It seemed incongruous last Thursday evening in hot, steamy Memphis when he took up his position in rightfield, directly in front of the Auto Shack sign (HIT US FOR THE BEST PARTS) and started swatting at real and imaginary bugs.
Yet there he was, in the field for the first time as a pro baseball player, a starter for the Class AA Memphis team of the Southern League. It was the script across his chest that underscored the incongruity: CHICKS. That name can mean a lot of things; way short of macho is one. And this Chick's macho quotient is many times that of the average bird.
For he is Bo Jackson, a football player of inordinate skill who won the Heisman Trophy last year while at Auburn. Everyone knew Bo would play football, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were the lucky NFL team that had the first draft pick and thus would get him. The Bucs, at last, could guarantee success for their beleaguered franchise: Bo would lead Tampa Bay to the Super Bowl. No, no, not this season. Be serious. Next season.
Except, in a stunning decision announced on June 21, Bo chose baseball. "I'm lucky to have played football as long as I did," he says. "Now it's time for what I love to do." What he loves to do? How does he know? This is a 23-year-old football player who is considered to have more potential than Herschel Walker. Like Bo, Walker is one of four consecutive Heisman Trophy winners—Mike Rozier and Doug Flutie are the others—who have passed up the NFL out of college. But Jackson is the first Heisman winner to spurn football altogether since Army's Pete Dawkins in the late '50s.
At Auburn, Bo played in 89 baseball games. That's about half a pro season. It gets more, well, incongruous. He played in 26 games as a freshman, hit an undistinguished .279, striking out in his first 21 at bats. So as a sophomore, he decided to try track and played no baseball. As a junior, Bo returned to the diamond, hitting an impressive .401 while playing in 42 games. But keep in mind that a college player hitting .401 isn't so special that it gets on the evening news. And, in the spring of '86, he played in 21, hitting only .246, before losing his eligibility. Hmmm. Says Jackson of his choice, "In life you take chances."
But baseball, which loves numbers more than life, wants to ignore the stats. Ewing Kauffman, co-owner of the Kansas City Royals, the team that drafted Jackson, says: "He could be greater than George Brett. He has more speed and power. Why, he could easily be another Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays." Chicks manager Tommy Jones watched Bo power a batting practice homer that at last report was still traveling toward Tullahoma, and mumbled, "I swear I'm looking at Ted Williams. He's got Hall of Fame numbers on his scouting report."
If your hyperbole meter still hasn't peaked, consider this brief excerpt from Bo's private audience with Reggie Jackson, his longtime idol, a few weeks ago. During their hour-long conversation, Reggie said to Bo, "I understand people think you can hit .300, get 50 homers and have 50 to 75 stolen bases. That means you can be the best baseball player there has ever been. It's your choice. You can be the next Jim Brown in football or the next Reggie Jackson in baseball." Well, O.K., you know Reggie.
"He has an arm like Clemente," says Art Stewart, the Royals' director of scouting and player development. Adds Kansas City scout Ken Gonzales, "I get the feeling I am watching something that comes along once every 50 years or so. Bo is the best pure athlete in America."
But the best pure athlete in America was struggling in Memphis last week. After slapping an RBI single up the middle in his first professional at bat last Monday evening against Columbus—Bo refused to accept the ball when it was presented to him, explaining, "I have plenty of balls in my trophy case"—he went 0 for 10 as the designated hitter. And he looked pitiful doing it, striking out five times. Then, in his first night as a defensive starter, playing rightfield, he went 0 for 4, striking out twice and nearly dropping a routine line drive hit to him. Surliness and grumpiness set in. "Don't," complained Bo, "expect too much of Bo just because of the name."
On Friday night, against Huntsville, the bad got worse. He was hit by a pitched ball, then promptly got picked off first. He misplayed a routine single in rightfield, allowing two unearned runs to score as the Chicks lost to Greenville. By Sunday his batting average had sunk to .074. Only a generous scorer who gave Bo a double on a slightly windblown popup saved him from 1 for 27.