A telling of the legend of Bo Jackson, now an athletic and medical marvel, must begin with a disclaimer: Do not try this at home. Every year 240,000 people in the U.S. undergo hip-replacement surgery. Only one of them, his left hip fastened together by polyethylene and cobalt chrome, is playing major league baseball, an undertaking that shakes even his orthopedist to the marrow. "I hold my breath watching him," says Dr. James Andrews of Birmingham. "I don't want other patients to think they can do the same thing. Ordinary people shouldn't model their activities after Bo Jackson."
That Jackson is again playing baseball for the Chicago White Sox makes no sense, at least not within the usual, logical boundaries of science and baseball—and certainly not within the limits of ordinary people, a segment of the population to which he never has been assigned. But there he was last Friday, with the first official swing of the rest of his postoperative life, crushing a home run that seemed impossible until you remembered who hit it. "What can he do next?" said Susann McKee, his business manger. "It's almost as if he said, 'O.K., I'm going to go out and hit a home run in my first at bat.' It's almost as if he choreographs his whole life."
The Natural? Not anymore. Jackson became a two-sport star with such natural strength and ability that he hardly bothered to work out. One day, while a campus hero at Auburn in the mid-1980s, he got this idea that maybe he ought to at least take regular morning runs. After only one attempt at it he telephoned McKee, a friend before she became his business manager, and offered this conclusion: "People who run are stupid."
To come back with an artificial hip, though, has required rigorous daily workouts that he must maintain while playing. "Now," Andrews says, "he's in the best shape of his life. This is the first time he ever worked hard to get in shape."
Jackson has become The Unnatural. Emboldened by the force of his will and a deathbed promise to his mother, he is defying the logic of medicine and the composition of the White Sox roster, both of which say this is no place for him. He is pushing the known limits of his prosthesis so intently that "he's in uncharted waters," says White Sox trainer Herm Schneider. "It may last one month, six months, five years, 10 years." No one really knows how close he is to wreckage, which holds gruesome possibilities.
Even on a purely baseball level, Bo appears not to be a good fit. The White Sox announced on March 24 that they were picking up the option on Jackson's contract, which requires them to pay him a base salary of $910,000. That's a lot of dough for a limited player who had no apparent role on the team. Fact is, the White Sox prepared for the '93 season thinking Jackson wouldn't be able to play, and they wound up with a surplus of outfielders as well as one of the best designated hitters in the game, George Bell. To keep Jackson, who figured to be nothing more than a glorified pinch hitter and bona fide gate attraction, the Sox released Shawn Abner and demoted Michael Huff and Warren Newson, all of them reserve outfielders who play good defense, can steal, bunt and advance runners—valuable late-inning skills, none of which Jackson provides.
Moreover, the national media attention afforded someone who figured to play less often than Joey Cora quickly threatened team harmony. The resentment remains barely submerged, capable of surfacing with every ripple of reporters that washes up at Jackson's locker. Shortstop Ozzie Guillen, who would be a courageous baseball story in any other clubhouse (he has made it back from a career-threatening knee injury in less than a year), became annoyed one day during spring training after reporters kept asking him about Jackson's health. Pitcher Kirk McCaskill, when asked about his showing after a poor spring outing, snapped, "Why don't you go ask Bo?"
Jackson appears to like the attention least of all, showing almost no joy or humor about his comeback. He has been as ornery as a boar hog, which is how he came to be nicknamed in the first place. Alabamans know the "bo' hog," as they pronounce it, is the meanest hog in any pen. "I'm sick and tired of my life being a media circus," he snorted last week at reporters, apparently forgetting his multimedia endorsement campaigns. "I don't know why you make me out to be everything from a butthole to a superhuman athlete, which I'm not."
Sensing the tension, general manager Ron Schueler called a clubhouse meeting one day in March to address the situation. Schueler knew the players liked Jackson and respected him for his commitment to a grueling rehabilitation program, but he worried that they might be distracted by the consequences of his celebrity. Says manager Gene Lamont, "It's like the weather, I guess. It's not going to go away, so there's no use complaining about it."
