Dutton Gymnasium to accept Desmond’s retired No. 3 basketball jersey Saturday. She stood alongside Mike Dutton — Desmond’s high school basketball coach and current Hewitt-Trussville boys’ basketball coach — as the Pinson Valley crowd showered them with cheers.
“It feels great because he worked so hard while he was going here and playing all the sports so this feels really great,” Paulette said.
From this point forward, No. 3 will be worn in honor of Desmond only by the chosen team caption of the Pinson Valley boys’ team. Desmond can now be found wearing No. 8 as he protects the deep left-centerfield alley at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla.
“I go (visit Desmond) every chance I get because I work for Jefferson County so I try to go when school is out and I stay down there a lot then, but I want to go every month,” Paulette said.
Desmond was drafted by Tampa Bay in the 10th round of the 2006 MLB Draft and was called up from Triple-A Durham in July 2011. Desmond is currently the starting center fielder for the Rays with a .250 career batting average with 37 home runs and 73 stolen bases.
His 133 hits and 82 runs scored helped the Rays reach the 2013 American League Division Series, which they dropped to eventual World Series champion Boston Red Sox.
But before ESPN broadcasters knew of Paulette’s son, he was wowing Pinson Valley fans in all three major sports. From football in the fall to basketball in the winter and, of course, baseball in the spring, Desmond shined brighter than the others.
Dutton always believed football was his best sport despite being his head basketball coach.
“We always kidded tongue and cheek that baseball was his worst sport and he’s starting for the Rays now,” Dutton said. “He was a heck of a player and a heck of a person.”
Before graduating from Pinson Valley in 2005, Desmond made great achievements not only in baseball, but football and basketball as well.
He is the school’s all-time leading scorer and single-game leading scorer (43 vs. Erwin) in basketball. He was also named to the 2005 Alabama Sports Writers Association Class 5A Basketball First Team All-State.
“I think everyone pretty much knew what he was capable of doing,” Paulette said. “He talks to his [former] coaches all the time.”
Mike Shula extended him an offer to sign with Alabama as a wide receiver, before the Cleveland Indians drafted him in the 18th round of the 2005 MLB Draft. Jennings turned down Cleveland’s offer and opted to enroll at Itawamba Community College, where he starred in baseball and football.
“He would’ve been great at Alabama,” Dutton said. “He’s just the best that I’ve ever seen.”
Jennings led all junior college wideouts with 54 receptions, 848 yards and six touchdowns. He then performed on the diamond by hitting .378 with 29 stolen bases, which was good enough to get him drafted by Tampa Bay with the 289th pick of the 2006 MLB Draft. He signed.
Only five days after being called up to the big leagues, the outfielder launched his first career home run, a two-run blast against the Oakland A’s.
On Sept. 7, 2011 Rays manager Joe Maddon filled out his lineup for that afternoon’s game against the Texas Rangers. He opted to put his 25-year-old left fielder from Pinson in the leadoff position in front of center fielder B.J. Upton.
Jennings led off the bottom of the 10th in a 4-4 game. He connected on the first pitch from Mark Lowe and watched the ball sail 40 feet over the left field wall for his first career walk-off home run and 1,000th win in franchise history — nothing Paulette didn’t know he could do.