IT’S THE BO SHOW, PART II: KANSAS CITY, HERE HE COMES : But He’s So Talented, There’s No Telling How Far Jackson Can Go
Oh no, it can’t be happening again, except that it is.
Did the people who employ Bo Jackson in his summer job tell our hero that he was bound for the bushes and had better pare his lifework down to a single occupation?
Well, silly them.
When will we ever learn?
So what if he hit .181 and struck out in 41% of his at-bats after the All-Star game last season? Like, does anyone still care that he passed up the instructional league for the Raiders, who paid better? Couldn’t those Kansas City Royals officials who suggested all winter that Jackson was about to embark on a tour of their minor league system just die?
It’s not nice to fool with Bo, who leads the Royals in home runs and is hitting .333 a week before camp breaks. Meanwhile, Gary Thurman, the phenom who was handed Bo’s job last September, has been taking gas from the main pipe and it looks as if he, not Bo, will be the one farmed out.
“Too early to call it,” said Royal Manager John Wathan last week in the prescribed taciturn manner. “It’ll come down to the last couple days.”
Yeah, and George Brett’s job is in danger if Jamie Quirk keeps hitting the way he has been, too.
Monday, Wathan bowed to the inevitability, naming Jackson as his starting left fielder.
Is Bo happy or what?
It’s hard to tell. He hasn’t been interviewed all spring, turning down high and low alike, everyone from Sports Illustrated to Weekly Reader.
Of course, a no-comment from Bo is a little more colorful than most.
“These people (presumably the Royals’ brass) have said enough about me,” he said last week. “People know enough about me. I’ve just come down here to shut some people’s mouths.”
Which is how it goes in this particular life. All he has ever wanted was to live his life on his own terms. Of course, so did Napoleon and Attila the Hun. The most ambitious among us are continually called upon to show they can stay the course.
It’s the second year of the great twin bill.
Bo is still here.
And the hits just keep on coming.
On a sun-splashed day in the St. Louis Cardinals’ park at St. Petersburg, the fans in the rickety wooden bleachers behind third base peruse the formidable piece of body sculpture in the powder-blue Royal uniform playing left field.
The one, the only . . .
“Tackle him, Bo!” yells a fan, as Jackson fields a single and throws the ball back to the infield.
“How’s Al Davis?” yells another.
A third says he is from Kansas City and is “kind of a Bo fan.”
A fourth says: “When he ran over Bosworth (Bo, the Raider, flattened Brian Bosworth on his way to 221 yards at Seattle last December), that was one of the happiest moments of the season for me.”
Love him or hate him, admire or deride him, Bo Jackson is the one they want to see. The day before at Winter Haven, when he and George Brett were left home, it wasn’t Brett, the future Hall of Famer, that the fans kept yelling for, but Bo, the second-year pro.
“I made the trip to Boston last season after Bo signed his football contract,” said John Schuerholz, the Royals’ general manager. “He was struggling and out of the lineup.
“I was sitting with the governor of Maine, who had his two sons there. He asked me, ‘Why isn’t Bo playing?’ ”
The answer should have been simple, even for a governor. Mired in a batting slump, Jackson had neglected to get underneath some fly balls, too, and had been benched after a series of game-losing errors.
“We had the second-highest road attendance in the American League,” Schuerholz said. “We didn’t play that well. We weren’t a defending champion. I attribute part of that to Bo.”
So why is it that Jackson’s zealous pursuit of his options is so widely frowned upon, taken as a sign of willfulness or false pride or foolishness?
It’s not surprising that they’re trying to forget his name in Tampa, where he passed up a Buccaneer offer for a Royal contract $4 million smaller.
It’s not surprising that they were hurt in Kansas City, or suspected a put-up job, when he signed with their football team’s longtime rival.
It’s not surprising that they warmed up slowly to him in Los Angeles. With the kind of season the Raiders were having, the prophet Elijah could have suited up with scant fanfare.
