Bo Jackson, a Man for All Seasons, Elusive to Angels
The roll call, please, of those wanting a few minutes with Vincent (Bo) Jackson, Auburn University football player and summer-school student: Sport magazine, Sports Illustrated, The Times, every newspaper and TV station in Alabama, and Larry Himes.
Yes, Larry Himes, the Angels’ director of scouting and player development. He has perhaps the deepest interest in Jackson, having selected him in the 20th round of the recent baseball draft. Jackson also plays a little center field.
The question, from one and all: “What’ll it be, Bo, football or baseball?”
The answer, to one and all, is that he’ll make up his mind when he’s good and ready, and Bo figures he’ll be good and ready along about next spring, thank you.
“At this time next year, we’ll all know which sport I’ll pursue,” Jackson said by telephone from Auburn, Ala. “Next spring I’ll decide which one offers the best career possibilities and stick with it. Right now, I’m still open to either one.”
To Himes and the Angels, however, that comes as a resounding no, considering that the team will lose its draft rights to Jackson should he return to school this fall for his senior year, which is just what he plans to do.
At present, Jackson is a proven star only in football, but he is promising enough in baseball to be considered in the same vein as Dave Winfield and Phil Bradley, major leaguers who starred in other sports in college.
After the draft, Himes tried to persuade Jackson to visit Anaheim, but Jackson declined, citing a busy summer-school schedule.
“It doesn’t sound promising for us but we knew that going in,” Himes said. “All we wanted to do was have him come out here and see what a big league operation is like. See the stadium, meet Reggie Jackson. We weren’t going to pressure him to sign, we just wanted to give him exposure to baseball at the major league level.
“But then he’s from football country there in the SEC (Southeastern Conference). It’s all football people and a football mentality.”
Charles Hollis, who covers Auburn athletics for the Birmingham News, confirmed that idea.
“Down here, football is sort of a way of life,” Hollis said. “We cover Auburn like other papers cover their pro teams because that’s where the interest is at. Football is that important here. Because of it, the Angels would probably have to offer Jackson just a sensational (financial) package to ever see him in one of their uniforms.”
From the Angels’ point of view, the problem in part is that, under SEC rules, an athlete such as Jackson cannot be a professional in one sport and maintain his amateur status in another.
That means that if the Angels were to sign him this summer, he couldn’t play his senior year of football at Auburn.
Jackson forsaking football wouldn’t go over too big at Auburn, considering that the school is spending $15 million to expand its Jordan-Hare Stadium by 12,000 seats to a capacity of 85,000. The need for an All-American attraction such as Jackson to fill those seats is obvious.
For the longest time, Auburn football was lost in the shadow of Alabama’s Bear Bryant, but since Bryant’s death, the Tigers have emerged as the college football power in the state, having beaten Boston College, Michigan, and Arkansas in the Tangerine, Sugar, and Liberty Bowl games, respectively.
Jackson has been voted the most valuable player in the Sugar and Liberty Bowl games, so it’s not hard to see why there is considerable pressure on him to pursue football.
Jackson, then, is practiced at turning down baseball’s elite, having spurned a reported $200,000 offer from the New York Yankees when he was coming out of high school in suburban Birmingham in 1982. That means that Jackson now has said no to George Steinbrenner and Gene Autry, owners whose player salary budgets are rivaled only by the Pentagon’s procurement budget for hammers and screwdrivers and such.
“I didn’t see the need to ride a bus for three or four years (in the minors) when in about the same length of time I could get a college degree,” Jackson said of his decision to accept a football scholarship to Auburn.
The Angels’ Himes has an answer for that, though. “Reggie Jackson spent 182 days in the minors and Kirk Gibson 146 days,” Himes said. “Bo Jackson has the ability to do that. Jackson has better baseball skills at this point in college than Kirk Gibson had.”
Baseball’s infatuation with Jackson goes beyond his .401 average with 17 home runs and 43 RBIs for Auburn last spring.
What Himes and other baseball people see is someone who can consistently hit 30 home runs and steal 30 bases on the major league level because of his physical skills alone.
Said Rod Gilbreath, assistant scouting director for the Atlanta Braves, of the 6-foot 1-inch, 220-pound Jackson: “He’s a ballplayer with remarkable talent. His skills may be raw, but he’s got outstanding speed. He’s built like a Mr. Universe. He’s a great physical specimen.”
Said sportswriter Hollis: “He can bench press 400 pounds and he doesn’t even lift weights regularly. The strength coach at Auburn calls him a genetic phenomenon.”
In high school, besides being a football and baseball star, Jackson was also state champion in the high jump, long jump, triple jump, 100-yard dash, and anchored the state champion 400-yard relay team.
“Let me tell you, track is my first love,” Jackson said, laughing. “If I could make a living off of running track like Carl Lewis does, football or baseball wouldn’t even be in the picture.”
Track’s loss was Auburn football’s gain, however. It was 2,517 yards’ worth of gain, to be exact. Jackson gained that much yardage in only 372 attempts--that’s a 6.8-yard average--in his first three seasons.
He was out for much of last season with a separated shoulder, one that kept him from competing with Doug Flutie for the 1984 Heisman Trophy.
Consequently, football people are no less effusive in their praise of Jackson, but it has gotten to the point where observers from both sports seem to think that whichever side can drown him with the most superlatives will win his services.
Said Tom Braatz, Atlanta Falcons’ general manager: “Our people looked at him and, well, if he hangs around for the (1986) NFL draft he should be one of the top five picks in the first round. He has real unusual speed--he’s a speed back, but he has the ability to bounce outside.”
Said Gil Brandt, vice president of personnel for the Dallas Cowboys: “Bo Jackson? Oh my, even if you had a backfield with Tony Dorsett, Jim Brown, and Eric Dickerson, you’d still draft him. You’d love to have him on your team.
“He’s one of the few running backs--Marcus Dupree and Herschel Walker are the others--who could have gone right from high school to the pros and survived. He was full-grown right out of high school and has just tremendous upper-body strength.”
So c’mon, Bo, fess up. At least tell us which sport you enjoy playing the most?
“It’s a funny thing about that,” he said. “I seem to enjoy whichever one is in season at the time.”
From all accounts, Jackson is an unusual college athlete of his stature in that first, he goes to class--he just changed his major from child psychology to family and child development--and second, that he is decidedly loyal, and is fulfilling his commitment to his school’s football program out of that loyalty.
It seems that if nowhere else, at least down in Alabama they have a sure-fire cure for baseball fever. It’s called Auburn football, and Bo Jackson has long since caught it.
But just when you think that Jackson is all but signed, sealed and delivered to the NFL, he drops a zinger.
“I was out on the baseball diamond the other day to help my coach with a summer baseball camp, you know, with all the youngsters,” he said. “And some of my teammates were out there, too. So I had them time three pitches--I was a pitcher and shortstop in high school--and do you know what?”
Tell us, Bo.
“Well, my fastest pitch was clocked at 87 m.p.h.,” he said.
Hmmm. Is that Larry Himes there, ordering that plane ticket for another trip to Auburn?
Go beyond the scoreboard
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