The pain is almost too much to bear. Not only the pain that he must feel as he gingerly high-steps to first base, but also the pain we feel as we watch him in spring training or on TV, trying to prove us wrong again.
Don't let anyone tell you any different. Bo Jackson is/was the greatest athlete America has ever produced. Even the choice of tense is painful. We want to keep him in the present because he's very much alive, banging out hits and saying he's just going to have to work a little harder. But we want him gone before that image of him in Sarasota, Fla., last week, limping into second base on a sure triple, replaces the one of him as a Kansas City Royals outfielder, making the catch and running up the leftfield wall in Baltimore. Or the one of him in Seattle, as a Los Angeles Raider running back, racing 91 yards and then disappearing into the stadium tunnel.
As of this writing, Jackson is on waivers from the Chicago White Sox with the consent of both parties. Once he clears waivers, the White Sox can sign him to a minor league contract for far less than the $910,000 they would have had to pay him had they kept him beyond March 15; had they simply waived him on March 15, they could not have signed him again until May 1. Neither Bo nor the White Sox was giving up hope that his injured left hip would somehow heal and that he would return to the majors. But then Bo hasn't even officially retired from football yet. "The person everyone sees running now is not Bo Jackson," he said the other day. "I've got to go out and find that guy and put him back in this body."
Although no one knew it at the time, Cincinnati Bengal linebacker Kevin Walker knocked that guy out of Bo Jackson in an NFL playoff game with the Raiders on Jan. 13, 1991. It was an ordinary tackle, but Jackson landed wrong, fracturing his hip socket, shearing cartilage and cutting off the blood supply to the top of the femur. We didn't realize the extent of the injury until the Royals put him on waivers last March 18. They said he might not play again. The White Sox didn't believe them. We didn't believe them.
After all, we had made the mistake of not believing Bo before. He said he could play two professional sports at once, and we scoffed. So in 1989 he hits 32 homers, drives in 105 runs and wins the MVP Award in the All-Star Game, and then he rushes for 950 yards—159 of them in one game—and plays in the Pro Bowl. And he was only going to get better. As his former teammate on the Raiders, linebacker Matt Millen, says, "We just saw a glimpse of him, just a peek. It's such a shame it had to end like this."
How good is/was he? I didn't see a lot of him on the gridiron, so I asked SI pro football writer Peter King for his assessment. "The best combination of power and speed ever to run in an NFL backfield," says King. "This is not just me saying this; this is every man in every NFL front office. The Buffalo Bills' personnel director, Bob Ferguson, said he has never graded a player higher than he graded Bo. Sam Wyche, when he coached the Bengals in 1990, said he was tempted to ask Bo for his autograph. Last year when Jimmy Irsay, the Indianapolis Colts' general manager, heard that Bo might not play football again, he said, 'It's like the music world without John Lennon.' "
I did see a lot of Bo on the diamond, and I've never seen a more talented player. Speed. Arm. Power. And he was still learning. George Brett said he never missed a chance to watch Bo in action: "You never know when you're going to see something you've never seen before and never will again."
I missed seeing the climb up the wall and the titanic homer off Mike Moore and the rifle throw to nail Harold Reynolds at the plate—the three feats most often mentioned by Bo's former Royals teammates. I did see Bo hit three home runs in a row at Yankee Stadium, but nothing he ever did impressed me so much as an infield hit he got in Winter Haven, Fla., one spring. It literally took my breath away. It wasn't as though he had to hustle to make the team; he just wanted to beat the throw, and he did by a mile.
Last week Bo wasn't beating out any infield hits. Against the Detroit Tigers he hit a sure double-play ball to the shortstop. However, Tiger first baseman Cecil Fielder signaled for second baseman Lou Whitaker to hold on to the ball and spare Bo the embarrassment. Fielder's gesture was made out of respect, but it made those who understood it even sadder.
People in baseball often say that if Bo had just concentrated on the one sport...and people in football say much the same thing. But then Bo wouldn't be/have been Bo. The same defiance that made him a superstar in two very different sports is keeping him on his feet in baseball. You can't really blame him for ignoring conventional wisdom. It was wrong once. But this time it's right. Bo should have a hip replacement and save himself and all of us the pain. Then maybe he can take up archery or something else he knows. He would probably make the Olympic team.
When Millen was asked about Bo, he recalled a practice soon after the NFL players' strike ended in 1987. The regular Raiders and the replacement Raiders were scrimmaging, and Millen vowed to crush a scab running back. Unbeknownst to him, though, Jackson sneaked into the huddle to replace the replacement. "Bo took the pitch, sprinted around right end and left me holding on to the grass," says Millen. "All I saw was seven cleats. I thought, Who the heck was that?"
That is/was Bo, running right by us.