But why should vacationing Cardinal fans in St. Pete be using him as a target for their wit?
In this day of the mercenary, isn’t his disdain of the certain dollar refreshing?
Are we ever likely to see anything like this two-sport virtuosity again?
This isn’t some schnook trying to hang onto a roster spot. He has already proved he can dominate one of the national pastimes, and has suggested pointedly that he could one day do the same in the other.
Hadn’t we better enjoy this while it lasts?
“If Vincent Jackson wasn’t so pigheaded, none of this would have happened.” --Birmingham (Ala.) Post-Herald, Spring, 1980
That was the lead paragraph in the first article ever written by a downtown newspaper about Jackson.
It was in his junior year in high school and ran with a picture of young Vincent pitching for the McAdory High baseball team. The story also noted his progress in football and track, too. It told of his three older brothers, who wanted him to stop this foolishness.
“They said I wouldn’t succeed in three sports, that I should stick with one and stop trying to impress my friends and people in the community,” Jackson told the Post-Herald’s Rubin Grant.
“I told them I was gonna do it, that it wasn’t none of their business what I did.”
Meet three of the first people to have their mouths shut by Bo Jackson.
Vincent Earl Jackson, nicknamed Bohog, a contraction of Boar Hog, because he was such a wild child, was the 8th of 10 children born to Florence Bond in Raimund, a village on a hillside outside Bessemer, 15 miles southwest of Birmingham.
Bo’s father didn’t live with the family. Bond worked as a domestic--she now heads the housekeeping department for a motel--and the kids, including Bo, worked when they could.
Although they struggled, they were proud people. Bond, Bo’s confidante and top adviser, turned down his offer to buy her a new house, and still lives in the same weathered 2-story house on Merritt Avenue. Except now the first cross street is named Bo Jackson Avenue.
Bond turned down many other offers, too. She has an unlisted phone number and avoids reporters.
“She’s very strong, a good lady, very religious,” said Dick Atchison, Bo’s football coach at McAdory.
“She’s gotten on some sportswriters and TV sports guys pretty good at times,” he said, laughing. “I guess Bo got it from her. They’ve been really aloof as far as being in the media. She’s not wanted that attention. She didn’t want the insta-cams coming to her house.
“His mom--when he was a senior in high school, the Yankees offered to fly his mom, Bo and our baseball coach to New York, let Bo take batting practice before the game and sit in the dugout during the game.
“And his mom said, ‘I’m not going to New York. I don’t need their money. I raised 10 kids without their money. Their money doesn’t mean anything to me.’
“George Steinbrenner offered Bo $220,000 to sign. A lot of local folks thought Bo was crazy. ‘Here you are, 18 years old, how can you turn down that money?’
“Money means nothing to Bo. He didn’t have any, but it didn’t mean anything to him. He turned down $220,000 and he didn’t have anything. He was on free lunches.”
What meant something to Jackson?
Baseball, football and track, in no particular order. Everything else came a lot harder.
“Bo was quiet,” Atchison said. “He had a real bad speech problem. He stuttered.
“Really, he didn’t hang around with kids. He was a very private kid. He went to school, he practiced whatever sport was in that particular season and he went home.
“Bo’s senior year, if you walked in the gym, he’d be sitting down in the corner by himself, studying. Maybe the other kids would be sitting somewhere else, talking, jiving. Bo had some very close friends, but he wasn’t as outgoing as he is now.
“When he was at Auburn his freshman and sophomore years, he used to sit in his room and listen to gospel music.
“He used to call here on Saturday nights. Now, they would play a ballgame Saturday afternoons. Bo would call here, and he’d call collect. The operator would say, ‘I have a collect call from Bo, will you accept the charges?’ I’d say, ‘Yeah . . . ‘
“And he would be really down. I mean, to the point at times of wanting to come home. He’d say, ‘I played ball this afternoon, I came back and sat in my room.’
