Everyone's babbling about Bo. They're comparing him with Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Henry Aaron and Mickey Mantle. Sparky Anderson promises "he'll pack stadiums from coast to coast." Bo's general manager, John Schuerholz, attributes "mystical qualities" to him. In Bo's first spring in the major leagues the press has swarmed all over him. Vincent Edward (Bo) Jackson of the Kansas City Royals hasn't even played 100 games as a professional, and already he's on his way to joining Reggie and Fernando as the only baseball players everyone knows by their first name.
Bo himself would prefer some of the anonymity of fellow Royals rookie Kevin Seitzer, who was quietly hitting .388 to Jackson's .344 at week's end. "I realize that all the talk and questions comes with the territory," Bo says, "but I'll be glad when I've been around the league once and I can just play baseball. For now, I just hope fans see me as a player, not a superman. As for the future, showin' folks what you can do goes a whole lot further than tellin'."
But he is, after all, Bo, and being Bo means having to speak often and loudly—so the mikes in the rear can pick him up—and carrying a big burden. "He was a celebrity before he ever got to the big leagues, so people naturally want to see him," says Royals manager Billy Gardner. "No one else won the Heisman Trophy, was the first pick in the NFL draft, turned down a reported $7 million [from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers] and put on a baseball uniform. Then what people see is a guy who can hit a ball farther and run faster than anyone in the game."
Even opposing players come out to watch Jackson's batting-practice home run shows. He has been timed running to first base in 3.6 seconds, putting him in the company of Mantle and Ron Le-Flore as one of the swiftest runners from the right side of the plate (Mantle was also clocked at 3.1 from the left). "He goes across the first base bag on a ground ball like he's breaking the tape in the 60-yard dash," says Royals veteran Jorge Orta. Bo has beaten out routine ground balls to shortstop, hit a broken-bat grand slam homer over the centerfield fence in Royals Stadium and run down a fly ball in Yankee Stadium that Gardner insists no other leftfielder he has ever seen could have reached. "Last week," says Royals centerfielder Willie Wilson, "I couldn't quite get to a ball [Dan] Pasqua hit that broke up Bret Saberhagen's no-hitter, and I thought. If I had Bo's speed, I'd have caught that."
May 3, 1987
If Wilson had Bo's portfolio (Auburn's alltime rushing leader, with 4,303 yards, 43 touchdowns, Heisman in '85), he would also have to deal with constant questions about football. "Bo doesn't talk about that other sport," says Jackson, referring to himself in the third person not out of boastfulness but because of a slight stutter that is triggered when he uses the word "I." "Why do people keep asking about it?" Partly because Bo has a $1.05 million buy-back clause in his $1.2 million, three-year baseball contract, should he decide to return to "that other sport" before July 15.
At times it seems that this 6'1", 222-pound superhero came to baseball straight out of a Marvel Comic. Tommy Jones, his manager at Class AA Memphis for two months last summer, observed that Jackson probably reached the majors with less baseball experience—89 games in college, 53 with the Chicks—than any hitter since Eddie Gaedel. "It's amazing that with so little experience Bo can do the things he does," says Hal McRae, who doubles as the Royals designated hitter and batting instructor. In his seventh big league game last September, Jackson hit a 475-foot homer off Seattle's Mike Moore that was one of the longest balls ever hit in Royals Stadium. Four games into this season he launched a four-game 12-for-16 stretch against the Yankees and Tigers that included a four-hit. two-homer (one of them the broken-bat slam), seven-RBI evening against Detroit. At the end of last week he had four homers and 15 RBIs.
"But Bo's not out of the woods yet," says McRae. "He's in the process of getting an education. He may have more talent than anyone in the game, but tools don't count—production counts. And for his sake I hope people stop throwing around all that hype and appreciate that Bo's education is going to take three to five years and will include some rough times."
Rough times indeed. Before that 12-for-16 streak, Jackson had struck out seven times in his first 13 at bats. Then, after peaking at .492, Bo arrived at Yankee Stadium on April 17 with the New York newshounds all over him and became the 25th player ever to strike out five times in a single game. That became part of a 10-game, 20-strikeout binge. At his current rate of one strikeout per every 2.91 at bats, Bo's a threat to the Rangers' Pete Incaviglia, who last year set the major league rookie record for most strikeouts, 185, whiffing once every 2.92 at bats.
"The important thing," says McRae, "is that Bo realized the five-strikeout day could happen, and he didn't get upset. He bounced back from the Yankee series and got two hits in Fenway Park. He had what all of us have against Roger Clemens—a tough night [two Ks and a fly-out]—then came back to break up Bob Stanley's no-hitter [with a double in the fifth inning]. He can take it, and he'll have to, because consistency is something that comes with a lot of painful trials and errors."
