BASEBALL / ROSS NEWHAN : He's No Bo, but This Jackson Is Ready to Go for White Sox

He has overcome Graves' disease and testicular cancer, and he was exposed to Air Jordan this spring, but showed no signs of an allergic reaction.

In fact, during the carnival that was Michael Jordan's right field tryout with the Chicago White Sox, Darrin Jackson solidified his hold on that position--and the chance to follow Bo Jackson as the club's second consecutive comeback player of the year.

"I'm looking for a career year," the former first-round draft choice from Culver City High said. "I feel better than I've ever felt physically and feel I can surpass anything I've done before. It didn't seem that long ago that I couldn't be sure where I was headed physically or what my baseball future was."

Once considered strictly a defensive standout with the Chicago Cubs, Jackson blossomed offensively for the San Diego Padres while getting the chance to play regularly in 1991 and '92.

He hit 21 home runs and drove in 49 runs in 122 games in '91, then had 17 homers and 70 RBIs in 155 games in '92, which put him in position to be awarded a $2.1-million salary for 1993 in arbitration.

That, of course, was too rich for Padre owner Tom Werner, who wouldn't know the Baseball Register from a cash register.

With the commissioner's chair empty, Werner continued to break up the Padres last March when he dealt Jackson to the Toronto Blue Jays for Derek Bell and Stoney Briggs.

"I hated leaving San Diego, where so many members of the family could see me play, but I was getting the chance to play left field for the world champions," Jackson said. "It was a great opportunity. Unfortunately, the season turned into a nightmare. I was too sick and too weak to take advantage of it."

Jackson contacted food poisoning near the end of spring training but began to suspect something more as he continued to lose weight and endured a battery of inconclusive tests.

"I dropped 15 to 20 pounds, my heart rate was elevated and I became sensitive to heat," he said. "I'd stand in the batter's box and my hands and legs would be shaking so badly it was difficult even to grasp the bat or make my way to the plate."

He was batting .216 when the Toronto opportunity disintegrated. On June 11, he was traded to the New York Mets for Tony Fernandez. By that time, the name on the uniform didn't matter. Jackson wasn't sure he'd be able to go on wearing one.

"By the All-Star break I couldn't take anymore," he said. "I mean, it took three months of 'What the heck's wrong?' before anyone recognized what was."

The Mets' first trip of the second half went to San Francisco, where the Giants' team doctor walked in, listened to the symptoms and told Jackson it sounded like hypothyroidism or Graves' disease, an opinion confirmed by tests at Scripps Institute in La Jolla.

Jackson was put on radioactive iodine, taking 10 pills a day, which ultimately killed off the thyroid altogether, he said. His weight began going the other way, soaring in time to more than 20 pounds over his normal 195.

He was put on the disabled list for the first time in his career in August, ultimately finishing with a .195 average in 87 at-bats with the Mets. He became a free agent when the Mets, uncertain he would recover, failed to tender him a contract because it could only include a 20% cut to $1.68 million. Too big a risk, they thought.

Jackson returned to his home in Mesa, Ariz., unsure of his marketability, but hired a personal trainer and began to lift weights again. His medicine was eventually adjusted to a proper level, and Jackson told agent Alan Meersand he would do whatever a club asked to prove he was healthy.

"I just wanted an opportunity to go to spring training," Jackson said.

Said Meersand: "There were a lot of teams interested, but there was a general lack of knowledge about his condition. Most clubs took a wait-and-see attitude. The White Sox were more aggressive. They called on the date of the non-tender by the Mets (Dec. 20) and said they wanted to be first in line. They only wanted Darrin to be examined by their own doctor."

The White Sox had successfully traveled a similar route a year before, signing right fielder Ellis Burks, who was coming off back problems with the Boston Red Sox, at a comparatively bargain rate.

Burks responded with 17 home runs and 74 RBIs, turning that performance into a three-year, $9-million free agent's contract with the Colorado Rockies.

Jackson passed the White Sox physical and signed a $750,000 contract that can generate another $800,000 in incentives based on plate appearances. He also has a shot at postseason rewards with a club that won the American League West title last year and will open 1994 as the favorite in the new Central Division.

Jackson, 30, is excited. He had a big spring despite the Jordan hoopla and also is confident he can resume his career after a serious illness because he has done it before.

Seventeen days after being called up by the Cubs in September of 1987, he had surgery for the removal of a testicular tumor, then had a second operation for precautionary removal of lymph nodes from his abdomen.

Jackson was back playing in '88. He had five years of follow-up examinations, but did not require the precautionary radiation treatments Philadelphia first baseman John Kruk is undergoing after his surgery for the removal of a testicular tumor.

Jackson said he hopes to visit Kruk or, at least, get a message to him.

"I want to tell him that I went through the same thing and am still playing the game I love," Jackson said. "I'd tell him to relax, take his time and not hurry back."

There are ways to make life better, and Jackson and his wife, Darleen, are trying.

In each of the last two years, they have sponsored a Read to Win program in the fourth grades of three racially diverse schools in Inglewood, Mesa and Portland, Ore., where Darleen's nephew is a teacher.

Students get a prize for each book read, and teachers are compensated for extra time given to the project. The student credited with the most books last year received a trip to San Diego.

"I'd been involved in drug programs, and it's just something that evolved," Jackson said. "My wife and I have paid for everything ourselves, and at this point we're taking a year off to try and reorganize the foundation to generate broader funding."

With his career on track again, a healthy Jackson is hoping to reach the contract incentives that will make it easier to provide incentives in the classroom.

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The White Sox went to spring training with only two question marks in their regular lineup. Jackson has taken care of one, and designated hitter Julio Franco the other.

Jason Bere, who won 12 games as a rookie, and an equally promising Scott Ruffcorn will join Jack McDowell, Alex Fernandez and Wilson Alvarez in a rotation deeper than anything in the Central--or anywhere west of Atlanta.

McDowell, unable to get a multiyear contract again, still isn't the happiest camper, but Black Jack is at his best when he's growling.

McDowell makes it clear, though, that he intends to be elsewhere next year. He made $4 million in 1993, sought $6.5 million in arbitration and was awarded the club's figure of $5.3 million, an arbitration record.

"It's tough for me to sit here, making $5 million, and be able to explain to everybody the seven years of dealings I've had with the White Sox, but it hasn't been very comfortable," McDowell said.

"There aren't too many guys who have had a contract history with their club like I've had, particularly when you consider what I've contributed on the field."

There have been persistent rumors that the White Sox might trade McDowell rather than getting only a draft choice as compensation if he leaves as a free agent, but that seems unlikely.

"Jack suggested that I don't have the guts to trade him," General Manager Ron Schueler said. "I'd trade him, and at some point in the season I might have to, but not if we're in the race. We're here to win, and Jack can obviously help us get that done."

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