“I’d say, ‘Bo, what do the other players do?’
“He’d say, ‘Well, they go to parties.’
“I’d say, ‘Why don’t you?’
“He’d say, ‘I don’t want to. I just don’t like that.’
“And he’d sit in his room.
“I think things got better his junior and senior years. He started dating and doing some things. But boy, his first two years there, he was almost a recluse.”
If life was painful, games were heaven and he was an angel. On the playing fields of Raimund, McAdory, Auburn, Los Angeles and sometimes Kansas City, too, Bo was Einstein, the Beatles, JFK, a once-in-a-lifetime marvel.
What is there that any athlete can do that Bo can’t?
Little enough, apparently.
According to Atchison, Jackson could do all sorts of flips off a high diving board and swam like a fish. Bo used to drop by Atchison’s tennis class, pick up a racket and demolish the varsity players--"beat ‘em like a dog,” Atchison said.
At Auburn, Jackson refused to lift weights--but could bench press 400 pounds.
“It’s a proven fact he’s stronger than we are,” Bo’s football playing roommate, Tim Jessie, told Gene Wojciechowski of The Times. “And we lift.”
Jackson’s 100-meter time in 1984 was a hundredth of a second away from qualifying him for the Olympic trials. People covering him suspect that he could have made it easily, but note that he sat out the meet in which he could have taken a last shot. There is a theory that Bo didn’t really want to go to the trials, since he knew he’d be a long shot rather than a dominator.
But fast? Who ever heard of anyone his size--6 feet 2 inches and 230 pounds when he reported to the Raiders--running that way?
National Football League scouts say he’s the fastest player they’ve ever timed. Baseball scouts say he’d be the fastest player in their game.
“Anyone who thinks Bo couldn’t play baseball is an idiot,” sneered football Coach Pat Dye in Jackson’s senior year. “They think Rickey Henderson is fast? They don’t know what speed is.”
And if you wonder what ever happened to our answers to Daley Thompson and Jurgen Hingsen . . .
Jackson set the Alabama high school decathlon record--and passed up the final event.
“The last event was the mile,” said Atchison, who was also the track coach. “You can imagine him, 218 pounds and built like that. Anything over 400 yards and he’s ready to cash it in.
“He asked me, ‘Coach, if I’m so far ahead nobody can catch me, do I have to run the mile?’
“I said, ‘If you’re that far ahead, you don’t have to run, but we better wait and see. There’s some pretty good guys.’
“And I mean, the guy--he ran a 9.7 100 yards. That was the max. If you ran 9.8, you got 1,000 points.
“He threw the discus over 150 feet. That was the max. He threw the shot over 50 feet. That was the max. He triple-jumped over 44 feet. That was the max. He ran the hurdles in 12.9, and I think 13 was the max.
“We didn’t even have a track at our high school. We have no pits or anything, and you have to pole vault in the decathlon. We couldn’t even find anyone to loan us a pole because most poles aren’t made for someone who weighs 218 pounds.
“Another high school let us borrow one, a pole for a 180-pounder. Bo used that and pole vaulted 12-6--and never touched a pole until the day he walked out on the track. I really didn’t know if it would hold him up or not.
“But again, after about three tries, he looked like he’d been pole vaulting all his life. Bo’s the kind of guy, he can watch somebody do something and do it.
“We said a lot of crazy stuff when he was at Auburn. We really never felt like he’d turned it loose. A lot of times, it looked like he was holding back, as far as making cuts and doing little things that we’d seen him do in high school.
“I don’t know if Bo has ever played to his potential. That sounds crazy, a guy who’s gone to L.A. and has gotten over 200 yards rushing in a game. But he only does what he has to do.
“I can remember his senior year in high school, we went to the state track meet. The state record in the triple jump was 44 feet. Bo had jumped 44 during the season, but this was the state meet. Well, with only one jump left, a kid from Fayette goes 47-8. Everybody in the stands is going, ‘Oh, that record will never be broken. That’s over 3 feet longer than the old record.’
