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Peter Gammons
May 04, 1987
Easy question. The Royals' Bo Jackson just might get himself a Rookie of the Year award to go along with his Heisman
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May 04, 1987

Will Bo Be A Hit Or A Miss?

Easy question. The Royals' Bo Jackson just might get himself a Rookie of the Year award to go along with his Heisman

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Everyone's babbling about Bo. They're comparing him with Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Henry Aaron and Mickey Mantle. Sparky Anderson promises "he'll pack stadiums from coast to coast." Bo's general manager, John Schuerholz, attributes "mystical qualities" to him. In Bo's first spring in the major leagues the press has swarmed all over him. Vincent Edward (Bo) Jackson of the Kansas City Royals hasn't even played 100 games as a professional, and already he's on his way to joining Reggie and Fernando as the only baseball players everyone knows by their first name.

Bo himself would prefer some of the anonymity of fellow Royals rookie Kevin Seitzer, who was quietly hitting .388 to Jackson's .344 at week's end. "I realize that all the talk and questions comes with the territory," Bo says, "but I'll be glad when I've been around the league once and I can just play baseball. For now, I just hope fans see me as a player, not a superman. As for the future, showin' folks what you can do goes a whole lot further than tellin'."

But he is, after all, Bo, and being Bo means having to speak often and loudly—so the mikes in the rear can pick him up—and carrying a big burden. "He was a celebrity before he ever got to the big leagues, so people naturally want to see him," says Royals manager Billy Gardner. "No one else won the Heisman Trophy, was the first pick in the NFL draft, turned down a reported $7 million [from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers] and put on a baseball uniform. Then what people see is a guy who can hit a ball farther and run faster than anyone in the game."

Even opposing players come out to watch Jackson's batting-practice home run shows. He has been timed running to first base in 3.6 seconds, putting him in the company of Mantle and Ron Le-Flore as one of the swiftest runners from the right side of the plate (Mantle was also clocked at 3.1 from the left). "He goes across the first base bag on a ground ball like he's breaking the tape in the 60-yard dash," says Royals veteran Jorge Orta. Bo has beaten out routine ground balls to shortstop, hit a broken-bat grand slam homer over the centerfield fence in Royals Stadium and run down a fly ball in Yankee Stadium that Gardner insists no other leftfielder he has ever seen could have reached. "Last week," says Royals centerfielder Willie Wilson, "I couldn't quite get to a ball [Dan] Pasqua hit that broke up Bret Saberhagen's no-hitter, and I thought. If I had Bo's speed, I'd have caught that."

If Wilson had Bo's portfolio (Auburn's alltime rushing leader, with 4,303 yards, 43 touchdowns, Heisman in '85), he would also have to deal with constant questions about football. "Bo doesn't talk about that other sport," says Jackson, referring to himself in the third person not out of boastfulness but because of a slight stutter that is triggered when he uses the word "I." "Why do people keep asking about it?" Partly because Bo has a $1.05 million buy-back clause in his $1.2 million, three-year baseball contract, should he decide to return to "that other sport" before July 15.

At times it seems that this 6'1", 222-pound superhero came to baseball straight out of a Marvel Comic. Tommy Jones, his manager at Class AA Memphis for two months last summer, observed that Jackson probably reached the majors with less baseball experience—89 games in college, 53 with the Chicks—than any hitter since Eddie Gaedel. "It's amazing that with so little experience Bo can do the things he does," says Hal McRae, who doubles as the Royals designated hitter and batting instructor. In his seventh big league game last September, Jackson hit a 475-foot homer off Seattle's Mike Moore that was one of the longest balls ever hit in Royals Stadium. Four games into this season he launched a four-game 12-for-16 stretch against the Yankees and Tigers that included a four-hit. two-homer (one of them the broken-bat slam), seven-RBI evening against Detroit. At the end of last week he had four homers and 15 RBIs.

"But Bo's not out of the woods yet," says McRae. "He's in the process of getting an education. He may have more talent than anyone in the game, but tools don't count—production counts. And for his sake I hope people stop throwing around all that hype and appreciate that Bo's education is going to take three to five years and will include some rough times."

Rough times indeed. Before that 12-for-16 streak, Jackson had struck out seven times in his first 13 at bats. Then, after peaking at .492, Bo arrived at Yankee Stadium on April 17 with the New York newshounds all over him and became the 25th player ever to strike out five times in a single game. That became part of a 10-game, 20-strikeout binge. At his current rate of one strikeout per every 2.91 at bats, Bo's a threat to the Rangers' Pete Incaviglia, who last year set the major league rookie record for most strikeouts, 185, whiffing once every 2.92 at bats.

"The important thing," says McRae, "is that Bo realized the five-strikeout day could happen, and he didn't get upset. He bounced back from the Yankee series and got two hits in Fenway Park. He had what all of us have against Roger Clemens—a tough night [two Ks and a fly-out]—then came back to break up Bob Stanley's no-hitter [with a double in the fifth inning]. He can take it, and he'll have to, because consistency is something that comes with a lot of painful trials and errors."

Jackson's trials and errors began virtually the moment he arrived in Kansas City last June 21 to sign his contract and meet the press and fans before heading off to Memphis. Since it was Royals autograph day. Bo left behind a stack of 8-by-10's of himself posing with the Heisman Trophy. Some players snickered. Then, when the Royals called him up in September, Bo declined to take fielding practice on consecutive nights in Texas. "Yes," concedes reliever Dan Quisenberry, "we wondered about his work habits. Then when he got to spring training this year, his work habits were what struck us all."

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