by Sergio Santistevan
In South Orange County, CA, one baseball program will tell anybody who walks through their door about its philosophy.
Led by a group of high-level coaches, the Saddleback Cowboys are built off discipline, respect, and development – everything else comes second.
“We’re really keen on fundamentals and development, not necessarily about the wins,” said Saddleback Cowboys coach Wade Jackson. “Teaching them the right aspects of the game … fundamentals, development, respecting the game and having professionalism on the field.”
Growing up in the local area, Jackson has decades of playing and coaching experience. At El Toro High School, Jackson was a two-time All-South Coast League selection. Following his high school career, Jackson went on to play at Saddleback College, a JUCO in Mission Viejo, CA.
Jackson racked up several accolades during his junior college run as he was a two-time All-Orange Empire League selection, 1994 Junior College Player of the Year in the Southern Division, and he broke marks in batting, hits, RBI and runs. Today, Jackson is enshrined in the Saddleback College Baseball Hall of Fame.
After his JUCO run, Jackson played at the University of Nevada - Reno and was selected by the Anaheim Angels in the 1996 MLB Draft.
Once he was done playing in the minors, Jackson’s career switched to coaching youth baseball. A year after retirement, Jackson’s neighbor approached him and asked him to coach his son's travel team, which was one of the only baseball teams in South Orange County at that time.
Through the past 19 years in youth baseball, Jackson has experienced coaching his son to being a co-owner of the Saddleback Cowboys with Chris Malec and Richard Mercado.
Jackson took a few years off from coaching when his son, Jake, was younger but returned when he turned age 8 so he could coach the team. When Jake was ready to go to college, he followed his father’s legacy and chose Nevada where he was named a Collegiate Baseball Freshman All-American in 2018.
Jackson’s co-owners of the Saddleback Cowboys, Malec and Mercado, have plenty of experience on the diamond, too.
Malec was a freshman All-American and three-time All-Big West selection at the University of California - Santa Barbara. He then went on to get drafted by the New York Yankees in 2005, where he was a 2008 Class AA All-Star and three-time league champion who reached Triple-A.
Mercado attended the University of Arizona where he was a captain for the 2004 College World Series team. He was selected in the 12th round of the MLB Draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks and achieved a nine-year professional career, also reaching Triple-A.
Jackson, Malec and Mercado have focused their post-playing careers on coaching youth baseball, but all three men have families – it can be hard to juggle baseball and their own lives.
“It’s balance, long hours,” Jackson laughed. “We get on the field at usually one and two in the afternoon and we’re at that until nine. Weekends are on the baseball field. It’s tough.”
Despite the long hours, all three coaches find a way to balance their lives and still implement discipline, respect and development in their players.
“We teach them that it’s a hard game, a family game, something you got to work every day at. It’s not something you just show up and throw your cleats on and start throwing the baseball,” Jackson said. “You have to respect it, treat it the way it’s supposed to be treated, and give it your all. This game can be very fortunate for you, take you very far, and do lots of things for you.”
The Saddleback Cowboys coaching staff has set up goals throughout the year for each age group but winning isn’t at top of that list. Development always comes first.
“As they get older that stuff happens because of what they do as they grow … we’re really keen on developing the boys, especially at a younger age.”
Developing the team comes with the respect and discipline that Jackson says is taught even in the youngest teams. A Saddleback Cowboys' rule is that if a player doesn’t show up with his uniform belt, then he doesn’t get to play.
Jackson understands there is more to life than baseball, which is why he wants to teach his players life lessons on top of baseball techniques. His favorite stories to hear from players are the ones where they sign to a college with their help, because it shows that they accomplished their goals of creating good ballplayers and disciplined men.
“It’s just not just baseball, it’s teaching them aspects of life and becoming a young man,” Jackson said. “Teaching them beyond baseball is another thing … not everyone is going to go make that $10 million per year and there are other things in life.”
After a month and a half off from baseball, the Saddleback Cowboys returned to the field in late January. Jackson currently has his team hitting and doing some strength and conditioning as they start to prepare for their spring schedule.
“It comes back to development. Most of our teams get in three workouts a week,” Jackson said. “It’s preparing for them for the fundamentals and situational (baseball) … putting our best foot forward and trying to teach them.”
Despite being away from his family, grandchildren and friends often due to baseball events, Jackson can’t imagine himself doing anything else in life. He calls himself fortunate that he’s been allowed to do something that he loves for his entire life.
“How many people out in the world can say they do exactly what they love every day?” he said. “I get to be on the baseball field 50 percent of the day and almost every day. It’s something that I developed a respect for all my life, and I get to teach it to younger kids now.”