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After Jets Made a Flyby, He Launched His Rocket

Four Air Force fighter jets flew over Anaheim Stadium, just before the All-Star game’s first pitch, and Bo Jackson craned his neck in the American League’s dugout, sky-eyed. The planes were there and gone in a fraction of a second, which also was true, a short while later, about the baseball that Action Jackson sent flying Tuesday, a shot that broke the mound barrier.

An announcement was made that the ball traveled “approximately 448 feet.” Funny, we could have sworn it went at least 449. Anyway, it plopped down someplace well beyond the center-field fence and someplace this side of the Matterhorn ride at Disneyland, with UFO sightings reported at various Orange County military installations. Bo Jackson punched a hole in the sky.

All of the pitchers in the National League’s bullpen charged to the front of the fence to get a better look, as Jackson’s first-inning, first-time-up home run in the twilight’s last gleaming lit up their unlucky teammate, Rick Reuschel.

Allegiances aside, Jay Howell had to admit, “We were cheering when he hit it,” because on those rare occasions when you see something like this pass overhead, it is usually named after Halley.

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“All I can say is, if I was (still) in the American League, I’d wish he’d play football all the time,” Howell said. “We were sitting around slapping hands and saying to each other: ‘Geez! Where are you gonna pitch him?’ ”

Other reactions were not unsimilar.

Reuschel, the server of gopher: “I’d heard about his power and strength. I saw it firsthand tonight.”

Eric Davis, the center fielder over whom the homer flew: “It was what you call a towering home run. I mean, towering . I went back a couple of steps, and then just didn’t bother.”

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Tony Gwynn, the right fielder who watched Davis not bother: “I became a believer from seeing him in batting practice yesterday. He hit a screaming mimi about 10 feet off the ground, and it didn’t waver a bit till it hit the fence. If it had been a softer fence, it would have torn right through it. Now I’ve seen this one, and I believe even more.”

Everybody was impressed by Bo but Bo.

He said:

“I got a piece of it.”

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A piece of it. Yeah, right. Some piece. When the kids came traversing across the tarpaulin in center field, the one used by hitters as a batting backdrop, to retrieve the ball, chances are pretty good that one of them found a horsehide cover while another one found a small ball of twine. If ever a guy knocked the cover off a ball, it must have been this guy, this ball. And to think it was Jackson’s first swing L in an All-Star game. He did everything but point to center field before hitting it.

The most valuable player of the 60th All-Star roundup, Jackson donated a dinger, a run-scoring grounder, a single and a stolen base. Only one other man--Willie Mays, no less--ever had a homer and a steal in the same midsummer classic. Only four other men, Mays included, ever homered in the All-Star game as leadoff batter for his team. Quite a guy, this Vincent Jackson. Maybe he can play hockey.

“Bo’s in a league by himself,” AL teammate Devon White said.

There were those who told him to stick to football who now must wonder why he bothers playing anything else but baseball. Even today, the impression he makes is that of a kid who is still feeling his way around a diamond, a kid who is going to settle for 40 homers and 40 stolen bases until he gets the hang of this game. The first words out of pitcher Greg Swindell’s mouth after Tuesday’s game were: “When he learns how to play this game, he’s going to be really scary.”

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Jackson is not easily distracted. He refuses to talk about football during baseball season, refuses to talk about baseball during football season. His favorite shoe company recently presented him, as a gift, a lovely set of woods and irons, but Bo has yet to unwrap them, partly because he says there hasn’t been time to play any golf, and partly because he knows so little about the game that he refers to the equipment as “a pair of clubs.”

One thing Bo does like, though, is airplanes. Especially fast airplanes. Like the ones that flew by in perfect formation. Calling himself “a big military plane fan,” Jackson actually said that he enjoyed watching those planes zoom by more than he enjoyed hitting that home run. Nothing about it impressed him, not even the distance. “It doesn’t matter if you strike out or hit a ball that goes 30 or 40 feet or if you hit one 400 feet. The name of the game is being out there and hustling. The fun of it is in the playing.”

And the National Leaguers did have some fun, even during a 5-3 beating. Had some fun with Bo, in fact.

“The thought never entered my mind prior to the game that I might be most valuable player, but after I hit that first ball, I came back to the dugout and everybody said, ‘Bo, you got this thing wrapped up.’ Then Wade Boggs went deep, the very next batter, and when he got back to the dugout, everybody said, ‘Wade, you got this thing wrapped up.’ ”

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They gave Jackson the award, and also hoped to give him the baseball he hit.

But the search plane they sent out couldn’t find it.

FIRST AT-BAT HOME RUNS A list of players who have homered in their first All-Star at-bat:

Year Player, Team 1989 Bo Jackson, Kansas City (AL) 1988 Terry Steinbach, Oakland (AL) 1979 Lee Mazzilli, New York (NL) 1970 Dick Dietz, San Francisco (NL) 1969 Johnny Bench, Cincinnati (NL) 1961 George Altman, Chicago (NL) 1959 Jim Gilliam, Los Angeles (NL) 1948 Hoot Evers, Detroit (AL) 1940 Max West, Boston (NL)

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