Between the end of last season, when Jackson hit .207 in 25 games with the Royals, and the beginning of spring training, Bo spent three weeks in the Instructional League with Ed Napoleon, a smallish, 49-year-old coach who had spent 28 of his first 30 baseball years in the low minors. As the Royals' roving minor league outfield instructor, Napoleon had first tutored Jackson in Memphis. "Without him," Bo says, "I wouldn't be here. He's been like a father to me."
"He worked his tail off," says Napoleon. "I'd hit balls I knew he couldn't get to, and he'd go after them as hard as he could, even though he didn't really know how to go after them. He'd wait until they got through the infield, then try to get a jump. He didn't even know how to hold his glove on ground balls, which is why he missed so many. But he worked and he listened, and because he is such a great athlete, he learns fast."
For all of Jackson's progress, though, Napoleon says the player almost sent him to his Waterloo. "He nearly gave me a heart attack," the coach recalls. "One day when I was hitting him balls, I told him to throw to a six-foot chain link fence and that if any balls went over, he'd have to go around—a pretty good walk—and pick them up. He threw two or three over, and when the workout was finished, he walked up to the fence, grabbed the top with his hands and vaulted it. I almost died. If he'd have come down wrong, I could have been on the unemployment line."
After the Instructional League, Bo returned to Auburn, where he worked out with the track team, spent hours hitting and catching fly balls, and fended off calls from new Tampa Bay coach Ray Perkins. Jackson was determined to make it to the major leagues. "I was astounded," says Hal Baird, his Auburn baseball coach and a former Royals farmhand. "This winter I saw that Bo had completely committed himself to baseball greatness."
"I enjoy making liars out of the people who say that I won't stick to baseball," says Jackson. "I only set one goal, and that was to make the team." Despite speculation all spring about his football future with the Bucs, Jackson proved to his Royals teammates how serious he was about baseball. In the process he made the Kansas City brass change its mind about making him start the season in Omaha. In one of the final Grapefruit League games, Jackson made a dazzling running catch and threw out a runner, prompting George Brett to yell, "Are you telling me he doesn't belong?" Says Royals catcher Jamie Quirk, "By the time we broke camp, everyone knew Bo belonged in the big leagues."
"I played with Mays in Minneapolis before he went to the Giants in '51," says Gardner, "and they're a lot alike. Mays was crude, too. He just had to play. He had his ups and downs his rookie year, but when he had enough games under his belt he was a star. Bo's got Mays's talent, and he's got Mays's makeup. His makeup is perfect. Which is unusual for a football guy." Football guys, like Kirk Gibson, a noted bat thrower, are not generally known for their patience.
Bo's different. "I've never thrown a bat in my life," he says. "All that does is give in to the pitcher and let him know that he's gotten to me. I don't get excited about good days, and I don't get excited about bad days. I'm just trying to learn, one day at a time."
"He learns, too," says McRae. One afternoon in spring training Schuerholz was telling Tigers vice-president and general manager Bill Lajoie that he thought Jackson would struggle with major league breaking pitches. Said Lajoie, "He's the best athlete in the world. He'll learn to hit breaking pitches. Don't worry." Sure enough, Detroit's Dan Petry struck Jackson out three times in a Grapefruit League game, mostly with breaking balls. When the Royals met the Tigers and Petry for the first time in the regular season, in Kansas City, Petry confidently pitched Jackson the same way. Bo singled twice and homered off him. Against the Yankees, a tight pitch by Cecilio Guante sent Jackson diving to the dirt. Bo moved right back in and lined the next pitch for a single.
"I talk to him some about what to expect from certain pitchers," says McRae, "but he's not the type you have to talk to a lot. I don't want him trying to listen too much or start thinking about his mechanics. He's got the greatest bat speed I've ever seen, and lifting his front leg [a la Mel Ott] is one of many good things he does naturally. It gives him a better look at the ball and lets him wait a little longer, because his upper body doesn't move forward. He's at the stage where he needs to learn more by doing than from instruction. He can do it himself because he's good at controlling himself. If he loses it, he can gather himself for his next at bat. You can't teach that, any more than you can teach bat speed." Down the line McRae might remind Jackson not to wrap his bat behind his neck. "But then again," adds McRae, "I might not have to."
George Brett's older brother Ken, a onetime phenom with the Red Sox, had a sign in his apartment bathroom that read, THE WORST CURSE IN LIFE IS UNLIMITED POTENTIAL. Bo Jackson can surely relate to that. "All this talk could ruin the kid if he is asked to live up to it," says the Yankees' Rickey Henderson. Unless, of course, Bo does.