Still, even Lamont got testy when someone asked him about Jackson after Chicago's 10-5 Opening Night victory over the Minnesota Twins in Minneapolis. "I don't want to be smart, but don't ask me about Bo Jackson," said Lamont. "We just won a big game. Let's talk about tonight's game, O.K.?" Then, about two hours before Chicago played its home opener last Friday, when a thick semicircle of reporters surrounded Jackson as he sat on the dugout bench, veteran catcher Carlton Fisk shook his head at the commotion and grumbled, "Isn't there anybody else on this team?"
After all, the White Sox had scored 20 runs and won two of three games against the Twins without Jackson's ever having left the bench. That disappointed the fans underneath the Teflon roof of the Metrodome, who, while consuming artificially flavored food products, wanted to see someone with an artificial hip play on artificial turf in an artificial ballpark. By the ninth inning of the final game of that series, as Bell waited in the on-deck circle, fans behind home plate and near the rightfield line chanted, "We want Bo!" When Bell took his turn, they booed.
The next morning Jackson, still vomiting from a mild case of food poisoning that had kept him up overnight, arrived at Comiskey Park at eight for his daily hour of physical therapy, before the 1:35 p.m. game against the New York Yankees. For a fourth straight game, he was not in the lineup. In the first inning, leftfielder Tim Raines tore a ligament in his right thumb on a headfirst slide into second base. Two innings later Lamont replaced Raines with Dan Pasqua, a lefthanded hitter. However, when lefthander Neal Heaton began warming up in the Yankee bullpen in the fifth, Lamont told Jackson, "If Heaton's in, you're hitting for Pasqua."
Heaton did start the next inning, retiring the first two batters. Then, 18 months since he had played in a regulation game and one year and four days since Andrews and two White Sox doctors had put that contraption in his hip, Jackson walked to home plate to hit. His appearance prompted a wild ovation in Comiskey Park. Behind the last row of Section 130, to the right side of home plate, McKee alternately watched and turned her back to the proceedings, as someone watching a chilling movie might cover her eyes with both hands but then peak through slightly parted fingers.
In Section 105, Row 6, Seat 11 in rightfield, Greg Ourednick of Crown Point, Ind., a 16-year-old who once wrote a school report on Jackson, was hoping his favorite player could somehow get a hit. The place was loud with a merry mix of appreciation and anticipation, but as Jackson would say later, "Once I got into the batter's box, everything went quiet, and it was just the pitcher and myself."
Heaton threw a changeup on the outside of the plate for a called strike one. So he threw another, even though the book on Jackson is to bust him inside and not let him get his powerful arms extended. That is especially true now that his mobility is limited and he is an upper-body swinger. "He still swings the bat well," Raines says, "but he doesn't get any hip spin."
Jackson had batted 65 times in spring training without hitting a home run. "The one thing he hasn't shown us is power," Schueler had said in Minnesota. "But we think that will come."
Heaton floated a second changeup, and this time Jackson swung at it—his first official swing with an artificial hip. His bat met the ball solidly, sending it on a gentle arc into the rightfield bleachers. After some fumbling, Ourednick snared the baseball. The fans in Section 105 told him he could get thousands of dollars for it, but Ourednick had read in the paper that Jackson wanted the ball as a posthumous gift for his mother, Florence, who had died three weeks after his hip surgery. Jackson had promised her he would play baseball again and that he would give her the ball from his first hit after coming back. "That," said the teenager, "is worth more than the money." An inning later Ourednick would hand over the ball to Jackson outside the Chicago clubhouse. A grateful Bo autographed another ball for Ourednick (THANKS FOR THE BALL—BO JACKSON) and gave him a signed bat.
As Jackson jogged around the bases—he runs awkwardly, favoring his left side as if he has a stone in his size-12 left shoe—Lamont cried. He had wept with joy at the birth of his two children, and now he was again happy enough to cry. Jackson too nearly wept. "I was a little misty-eyed," he said, "but I figured if I came back crying, the guys would be all over me and never let me forget it."
