Although he spent three seasons in the Chicago Cubs organization, Jasha Balcom never got the chance to play in Daytona's Jackie Robinson Ballpark. His career ended in 2005 as a member of the Peoria Chiefs, who compete one level below the Class A Advanced Daytona Cubs.
But it's funny how life works out. Eight years after his Minor League Baseball career ended, Balcom got the chance to do something even better than playing at Jackie Robinson Ballpark. He's playing Jackie Robinson.
Balcom, 30, was Robinson's stunt double in the biopic 42 that opens Friday in theaters nationwide. Though Chadwick Boseman is the actor who portrays Robinson in the film, it is Balcom whom you will often see crouching in the batter's box, diving for ground balls in the hole and wreaking havoc on the basepaths.
One thing leads to another
Wreaking havoc on the basepaths is, in fact, one of the things that Balcom prided himself on throughout his playing career.
"Diving, sliding -- that was always the way I played, even as a young kid," said Balcom, a native of Dublin, Ga., who went on to play collegiately for the University of Georgia before being drafted by the Cubs in 2003. "I thought it was just the coolest thing in the world to steal bases, and really took pride in disrupting a pitcher's timing and showing that sort of athleticism."
Balcom combined this style of play with an interest in baseball history, so it's not surprising that he was a Jackie Robinson fan from a young age.
"I always knew about Jackie, that he played a major role in Civil Rights and really paved the way for black athletes," said Balcom. "But now I realize that there were so many things that I didn't know."
Balcom now has a far better understanding, as he underwent a largely self-taught crash course in Robinson's history and mannerisms after landing a role as his stunt double. This gig, like so much in life, came about via a wholly unexpected set of circumstances. It all started with a phone call from Paul Bouras, a friend of Balcom's from their days playing in the Cubs organization together.
"[Bouras] had gotten connected with the director [Brian Helgeland], helping him find baseball talent for the movie," Balcom explained. "He called me one day and asked if I might be interested in appearing in one of the Negro League scenes, because they were looking for ballplayers. I said, 'Of course,' and sent over some information about me and some photos."
Balcom is 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, a similar build to Robinson during his playing days. But despite the resemblance, it had never occurred to him that he might be chosen for anything more than a bit part.
"Pretty soon I got a call back from the director, who told me that that he had been looking through my numbers and at my photos," said Balcom. "He told me, 'Hey, we might want you to be the stunt double.' I went to a workout, showed the athleticism they were looking for and got the role."
But there's always a catch, isn't there?
In order to get the job, Balcom had to take off from work for two months and travel with the cast and crew to the film's array of baseball locations (including Chattanooga, Tenn., Birmingham, Ala., and Macon, Ga.). This meant that he had to remove himself from the day-to-day operations of Hitter's Box, a 50,000-square-foot baseball training facility that he owns and operates in the Atlanta area.
"When I was done playing baseball, I started working a 9-to-5, but I always knew I wanted to start a business," said Balcom. "I started small, with one cage, and built it up through referrals and word of mouth. … Now we have five hitting coaches and five pitching coaches, so I was fortunate enough to have help when I was gone."
Having his own thriving business helped in other ways as well.
"I bat left-handed but had to perfect Jackie's form from the right side. I would train for that using our ProBatter simulators," he said.
Perhaps more difficult was learning to slide like Robinson who, due to an injury to his right ankle, preferred an unorthodox method.
"Jackie preferred sliding on his left side. I mean, who does that?" said Balcom with a laugh. "My right side is pretty tough, but sliding on the left, I'm not used to that. It really wore me out!"
The last time that Balcom was paid to play baseball was 2007, when he was a member of the independent South Georgia Peanuts team that was managed by Wally Backman. Being part of 42 meant that, once again, he was part of a team. Before filming began, he and the film's baseball extras took part in a "mini-Spring Training" in Atlanta, with Boseman eventually joining them.
"I think that's what you miss most, that camaraderie, and that's one of the reasons it was so good to be back on the field again," he said. "Putting those cleats on, putting that uniform on, it's a great feeling."
Especially when the uniforms in question were those of the 1945 Kansas City Monarchs, 1946 Montreal Royals and, of course, the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson is shown playing for all three clubs in the movie, and Balcom did his best to represent him in the truest way possible no matter what the circumstances. He hadn't yet seen the film when I spoke with him on Wednesday morning but said that, among other things, he was filmed falling to the ground in the batter's box, diving for balls in the infield, turning double plays and stealing bases.
"It'd be something like four in the morning and I've got a cameraman in a golf cart chasing me as I run the bases. I'm tired, and my feet hurt," recalled Balcom. "But this is Jackie's legacy we're talking about, and I know I needed to do my small part to make the movie great. When the lights come on, it's time to perform. You've got to just tune everything else out and bring the action."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog.