So many sluggers, no one to lead off. But Bo could run. That was his winter job in Los Angeles, for the NFL’s Raiders.
Bo Jackson played in his one and only baseball All-Star game in 1989, in Anaheim. Tony La Russa, the American League manager, told Jackson he would bat first for the home team.
“I was shocked,” Jackson said. “I was just happy to be in the company of so many great athletes.
“When he said I was leading off, that meant one thing to me: I had to get my stuff in gear a little earlier than I had planned to.”
That he did. The Kansas City Royals outfielder delivered a lasting All-Star memory with his very first swing, driving a pitch 448 feet, far beyond the center-field fence and halfway up the tarps that covered seats so distant that they were used only for Rams football games.
Jackson, one of the most celebrated athletes of his generation, transcended the sporting world and became a pop culture icon. His Nike commercials turned “Bo knows” into a catchphrase, playing off Jackson’s ability to perform outrageous feats in multiple sports.
A Heisman Trophy winner at Auburn and No. 1 NFL pick, he returned to major league baseball after hip replacement surgery.
He’ll take the field in Anaheim again Sunday, for a celebrity softball game. It’s the same place where he starred in the 1989 game and finished his career with the Angels in 1994.
“I think a lot about Gene Autry, meeting and talking with him,” Jackson said, referring to the Angels’ founding owner.
“I think about the man walking through the clubhouse with his cowboy boots on — every day, a different pair of boots.”
The Angels had what Jackson called “a somewhat decent team” in 1994, though its .409 winning percentage was the Angels’ worst in the last 20 years.
Jackson batted .279, with 13 home runs in 75 games. The players went out on strike as part of a labor dispute in August, the season was canceled, and Jackson retired at 31.
He had offers to play in 1995 but wasn’t interested.
“I knew deep in my heart that, if we had a strike and it lasted for the rest of the season, I wasn’t coming back,” Jackson said. “My kids were in elementary school. If I had the opportunity to be home with them — to get up in the morning with them, to make breakfast for them, to take them to school, to go to parent-teacher conferences — I knew I wouldn’t be back.
“I got home, and I got a taste of freedom.”
His football career had ended because of a hip injury on Jan. 13, 1991.
“Here’s what people don’t know,” he said. “On Jan. 9, my wife and I sat down at the table, at our place in Playa del Rey. We decided that, when the season was over, I was going to retire from football, even though I had a year left on my contract.”
Jackson said he and his wife agreed that moving their children so often — from Kansas City for baseball season to Los Angeles for football season, back home to Alabama for the off-season and then back to Kansas City — was not healthy.
“God works in mysterious ways,” Jackson said. “The way I look at it, I dislocated my hip, so I didn’t have to retire.”
The Raiders did not last much longer in Los Angeles. They abandoned the Coliseum and returned to Oakland after the 1994 season.
“This is my opinion, and my opinion only, but the reason the Raiders left Los Angeles was because of the condition of our place of work,” Jackson said. “The public just got to see the outside of the stadium, which is beautiful.
“But, after a game, we had to stand in line to take a shower. There were 20 or 25 shower heads — and only four of them had a steady stream of water coming out of them.”
The hip injury might have derailed his rush to greatness in one sport, or two, not that he would accept any pity.
“Don’t feel bad for me,” he said. “I didn’t get into sports to make it to the Hall of Fame, or to be the home run king, or to break Walter Payton’s record. I got into sports because I saw it as a way to open other doors.”
Jackson resides in the Chicago area and is president of a company that manages his affairs and another that manages an indoor sports complex. He also serves on the board of directors for a local bank.
He steered himself on a post-sports career path even in college, so he says he did not agonize over retirement and the loss of fame and fortune.
Jackson said, “Sports was never the center of my universe for this simple reason: I knew where I wanted to be by the time I was in my mid- to late 30s. That was out of sports completely, and into business.”
He said he saw what other college athletes could not see, or chose not to see.
“A lot of kids don’t realize the gravy train is going to come to an end,” he said. “They have no formal education, no business sense, no money management skills. They just have to live with that.
“I made it a point to learn as much as I could in college.”
That, he said, might be the most valuable bit of advice he could share with his three children.
“If my two sons were the top two high school baseball players on the planet, and everybody wanted to make them instant millionaires,” he said, “they would still have to spend at least three years in college — not to hone their skills, but to get an education.”
His skills will be on display one more time in Sunday’s softball game, even if his primary talent might now be vocal.
“When they said I could play in the softball game, I said, ‘Sure.’ That is just an hour and a half of trash talk, fun and entertaining the fans,” Jackson said, “and catching up with people I haven’t seen in 15 or 20 years. I’m very much looking forward to it.”