SI Vault
Ralph Wiley
December 14, 1987
After a promising rookie year in baseball and a spectacular NFL debut, Bo Jackson is proving he can do almost anything
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December 14, 1987

Which Way Will You Go, Bo?

After a promising rookie year in baseball and a spectacular NFL debut, Bo Jackson is proving he can do almost anything

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Segue to the end zone. What Jackson did against Denver, Seattle and Buffalo was not all that unusual—not in the context of great running backs. They're great as soon as you give them the ball. Early in the first quarter of his first NFL regular-season game, Earl Campbell went 73 yards for a TD against Atlanta. As a rookie in 1965, Gale Sayers scored 22 touchdowns, including six in one game. In his first year Eric Dickerson led the league in rushing with 1,808 yards. Jackson's running mate and blocking back, Marcus Allen, was magnificent as a rookie in '82 and a Super Bowl MVP the next season.

But Jackson is unique. None of the above have his combination of size, balance and speed. Bo is six feet and 231 pounds, with a magical inner gyroscope and a 40-yard-dash time you read with an atomic clock—4.175, it's said. It sounds impossible, and probably is, which is why it's believed only Jackson could do it. He won the Heisman Trophy at Auburn even though he had to share the ball in a wishbone backfield with halfbacks Lionel James (now with San Diego) and Brent Fullwood ( Green Bay) and fullback Tommie Agee.

Jackson is averaging 7.1 yards per carry. With 553 yards on 78 carries, as of Sunday he was already the seventh-leading rusher in the AFC. By comparison, the conference leader, Dickerson, has carried 216 times for 958 yards and a 4.4-yard average. "Bo is good, really a great back, but I don't think he's of my caliber," said Dickerson last week. "That's my opinion. I have better moves than Bo." Sorry, Eric. Based on the early evidence, Jackson is in your class.

Jackson keeps insisting that he will be playing baseball years after he has finished with football. But he probably won't play winter baseball for the next four years. He won't even go into the batting cage until the football season is over, and that figures to be early for the Raiders this year. Then he plans to return to Auburn and work out under the eye of the Tiger baseball coach, Hal Baird, who once roomed with Royals manager John Wathan in the minors.

"Nobody knows what Bo is going to do," says Woods. "He has more options than the rest of us. But baseball is his primary challenge."

"No way," says Daniels. "I think he'll give up baseball. It's boring. He's gotten used to the glory and adulation. It gets to be a yearn, and it works on you."

" Bo Jackson does everything," says Tommy McCraw, batting coach for the Tidewater Tides, the New York Mets' Triple A team. "I've never seen a ballplayer like that. And I'm not alone. He has a better arm, more speed, more power than anybody. I know Kansas City rushed him [by bringing him up too quickly from the minors]. I also know a lot of guys are making big money in the major leagues with the numbers he threw up there [a .235 average and 53 RBIs in 396 at bats, in addition to the homers] in really just a half year. I'm sure there's resentment. But all Bo Jackson lacks is the experience. And maybe the patience to gain the experience."

The reason that Jackson has played only 53 games in the minors is that Royals co-owner Avron Fogelman wants him in Kansas City. By contrast, the Cincinnati Reds' Davis, who is the same age as Jackson, spent all or part of six seasons in the minors. Royals general manager John Schuerholz is on record as saying that Jackson may have to log time in the minors next season. After Woods and the Royals last summer amended Jackson's contract—which pays him a measly $1,066 million over three years—he no longer had the option to walk away from baseball on July 15, 1988, by paying the club a penalty fee. His contract now requires him to complete the '88 season. If he then chooses to give up baseball, he will have to return 50% of what the Royals have paid him to that point. "Bo is employed by the Royals," says Woods. "They have the right to send him to the minor leagues if they choose."

Jackson hit .254 before the All-Star break but only .188 after it, and much was made of his 158 strikeouts. "He has great ability, great tools, but he has problems with Uncle Charlie [the curve-ball]," says former scout Ben Moore, an official of the Baseball Network, a recently formed group whose aim is to encourage the hiring of minorities for front-office positions. "But the only righthanded hitters I ever saw with as much power as Bo Jackson were Frank Howard and Dick Allen. Bobby Bonds couldn't hit the curve either, at first."

Because he won't be playing winter ball in the Latin leagues, where breaking balls abound, Jackson probably won't ever hit for much of an average. Also, he will probably always strike out a lot. However, as Reggie Jackson, the alltime strikeout leader and a probable Hall of Famer, says, "Nobody cares how you do it."

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