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02/09/11 10:00 AM EST

Jennings appreciates those who paved way

Aaron, Mays among African-American stars also from Alabama

ST. PETERSBURG -- Desmond Jennings wasn't alive when the likes of Henry Aaron and Willie Mays played in the Major Leagues.

But Jennings, a native of Alabama, knows who they are and how they helped pave the way for future black athletes housing a dream of playing in the Major Leagues.

A talented and athletic outfielder, Jennings, 24, is one of the top prospects in the Rays' organization. Born and raised in Birmingham, Ala., the youngster was thoughtful and careful with his words as he spoke about his upbringing and how his father made sure to connect him to the rich baseball past of his home state.

In addition to Aaron and Mays, other African-American standouts from Alabama include Billy Williams, Willie McCovey, Lyman Bostock, Tommy Agee, George Foster, Oscar Gamble, Bo Jackson, Monte Irvin, Lee May, Amos Otis, Juan Pierre, Ozzie Smith, Andre Thornton and Willie Wilson.

Of that group, Mays, Aaron, McCovey and Williams produced 11,976 hits, 7,230 RBIs and 2,362 home runs.

"Oh yeah, my dad was a big baseball fan, so I definitely was aware of who came from Alabama," Jennings said. "How long ago it was made it a little bit difficult for me to understand what they went through when I was young, but as I got older, it hit me differently."

February is Black History Month, so Jennings' thoughts on the progress that has been made since Aaron and Mays broke into baseball seemed appropriate.

"You can't really explain what the people before me did coming up," Jennings said. "The opportunity that they've given us because of what they've done, you can't really explain it, you can only imagine what they went through."

Jennings grew up playing baseball, basketball and football, and he was a standout in all three sports.

"I loved all of them," Jennings said. "I still do love all three sports."

While Jennings allowed that he would like to see the number of black athletes in baseball rise, he explained why he chose baseball over basketball or football. Had he taken the football route, he was earmarked to play wide receiver at the University of Alabama after signing a football scholarship.

"There definitely are not as many African-Americans in baseball as there are in football and basketball, I can't explain why," Jennings said. "I chose baseball because I just felt it was a better opportunity for me and it felt like a better fit. I played baseball from when I was 5. It kind of grew on me when I was younger. I just stuck with it. I remember that love of the game, and that brought me to the game. Like I said, my dad loved the game, so he kept me around it."

As for the racism and hatred experienced by many of the black players before him, Jennings feels fortunate that he has not had to travel the same path.

"When I do hear stuff, I let it go in one ear and out the other," Jennings said. "You see stuff and you hear stuff. But it wasn't too bad with me growing up or in [professional baseball]. So yeah, I guess that is progress."

Jennings put together his first full year of professional baseball in 2009 after getting hurt in his two previous seasons. As a result of that stint, he was named MVP of the Southern League at Double-A Montgomery before advancing to Triple-A Durham, where he showed he could play.

Unfortunately, Jennings was revisited by the injury bug in 2010, when a sprained left wrist suffered during Spring Training caused him to open the season on the disabled list. He went on to hit .278 with three home runs and 36 RBIs and 37 stolen bases in 109 games for Durham before getting recalled on Sept. 1. In 17 games with Tampa Bay, he hit .190 with two RBIs and two stolen bases.

The scouting report on Jennings calls him a gifted athlete who can play center field and runs good routes to track down fly balls. He has the ability to hit and is expected to eventually hit for some power.

"I picked up on him last Spring Training when he got hurt," Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said. "D.J. is really a good makeup guy. ... These guys, really good football players, tend to be that way. He's a really good football player."

What surprised Maddon the most was Jennings' baseball instincts. As a wide receiver, Jennings ran excellent routes, said Maddon, and "maybe that is the carryover, because he runs good routes in the outfield."

Maddon was also impressed with how Jennings ran the bases and took secondary leads away from the bag.

"Of course, he's going to make a mistake once in a while," said Maddon. "He got picked off at the latter part of the season, but he sees things well."

Jennings will get a good look during Spring Training, but based on the lack of offense he showed during his late-season callup and the fact Johnny Damon is earmarked play a lot in left field, it's likely Jennings will start the season at Durham.

"This guy's going to be fine, he's going to hit enough," Maddon said. "He's going to hit for some power. His defense is going to be spectacular. He's going to throw all right, but he is a good athlete with a good head for this game. That tells me he's going to get a lot better. It's really fascinating, actually. [In a] couple more years, he's going to be a solid performer in this league."

When asked if Jennings was going to be the next Carl Crawford, Maddon smiled: "No, he'll be the first Desmond Jennings."

Jennings said he's feeling good and ready to take his best shot at making the team out of Spring Training.

"It was a struggle a little bit last year," Jennings said. "But I've been doing things to get myself right, so it should be a different year this year. I'm looking forward to it."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.