Jackson's trials and errors began virtually the moment he arrived in Kansas City last June 21 to sign his contract and meet the press and fans before heading off to Memphis. Since it was Royals autograph day. Bo left behind a stack of 8-by-10's of himself posing with the Heisman Trophy. Some players snickered. Then, when the Royals called him up in September, Bo declined to take fielding practice on consecutive nights in Texas. "Yes," concedes reliever Dan Quisenberry, "we wondered about his work habits. Then when he got to spring training this year, his work habits were what struck us all."
Between the end of last season, when Jackson hit .207 in 25 games with the Royals, and the beginning of spring training, Bo spent three weeks in the Instructional League with Ed Napoleon, a smallish, 49-year-old coach who had spent 28 of his first 30 baseball years in the low minors. As the Royals' roving minor league outfield instructor, Napoleon had first tutored Jackson in Memphis. "Without him," Bo says, "I wouldn't be here. He's been like a father to me."
"He worked his tail off," says Napoleon. "I'd hit balls I knew he couldn't get to, and he'd go after them as hard as he could, even though he didn't really know how to go after them. He'd wait until they got through the infield, then try to get a jump. He didn't even know how to hold his glove on ground balls, which is why he missed so many. But he worked and he listened, and because he is such a great athlete, he learns fast."
For all of Jackson's progress, though, Napoleon says the player almost sent him to his Waterloo. "He nearly gave me a heart attack," the coach recalls. "One day when I was hitting him balls, I told him to throw to a six-foot chain link fence and that if any balls went over, he'd have to go around—a pretty good walk—and pick them up. He threw two or three over, and when the workout was finished, he walked up to the fence, grabbed the top with his hands and vaulted it. I almost died. If he'd have come down wrong, I could have been on the unemployment line."
After the Instructional League, Bo returned to Auburn, where he worked out with the track team, spent hours hitting and catching fly balls, and fended off calls from new Tampa Bay coach Ray Perkins. Jackson was determined to make it to the major leagues. "I was astounded," says Hal Baird, his Auburn baseball coach and a former Royals farmhand. "This winter I saw that Bo had completely committed himself to baseball greatness."
"I enjoy making liars out of the people who say that I won't stick to baseball," says Jackson. "I only set one goal, and that was to make the team." Despite speculation all spring about his football future with the Bucs, Jackson proved to his Royals teammates how serious he was about baseball. In the process he made the Kansas City brass change its mind about making him start the season in Omaha. In one of the final Grapefruit League games, Jackson made a dazzling running catch and threw out a runner, prompting George Brett to yell, "Are you telling me he doesn't belong?" Says Royals catcher Jamie Quirk, "By the time we broke camp, everyone knew Bo belonged in the big leagues."
"I played with Mays in Minneapolis before he went to the Giants in '51," says Gardner, "and they're a lot alike. Mays was crude, too. He just had to play. He had his ups and downs his rookie year, but when he had enough games under his belt he was a star. Bo's got Mays's talent, and he's got Mays's makeup. His makeup is perfect. Which is unusual for a football guy." Football guys, like Kirk Gibson, a noted bat thrower, are not generally known for their patience.
Bo's different. "I've never thrown a bat in my life," he says. "All that does is give in to the pitcher and let him know that he's gotten to me. I don't get excited about good days, and I don't get excited about bad days. I'm just trying to learn, one day at a time."
"He learns, too," says McRae. One afternoon in spring training Schuerholz was telling Tigers vice-president and general manager Bill Lajoie that he thought Jackson would struggle with major league breaking pitches. Said Lajoie, "He's the best athlete in the world. He'll learn to hit breaking pitches. Don't worry." Sure enough, Detroit's Dan Petry struck Jackson out three times in a Grapefruit League game, mostly with breaking balls. When the Royals met the Tigers and Petry for the first time in the regular season, in Kansas City, Petry confidently pitched Jackson the same way. Bo singled twice and homered off him. Against the Yankees, a tight pitch by Cecilio Guante sent Jackson diving to the dirt. Bo moved right back in and lined the next pitch for a single.
"I talk to him some about what to expect from certain pitchers," says McRae, "but he's not the type you have to talk to a lot. I don't want him trying to listen too much or start thinking about his mechanics. He's got the greatest bat speed I've ever seen, and lifting his front leg [a la Mel Ott] is one of many good things he does naturally. It gives him a better look at the ball and lets him wait a little longer, because his upper body doesn't move forward. He's at the stage where he needs to learn more by doing than from instruction. He can do it himself because he's good at controlling himself. If he loses it, he can gather himself for his next at bat. You can't teach that, any more than you can teach bat speed." Down the line McRae might remind Jackson not to wrap his bat behind his neck. "But then again," adds McRae, "I might not have to."
George Brett's older brother Ken, a onetime phenom with the Red Sox, had a sign in his apartment bathroom that read, THE WORST CURSE IN LIFE IS UNLIMITED POTENTIAL. Bo Jackson can surely relate to that. "All this talk could ruin the kid if he is asked to live up to it," says the Yankees' Rickey Henderson. Unless, of course, Bo does.