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Turning His Back on a Football Bonanza, Bo Jackson Finds the Early Going Rough in the Diamond

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Okay, roll the Bo Jackson highlight film: There’s Bo Jackson, Auburn’s great running back, receiving the 1985 Heisman Trophy. And there he is being chosen first by Tampa Bay in the 1986 NFL draft. A couple of months later, the Kansas City Royals pick our Bodacious multitalented athlete in the baseball draft. Which sport will he choose?

Fast forward to Jackson, 23, as he walks through the locker room of the Memphis Chicks for the very first time. The Chicks are a class AA baseball team, but that hardly describes their lively wit. To make Bo ‘feel at home,” they wear Tampa Bay football shirts—and little else. They immediately start needling him: f hamburgers are the postgame meal tonight, they want the big-time Heisman Trophy winner to supply lobster tomorrow. Ah, Bo will learn to love these mad-eyed towel-snapping rowdies. In fact, they will be his only diversion on the Southern League’s grueling, 10-to 15-hour bus trips….

Yo, Bo! Welcome to minor league baseball! Had you picked football, you’d be riding in limos rather than buses. You’d be sipping Dom Pérignon, scarfing down postgame caviar. But you chose endless bus trips, greasy hamburgers and love over money.

As a football player, Jackson offered Tampa Bay everything: size (6’1″, 225 pounds), blazing 4.1 speed and more moves than Gary Kasparov. As befits a guy whom the scouts called “the greatest back to come out of college since O.J. Simpson,” the Bucs offered him everything—a reported $7 million over five years. And as an outfielder—with his speed, strength and bazooka-like arm—the scouts had him tabbed as another Willie Mays. So the KC Royals drafted him in the fourth round, throwing a million dollars over three years on the table as an enticement. But the smart money figured KC had no chance; every Heisman Trophy winner since Pete Dawkins in 1958 had gone on to tackle pro football.

“My first love is baseball,” said Jackson after signing with the Royals. “I went with what’s in my heart.”

Undoubtedly, he also went with what was in his head. Playing for the woeful Bucs, behind their sieve-like offensive line, he knew he’d take a terrible beating. Any number of running backs—Billy Sims and William Andrews come to mind—have had their careers sidelined by knee injuries. As Jackson himself put it, “I never had my knees cut on, and I don’t intend they ever will be.” And even if he’s half the baseball player he’s cracked up to be, Bo will make his millions in the long run.

Anyhow, crank up the highlight film again and cut to two weeks back, as Jackson makes his debut with the Memphis Chicks. The president of the Chicks calls this “the most widely covered game in the history of the minor leagues” and, indeed, 150 reporters from all across the country have descended on Chicks stadium. Even to grizzled journalists, the hype level is nearly lethal. Unblushingly, Art Stewart—KC’s director of scouting—tells the ravening media horde that Bo has got “tape-measure power—in the Ruth and Mantle class.” He predicts that by the end of his career, Bo may well be “the most powerful right-handed hitter in the history of the game.”

Hyperbole, perhaps, but at batting practice Bo does put on an exhibition. “Where’s his blue ox?” snickers a reporter as Bo strides into the batting cage. Right. With his bulging mounds of sinew and muscle, Bo is sort of Bunyanesque. In fact, he makes the other guys on the field look like bonsai ball players. First pitch—craack. As he comes out of his low, perfectly balanced George Brett-style stance, the ball explodes off his bat. Craack—another blast caroms off the giant inflatable beer can on the left-field roof. Craack—a line shot into the nether reaches of the bleachers. The fans applaud. Gasp. Finally, they fall dead silent. After pitching batting practice to Bo on his first day in camp, coach Rich Dubee came off the mound muttering, “The guy is f—ing scary.” Jackson hit a couple of shots through the box that literally went hissing by Dubee. They seemed more like biblical serpents than baseballs.

As for his young (average age 22), fun-loving teammates, they’re glad to have Bo around. “What with those long, long bus trips, the Southern League is sort of a grind,” explains pitcher Jim Benedict. “With all this hoopla surrounding Bo, you forget how hot and tired you are. Makes me feel young again,” adds Benedict, who is all of 24. But they also have a keen professional interest in him. “I can’t wait to see him hit competitive pitching,” says John Davis, another young right-hander. Then, laughing, Davis lapses completely into the private language of the Chicks’ clubhouse. “Yeah, sliddy on the black—Tra ha,” he says. Translation from the Chickese: “I’d like to see Bo take a slider on the outside corner and hammer it over the right-field fence.”

Of course, that’s precisely why Jackson’s down in Memphis. He can hit the fastball—all prospects can. Now he has to learn to hit the breaking pitch: the curve, slider and variation thereof. Professional pitchers, as opposed to b.p. pitchers, are as nasty as linebackers. Inability to hit the breaking ball has undone any number of “can’t miss” prospects, and Jackson will remain in the bushes until he masters that exacting art. How long will that be? “There’s no timetable,” says KC’s Stewart. “He may struggle down here for a while. But also it’s possible that next year Bo will be in the big leagues. Anything is possible with his skills.” (When the major league rosters expand to 40 on September 1st, the Royals in all probability will bring him up for a look.)

Finally, it’s game time. In the first inning, as the d.h., Jackson comes up with two men on and two out. He walks to the plate, and the crowd gives him a standing O. On a count of 2 and 1, he swings. No, it is not a Bo-baric shot deep into the night. Just a single bounced up the middle for his first RBI. The adoration of the crowd is boundless.

After his first week, Jackson was hitting a miserable .065 with 14 strikeouts. The pitchers in the Southern League are saying he can’t handle the curve or even the fastball up and in—never mind sliddy on the black. “Right now he’s overmatched,” said Mitch Cook, a Columbus right-hander who struck him out twice. “Rookie ball wouldn’t be too bad for him.”

It’s early yet. Anything is possible. The minor league bus ride may be longer than Jackson ever dreamed. Or, soon, the highlight film may start again in earnest.