“Bo had one jump left. I’m sitting there with my assistant coaches, and he goes after this kid--and he goes 48-8. And I mean, you knew when he was sitting in the pit he had broken it. That’s what I mean. Had that kid jumped 48 feet, Bo might have gone 49.
“I saw Bo his senior year in high school high jump 6-9 indoors. He still holds the indoor record. Two hundred eighteen pounds and he high jumps 6-9?
“You know, I don’t know what his potential is.”
As a high school senior, Jackson was rated only the fourth-best halfback in the state. McAdory was a small school, and Atchison used him everywhere--tailback, fullback, defensive end, kicker, kick returner. About the only time Bo came off the field was to put on his kicking shoe.
Invited to visit by Nebraska, Tennessee and Alabama, he took only one trip, to nearby Auburn where he became pals with Chris Woods, now his Raider teammate. He decided he’d seen enough and declared for Auburn.
Spring came, the baseball-track season for Bo. Baseball scouts kept coming around. Atchison asked Jackson if they should be told they were wasting their time.
Bo said no. The romancing continued.
“I’ll tell you one,” Atchison said. “All the scouts came in one afternoon to see Bo play--the superscouts, the big guys.
“They had their JUGS guns, the clocks and everything. We were playing a little old school 50 miles from here named Dora High School.
“Well, that particular day, we had a track meet at Homewood High, and they had a kid who had just moved in. Now unless it was a big track meet, Bo would play baseball. Well, we get ready to load the bus for the track meet and Bo’s on the bus with his track uniform.
“I said, ‘Bo, I thought you were going to play baseball today.’
“He says, ‘Nah, I want to run against that guy from Homewood.’ The guy had run a 9.7 100 and he’d gone to Florida and won some relay.
“I said, “Well, does the baseball coach know?’
“He said, ‘Yes sir, I told him.’
“So we got to the track meet, and he beat the dog out of that kid.
“Anyway, the baseball team goes all the way to Dora. Now, we didn’t have a very good baseball team without Bo. They get out and here’s all the scouts who’ve gone all the way to Dora, flown in, rented cars. They’ve got all their machines set up behind the backstop.
“Our team gets out and starts warming up and this one scout comes up to our coach and says, ‘Coach, where’s the Jackson kid?’
“Our coach says, ‘Aw, he’s at a track meet today.’
“This guy starts cussing: ‘What kind of a damn program . . . we came all the way here . . . what the hell . . . ‘
“We still laugh about it.”
Six years later, only the circumstances have changed. The selection process continues.
Jackson is a Heisman Trophy winner, has turned down a $5-million offer to play with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is finishing a 3-year, $1-million deal with the Royals, and has 4 years left on a $9-million Raider contract.
He has been stoned--or at least plastic footballed--by his home fans in Kansas City, and is at once salvation and irritant in two organizations.
In this, the Raiders have the advantage, since their buttoned-up, say-nothing-in-public style keeps them from public expressions of exasperation.
The Royals, however, speak through several mouths, including co-owner Avron Fogelman’s. It was Fogelman who first pushed Jackson, helping to keep him on the big club a year ago over the coaching staff’s objections, when Bo’s experience consisted of 89 college games and 78 in pro ball.
It was Fogelman who cleared the way to waive the no-football clause in Jackson’s contract when the Raiders approached Bo.
It was Fogelman who was subsequently embarrassed when Royal players blew up at such favoritism being shown a rookie, when the Royals’ season turned around--they were in first place when the affair became public--and when Jackson went south.
Is it then surprising that when assorted Royal officials confided last winter that Bo wasn’t going to be cut any more slack, it was Fogelman who spoke out?
Jackson, he said, “has to decide if he wants to be a baseball player or not.”
The Royals, Fogelman said, had no interest “in continuing with this circus.
