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Peter Gammons
June 12, 1989
With every swing of his bat, there's a chance Bo Jackson will do something extraordinary. So everyone watches
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June 12, 1989

The Big Stick

With every swing of his bat, there's a chance Bo Jackson will do something extraordinary. So everyone watches

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Batting practice on this May night in the Minneapolis Metrodome had become a skeet shoot for Bo Jackson. He stood at the side of the cage and as each player made contact, Jackson shouted, "Pull!" Then, with his bat held like a rifle, he followed the flight of the ball and fired an imaginary shot at the arcing white sphere.

"Bo, it's your turn. One last swing," hollered Kansas City Royals hitting coach Mike Lum. The righthanded Jackson darted into the cage and jumped up to the plate—on the lefthand side. He took his one cut, and it was the last scene from The Natural, in nonfiction. The ball towered past the dome lights, crashing off the Hardware Hank sign on the facade of the second deck in far right center-field, an estimated 450 feet away and only 30 feet short of the longest rightfield homer ever hit in the Metrodome.

Kirby Puckett, standing in back of the cage with several other Twins, howled at Bo as he walked slowly toward the dugout to put the bat in the rack. Jackson glanced back at Puckett and yelled, "I got work to do," then picked up his glove and strolled nonchalantly out to leftfield to take some fly balls.

"Players from both teams watch when Bo takes batting practice," says Royals pitcher Bret Saberhagen. "There's always the feeling that you're going to see something you never saw before, and we don't want to miss it." Says Seattle catcher Scott Bradley, "Bo and [Jose] Canseco are the two guys that everyone wants to watch. When they're done you go into the clubhouse and swap stories about balls they hit. It doesn't matter if we haven't played the Royals for two months, Bo gets talked about. Everyone has to have a topper Bo story."

At Royals Stadium the rustle of anticipation begins as soon as Jackson takes his first step out of the on-deck circle toward home plate. By the time he steps into the batter's box, the crowd has usually begun a chant of "Bo...Bo...Bo." But it's not just at home that Jackson is the main attraction. In Minneapolis before a recent Royals-Twins series, the TV spots for the games consisted of 16 seconds of Bo highlights. "He's been called the greatest athlete of our time," intoned the announcer. "There's almost nothing he can't do." In Anaheim, Calif., the public address announcer was plugging Jackson's visit to the Big A three weeks before the Royals were to arrive. During a weekend series in Boston in April, in which Jackson had two homers and four stolen bases, a fan yelled, "Bo, let's see you hit the ball to Kenmoah Squayah—and catch it yawself!" When the first results of the All-Star balloting were announced on May 22, the American League's leading vote-getter was Bo.

No longer does one have to say "Bo Jackson," any more than one had to add Ruth to the Babe or Presley to Elvis. Bo, in just his third full season, has reached single-name stature. And he creates the same kind of "what next?" anticipation as basketball's Michael Jordan. "Bo is the only baseball player that you sense can do whatever he wants," says Royals centerfielder Willie Wilson. "And you can't wait to see him do it."

It's not only with the bat that Bo does it. On the night after his lefty BP blast in Minneapolis, Jackson hit a pitch from the Twins' Francisco Oliveras into that same second deck—the first time a righthanded batter ever hit a ball into the rightfield upper deck. Afterward Jackson shrugged off the feat ("I hit it off the end of the bat," he said); he was much more excited about his steal of home that night. More accurately, he simply outran a throw. Jackson was caught off third on a botched hit-and-run, and Twins shortstop Greg Gagne, holding the ball, ran toward him to start a rundown play. Bo took off for the plate and beat Gagne's throw.

"You define mistakes differently with Bo," says K.C. manager John Wathan, "because a mistake to a normal player isn't a mistake to Bo. He can outrun and outthrow mistakes. We've got some terrific players on this team, but it seems as if nine out of 10 questions I answer are about Bo Jackson. We won a tough game against Cleveland, and the first question I got was about Bo breaking his bat over his knee after striking out. I'll have to admit, it was amazing to watch him take that bat and snap it over his knee like kindling."

Tales of Bo. There's the one about the 515-foot homer he hit in spring training off Boston's Oil Can Boyd—it cleared a 71-foot scoreboard. Royals coach Bob Schaefer tells about the time last year when Bo stepped out of the box and asked for time as Oriole pitcher Jeff Ballard went into his windup; the umpire refused and Jackson had to jump back in as the ball was on its way to the plate. He drilled a home run over the right centerfield fence.

They talk about his first major league homer, in September 1986, the one that went three-quarters of the way up the outfield embankment in Royals Stadium and hit the grass so hard it stuck. Scouts talk about clocking him to first base in 3.82 seconds to beat out a routine ground ball—on turf, no less—to Boston second baseman Marty Barrett. Then there was the day he raced into left center and hurtled through the air to stab a Rich Gedman line drive, prompting Red Sox manager Joe Morgan to say, "I've never seen anything like it in 37 years of professional baseball." Orioles scout Ed Farmer swears that in a game last season, he saw Jackson strike out and snap his bat over his shoulder, breaking it against his back.

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