Fireworks burst above the field. Behind Section 130, McKee turned to Jackson's stockbroker and playfully offered a more fitting sound effect: "Ka-ching! Ka-ching!" Yes, cash registers are sure to ring now. Companies representing everything from food to medicine had been calling McKee for two weeks, and now the demand for Jackson will be even greater.
"People like comeback stories," said McKee. "This is even bigger than playing two sports. People said he couldn't do it. This is his answer to everybody. He didn't like talking to the press because he hadn't done anything yet. Now it's happened. His answer is out there in rightfield. He just gave them a short press conference."
While Bo may be back, Raines is not expected to return until late May, adding to the Sox's reputation as a team for the infirm. Jackson, Guillen, outfielder Ellis Burks and pitcher Dave Stieb are all coming off major injuries. "Club Handicap," Jackson says. "There should be a big handicap emblem on the bench where we all can sit."
With Raines out, Jackson figures to be in the lineup more often. Indeed, the next night, on a Chicago lineup card that was otherwise filled with surnames, he was identified in the seventh spot simply as "Bo". Jackson grounded out three times and walked in his first start, and he did not play the following day, when the Yankees started a righthander. Lamont is cautious about how much Jackson will play. "It depends on how he holds up, how well he plays and how well Pasqua plays," says Lamont. Even Jackson, a man of few concessions, admits, "I'm not able to run the ball down in the alley like I used to."
The more he plays, the more he risks damaging the prosthesis. An artificial hip joint has two parts: a cuplike socket that is attached to the pelvis and a metal stem with a ball on the end that fits into the socket (illustration, page 24). The stem of the prosthesis is fixed in the thigh bone in the manner of corking a bat: A shaft is cut into the end of the bone, and the stem is inserted. This is the area that could be most at risk. Though Schneider says X-rays reveal Jackson has new bone growth around the prosthesis, a collision, a slide or overuse could break the bone or the prosthesis.
"I think it's asking an awful lot of a joint replacement to perform long-term in professional athletics," says Dr. Henry Finn of the University of Chicago, an expert on hip-and-knee-replacement surgery. "It's like a paper clip. If you bend it back and forth enough, it will break."
Says Andrews, "Bo understands the risks. I gave him all the precautions. He's already made up his mind to prove he can play baseball. He has my blessing to achieve it. I'll be here if he has further troubles. I'm hoping by some miracle he can do this, to satisfy his goals and go on with his life and business ventures."
Why take the risk? "Two reasons," says Jackson. "Number one is for myself, and number two is for my mother. Everyone else will have to take a number."
One of 10 children, Jackson is an intense family man. He says he intends to rebuild his childhood home in Bessemer, Ala.—only an empty, weed-covered lot remains—to its original specifications, including an outhouse in the back. "A three-room house with a potbellied coal stove in the bedroom and a butane tank out back," he says. "My mom's bed was in the kitchen."
Himself rebuilt and renewed, Jackson has proved to be a man of fierce commitment. As he left the White Sox clubhouse early Friday evening, he pulled on a suede jacket and stuffed his home run ball into one of its pockets. He drove the 20 minutes to his home in suburban Burr Ridge, only to find that his wife and children were out to dinner. So he tinkered under the hood of his 1971 Mustang for a bit. Later that evening he spoke at a banquet for a high school all-star basketball game. He talked about playing baseball for "a year or two or three or 10 or 15." He talked about staying in school and out of trouble. He also talked about his mother.
"I want my mother to look down and say, 'I'm proud of my son,' " he said. "I want her to look at me and say, 'I know he'll do what's right. I know he'll help guide his brothers and sisters.' "
The prosthesis in his hip can break. It is only metal and plastic, "a man-made object," says Andrews, "with a finite life." It cannot be built with the strength of the bond a son carries for his mother. Bo brought home a baseball in his pocket. He brought home a gift for his mother. He will have it bronzed and bolted to her tombstone. "I made a promise," he says, "that I would give her the ball."