Spring training | Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Jaff Decker inspired by unusual first name

jlembo@bradenton.comMarch 8, 2014 

BRADENTON -- That's not a misprint in your program or on your baseball card.

Whoever is in charge of typing the names into McKechnie Field's digital scoreboard didn't mistake one vowel for another.

No, there is nothing wrong with Jaff Decker's first name, which is pronounced Jeff but reads like it should it sound like something you'd find on the menu of your local Starbucks.

And Decker has no plans to change it, especially because he's named after a man considered a family hero.

An outfielder the Pittsburgh Pirates acquired from the San Diego Padres in an offseason trade, Decker used to be hesitant about telling the story of his unusual first name. Now it's a story he's more than

willing to share, and rightfully so, because it's a good one.

Decker was named after an uncle born in Germany. The boy's father, Decker's grandfather, in a haste to get back to his post, wrote down his newborn's son name to process the birth certificate.

Was it a misprint? Did the father mean to write J-A-F-F on his son's birth certificate? Or did he mean to write J-E-F-F, scribbled it too fast and confused the nurses?

Whatever the case, the boy was named Jaff.

The elder Jaff joined the military. He was the captain of a Black Hawk helicopter and died in a crash.

He was 19.

"He was my dad's best friend growing up," Decker said Friday prior to the Pirates' 6-5 loss to the Minnesota Twins at McKechnie Field. "I got the privilege of being named after him. ... It's different, but knowing where it comes from means a little bit to me."

Decker never got to meet his namesake. But he's heard stories, all of which are good.

Not only was Jaff a good athlete in high school, winning a state wrestling championship, Decker said, but he was a solid person away from the field and courts and wrestling rooms, as well.

"I learned the story, knowing the type of person he is," Decker said. "Friends that my dad still hang out with still talk about it -- 'He was the most upstanding guy; he'd do anything for you; 5 o'clock in the morning he's there for you, whatever you need.' That's kind of how I try and be."

The Padres took Decker 42nd overall during the 2008 draft and shipped him to the Pirates in November for first baseman Alex Dickerson, who was named the Florida State League's Player of the Year in 2012 with the high Single-A Bradenton Marauders.

Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington told the Pittsburgh media the Pirates liked Decker's ability to play all three outfield positions -- he started in right field Friday -- and said he had a shot of making the team out of spring training.

Decker said he takes Jaff's spirit with him on the baseball field and never goes anywhere without wearing his uncle's dog tags around his neck, even if they made for an interesting tan line during a recent trip to the beach.

"I heard he was a happy person, no matter what. Didn't matter the day," Decker said. "Coming to the field, there's no place I'd rather be, on the field with all these guys and playing this game. He was a big-time athlete before he went into the military. ... The athleticism was there, so it showed the type of person he is, giving that up to go into the military.

"Kind of reminds me of the little guy in the back of my head telling me, 'Hey, this is where you come from; this is who you are.'"

Fans seeking a autographs mangle Decker's first name, just as teachers used to. But it doesn't bother him, especially if it gives him another chance to tell the story of why that name is his to begin with.

"I embrace it," Decker said. "It's pretty special."

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