“Frankly, Bo will have a tough time starting for our team next season. He’s not going to have a gravy train.”
A day later, reportedly after a conversation with Jackson’s agent, Fogelman said he hadn’t really meant it that way.
With that as a preamble, Jackson reported early to the Royals’ camp. He struggled mightily at first, even in batting practice, but pulled out of it. Royal officials hastened to assure everyone that they had never really said anything about sending him out, or a deadline, or making him choose.
And Fogelman’s comments?
“All those things were said, but they’ve been unsaid and re-said,” Schuerholz says. “That’s not an issue.
“We’re not going to worry about what’s going to happen in October. I’m not going to create any monsters I have to fight now. I’ve got enough to fight as it is. This is March.”
What’s he like?
No longer painfully shy, he’s cocky enough to talk about himself in the third person. He’s leery of the press and distant with writers.
But, appearances notwithstanding, he doesn’t seem to have a real bad case of himself. He is low-key, pleasant, still seemingly a small-town kid at heart, genuinely surprised when people recognized him in a Beverly Hills restaurant and asked for autographs.
“I don’t think he’s stuck on himself,” George Brett said. “I think he has an ego. I think he has a right to an ego. But he doesn’t flash it around.”
Of all the Royals, Brett is the one who has consistently supported Jackson, before the signing and after the furor. Ironically, Brett, the El Segundo native, is also the biggest--only?--Raider fan in Kansas City.
“For some crazy reason, after Bo decided to play football, the fans in Kansas City turned against him,” Brett said. “A lot of players turned against him, too.
“I thought it was great. It gave me an extra attraction to go to Raider games. I’ve been going anyway for the last three years.
“He’s having a good camp, but he had a good camp last year, too. I don’t think in their wildest dreams, they expected him to play as well as he did last year. This year he’s been better. He’s worked extremely hard. A lot of times, I’d get to the ballpark at 8:15 in the morning and he’d already be in the cage, hitting.”
Said Atchison: “If you tell Bo he can’t do something, you’re daring him. He’ll do it just to prove you’re wrong.”
Whether this will sustain him over the endless stretches of a baseball season, where the chief virtue is not so much talent as will, where the guys who prevail are the ones who can grind it out, day after monotonous day, is another question.
Somewhere, probably not too far down the line, a final decision awaits. He has a $500,000reporting bonus, as well as a $749,000 salary, waiting for him in Raider-land in October, so expect him to give football another season and then decide.
Based on his lone definitive statement shortly after joining the Raiders--"Baseball is the sport I’ll make a career of, not football"--it would seem that the Royals have the advantage, if it’s close.
“I think he’ll have to make a decision,” Brett said. “If he ever wants to make the Hall of Fame in baseball, I think he’s going to have to devote a little more time. If he wants to make the Hall of Fame in football, he’ll have to play a full season.
“He’s shown unlimited potential in both sports, but I don’t think what you saw in L.A. last year was Bo Jackson at his finest as a football player. He hadn’t played football in two years. He was going against better athletes than he ever had.
“He was impressive. He got the fans excited, his teammates excited. I’ll never forget, I was standing on the sidelines the day he stuck ol’ Harden (Denver cornerback Mike Harden, whom Jackson butted over on the way to his first touchdown). They showed it five times on the scoreboard, his teammates were jumping up and down, giving high-fives.”
Of course, the people who have known him for years have a pretty good clue which way he’s going, right?
“Our baseball coach, Terry Brasseale, went out to Kansas City last year to watch Bo play,” Atchison said. “Terry comes back and I say, ‘How’s Bo doing?’
“He says, ‘Oh, great. Bo told me he’ll never, ever play football. He’s so happy. His wife told me that Bo is so happy in Kansas City, he’ll never go back to football.’
“Terry says football is over with.
“Two weeks later , Bo signs with the Raiders. Terry’s telling everybody Bo’s solid for baseball.
“Two weeks later!”