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A telling of the legend of Bo Jackson, now an athletic and medical marvel, must begin with a disclaimer: Do not try this at home. Every year 240,000 people in the U.S. undergo hip-replacement surgery. Only one of them, his left hip fastened together by polyethylene and cobalt chrome, is playing major league baseball, an undertaking that shakes even his orthopedist to the marrow. "I hold my breath watching him," says Dr. James Andrews of Birmingham. "I don't want other patients to think they can do the same thing. Ordinary people shouldn't model their activities after Bo Jackson."
That Jackson is again playing baseball for the Chicago White Sox makes no sense, at least not within the usual, logical boundaries of science and baseball—and certainly not within the limits of ordinary people, a segment of the population to which he never has been assigned. But there he was last Friday, with the first official swing of the rest of his postoperative life, crushing a home run that seemed impossible until you remembered who hit it. "What can he do next?" said Susann McKee, his business manger. "It's almost as if he said, 'O.K., I'm going to go out and hit a home run in my first at bat.' It's almost as if he choreographs his whole life."
The Natural? Not anymore. Jackson became a two-sport star with such natural strength and ability that he hardly bothered to work out. One day, while a campus hero at Auburn in the mid-1980s, he got this idea that maybe he ought to at least take regular morning runs. After only one attempt at it he telephoned McKee, a friend before she became his business manager, and offered this conclusion: "People who run are stupid."
To come back with an artificial hip, though, has required rigorous daily workouts that he must maintain while playing. "Now," Andrews says, "he's in the best shape of his life. This is the first time he ever worked hard to get in shape."
Jackson has become The Unnatural. Emboldened by the force of his will and a deathbed promise to his mother, he is defying the logic of medicine and the composition of the White Sox roster, both of which say this is no place for him. He is pushing the known limits of his prosthesis so intently that "he's in uncharted waters," says White Sox trainer Herm Schneider. "It may last one month, six months, five years, 10 years." No one really knows how close he is to wreckage, which holds gruesome possibilities.
Even on a purely baseball level, Bo appears not to be a good fit. The White Sox announced on March 24 that they were picking up the option on Jackson's contract, which requires them to pay him a base salary of $910,000. That's a lot of dough for a limited player who had no apparent role on the team. Fact is, the White Sox prepared for the '93 season thinking Jackson wouldn't be able to play, and they wound up with a surplus of outfielders as well as one of the best designated hitters in the game, George Bell. To keep Jackson, who figured to be nothing more than a glorified pinch hitter and bona fide gate attraction, the Sox released Shawn Abner and demoted Michael Huff and Warren Newson, all of them reserve outfielders who play good defense, can steal, bunt and advance runners—valuable late-inning skills, none of which Jackson provides.
Moreover, the national media attention afforded someone who figured to play less often than Joey Cora quickly threatened team harmony. The resentment remains barely submerged, capable of surfacing with every ripple of reporters that washes up at Jackson's locker. Shortstop Ozzie Guillen, who would be a courageous baseball story in any other clubhouse (he has made it back from a career-threatening knee injury in less than a year), became annoyed one day during spring training after reporters kept asking him about Jackson's health. Pitcher Kirk McCaskill, when asked about his showing after a poor spring outing, snapped, "Why don't you go ask Bo?"
Jackson appears to like the attention least of all, showing almost no joy or humor about his comeback. He has been as ornery as a boar hog, which is how he came to be nicknamed in the first place. Alabamans know the "bo' hog," as they pronounce it, is the meanest hog in any pen. "I'm sick and tired of my life being a media circus," he snorted last week at reporters, apparently forgetting his multimedia endorsement campaigns. "I don't know why you make me out to be everything from a butthole to a superhuman athlete, which I'm not."
Sensing the tension, general manager Ron Schueler called a clubhouse meeting one day in March to address the situation. Schueler knew the players liked Jackson and respected him for his commitment to a grueling rehabilitation program, but he worried that they might be distracted by the consequences of his celebrity. Says manager Gene Lamont, "It's like the weather, I guess. It's not going to go away, so there's no use complaining about it."
Still, even Lamont got testy when someone asked him about Jackson after Chicago's 10-5 Opening Night victory over the Minnesota Twins in Minneapolis. "I don't want to be smart, but don't ask me about Bo Jackson," said Lamont. "We just won a big game. Let's talk about tonight's game, O.K.?" Then, about two hours before Chicago played its home opener last Friday, when a thick semicircle of reporters surrounded Jackson as he sat on the dugout bench, veteran catcher Carlton Fisk shook his head at the commotion and grumbled, "Isn't there anybody else on this team?"