Jackson's one-on-one confrontations with pitchers are already legend. On May 11, Jackson struck out four times against the Rangers' Nolan Ryan. "It was really fun," said Ryan afterward. "By the last couple of times up, he was on almost every pitch, so with a lead in the ninth, I just reared back and threw as hard as I could, and he swung as hard as he could. I wonder what would have happened if he'd made contact." Ryan found out 12 days later. Jackson struck out in his first two at bats. Third time up, Ryan brushed Bo back, then sent him reeling on the next pitch with a 95-mph zinger over Jackson's head. Bo, popping his bubble gum all the while, wandered out of the box and stared at Ryan, then finally stepped back in. Ryan came in with a fastball. Jackson fouled it off. Ryan challenged him again. The ball landed high in the centerfield bleachers, 461 feet away, the longest at Arlington Stadium since they started measuring there. "They'd better get a new tape measure," said Bo.
Farmer says, "Bo Jackson is the best player in the game today." Few others would agree with that assessment—yet. Instead, rating Jackson is like watching him take batting practice. It's mostly anticipation. "There's no telling how good he can be," Wathan says. Toronto scout Gordon Lakey says, "He's a great player. He has almost unbelievable impact on every game he's in. But he's not yet as good a baseball player as a Kirby Puckett, Jose Canseco, Devon White or Ellis Burks."
Still, Jackson has been darn close to being the best player in the American League this season. He is among the leaders in homers, runs, slugging percentage, total bases and stolen bases. He's the best defensive leftfielder in the league and, after White, perhaps the best defensive outfielder, period.
But nine weeks isn't a season, and the Royals are well aware that Jackson's lifetime average after the All-Star break is .203. Inevitably, the blame for that statistic is laid on his other career, as a running back for the Los Angeles Raiders. Says Wathan, "Coping with the grind of six months and 162 games—as opposed to playing a football game every seven days—is something he has to learn for himself. We all think about what he could do if it weren't for the football thing. For instance, he could be a great switch-hitter if he could work on it during the winter, but...."
Jackson the football player shows up on the baseball diamond in another guise. "Bo is really naive in terms of baseball, because he really is into that Joe College, rah-rah stuff," says Royals DH Bill Buckner. "We kid him about it, but he's very serious about it. He thinks every day is Auburn-Alabama." As a two-hour rain delay was ending in a game in Kansas City last month, Jackson walked around the clubhouse shouting, "Let's go, let's go, we've got a game to win. Let's go kick some butt." Dick Butkus, maybe, but definitely not Willie, Mickey or the Babe.
Only time will tell if Jackson will suffer another late-summer slump, but some people expect things to be different this time around. Says Lakey, "I think this is the year we'll see him explode into greatness, because the Royals are going to be in the race." Says Schaefer, "He should be spectacular in a pennant drive because he loves challenges. If someone says he can't do something, then he'll try to do it."
In a game early this season in Kansas City, Jackson faced Roger Clemens. The Red Sox ace had struck him out nine of 13 times, but Bo told his teammates, "I'm going to get him." In the top of the seventh, with the Red Sox leading 1-0, Jackson caught up with a high Clemens fastball that was clocked at 93 mph and hit a line drive that just cleared the fence in right center. "He'd never shown that he could hit that pitch," says Clemens. "I had a lot on that ball, but I tip my hat to him. He whistled his bat through the strike zone like nothing I'd ever seen, and he hit the ball so hard I couldn't even turn around to see it go over the fence."
Jackson may still have a lot to learn, but he'll learn it on his own. He isn't one to spend a lot of time listening to hitting tips from Lum or working in the cage. "Bo doesn't talk baseball much," says Wilson. "He really doesn't listen to people. [Royals coach] John Mayberry tried to tell him a few things, and Bo just said, 'Get out of my face.' He doesn't have to listen. Bo's been able to do anything he wants all his life."
"Bo never has to be told anything twice," says Schaefer. "He'll just study something and figure it out. Like running the bases. He watched the proper way to turn the bases, figured it out and now he cuts the bag as well as anyone in the league. He makes improvement just by playing." A case in point: In three seasons, Jackson's strikeout-per-at bat ratio has declined from 1 per 2.50 at bats to 1 per 3.01 to 1 per 3.40.
The one area in which Jackson has truly worked hard is defense. In his first two seasons, he spent hours taking fun-goes. "He used to run at odd angles to the ball, but he learned how to go at proper angles," says Wathan. "He's made two great catches this season on balls hit over his head, which is the toughest play for a leftfielder. A year ago he'd never have caught them." Says centerfielder Wilson, "No matter how fast we're running toward one another after a fly ball, he seems to know where I am at all times. Bo's about the only outfielder with whom I've never had a collision. Thank god."