Twenty years after his rookie season, his baseball exploits remain mythical to those lucky enough to have seen him.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — OK, so one day in New York, Bo Jackson complained in the dugout before a game. Reporters surrounded Bo, which never made him happy anyway. Reporters wanted to explain things, and Bo Jackson wasn’t about explaining. Bo was about doing.
“Everything I do, people tend to exaggerate it,” he moaned. “With me, they want to make things bigger than they are.”
Bo said he was just another guy. He wasn’t some sort of folk hero, like John Henry or Pecos Bill. No, he hurt like other players. He made mistakes like other players. He struck out a lot. He wasn’t forged out of steel, and he couldn’t outrun locomotives, and he couldn’t turn back time by flying around the world and reversing the rotation of the earth.
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“I’m just another player, you know?” he said.
Then the game began, Royals versus Yankees at Yankee Stadium.
First time up, Bo hit a 412-foot homer to center field.
Second time up, Bo smashed a 464-foot opposite-field home run. Longtime Yankees fans said that ball landed in a far-off place where only home runs by Ruth, Gehrig and Mantle from the left side ever reached.
“Colossal,” teammate George Brett would say. “I had to stop and watch.”
Third time up, Yankees manager Stump Merrill walked out to the mound to ask pitcher Andy Hawkins how he intended to get Bo out this time.
“I’ll pitch it outside,” Hawkins said.
“It better be way outside,” Merrill replied.
Hawkins threw it way outside. Jackson poked the ball over the right-field fence for his third homer. The New York crowd went bananas.
Bo never got a fourth time up that day. Instead, he hurt his shoulder while diving and almost making one of the great catches in baseball history. New Yorkers stood and cheered as he walked off the field.
“You know what?” Royals Hall of Famer Frank White said almost 20 years later. “I really did play baseball with Superman.”
It began a generation ago
It has been 20 years since Bo Jackson was a rookie. An entire generation of young baseball fans never experienced the thrill of watching Bo play baseball.
How can you explain Bo Jackson to a kid today? Old-time baseball fans and scouts tell tall tales about players. “Oh, you should have seen Mickey Mantle before he hurt his knees; he ran so fast he could bunt for doubles,” they’ll say.
Or, “Before Pete Reiser started running into walls, he could play left field and center field at the same time.”
Or, “There was nobody quite like Monte Irvin before he went to war; he used to hit for the cycle three times a week.”
So what makes Bo different? Well, for one thing, it’s all on video. Bo really did break a baseball bat over his thigh after striking out. Bo really did throw a ball from left field all the way to first base on a fly to double up Hall of Fame catcher Carlton Fisk. Bo really did, in his spare time, transform into the most sensational running back the NFL has ever seen. He really did … well, he really did a lot of stuff.
But Bo Jackson was always grouchily unimpressed with himself. Michael Jordan thought that was part of Bo’s magic. “Neither of us is very easily amazed,” Jordan told Newsweek in those days when he and Bo were the two greatest athletes in the world.
When Bo Jackson was called up to the big leagues after only 53 minor-league games, he shrugged. When he had his first four-hit game in only his fifth game, he announced, “It’s just another night.”
Two days after that, he faced Seattle’s Mike Moore, a power pitcher who would win 161 games in the big leagues. Before the game, Bo went over to Willie Wilson’s bats, liked the feel of one, and announced, “This is mine.”
With Willie’s bat, Bo hit a 475-foot blast to left-center, the longest home run ever hit at Royals Stadium.
“There’s something about Bo,” Royals general manager John Schuerholz said then. “Call it mystical or magical.”
Sept. 2, 1986: Bo’s first game. His first at-bat was against Hall of Famer Steve Carlton. He hit a ground ball to second base, and Tim Hulett picked it up and threw to first — only Bo was already past the bag.
“Oh man, nothing that big should move that fast,” said Royals Hall of Famer and former hitting coach John Mayberry.
July 29, 1988: Bo Jackson was facing Baltimore’s Jeff Ballard. He called timeout and stepped out of the box. He adjusted his batting glove when he realized that the umpire did not actually grant his timeout, and Ballard was throwing the ball. Jackson jumped back into the box, swung that bat and … yeah. He hit a home run.
“Most amazing thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” says Bob Schaeffer, Kansas City’s first-base coach at the time.
May 15, 1989: Baseball writer Peter Gammons was in Minnesota to write a Sports Illustrated cover story about Jackson, so he watched Bo take batting practice. It was a typical Bo hitting session — he cracked rockets all over the field. Then it was time for his last swing. Bo jumped into the cage and hit left-handed.
He hit a titanic shot 450 feet off the Hardware Hank sign in right field.
“I got work to do,” Bo said to the other players, whose jaws had dropped. He ran out to the outfield to shag some fly balls.
July 11, 1990: Bo ran up the outfield wall. Literally. He chased down a fly ball and caught it about four steps in front of the fence. He put his right foot on the wall, then his left, then his right — until he was 7 feet off the ground and sideways. For a guy who didn’t want to be seen as a superhero, he sure kept doing superhero things.
“What do you think of Bo Jackson?” a reporter asked Bo Jackson.
“I’ve known this guy for years,” Bo said of Bo. “And nothing he does fazes me.”
There are so many more. Once, he ran over catcher Rick Dempsey. Dempsey broke his thumb but said, “I held him to fewer yards than Brian Bosworth.” That goes back to a Monday night game.
And we don’t even have time for all the legendary football stories.
“The Throw” deserves its own section, however. On June 5, 1989, the Royals were playing at Seattle. It was the 10th inning, score was tied 3-3, Harold Reynolds was on first base when Scott Bradley rifled a double to left field. Reynolds was running on the pitch, so it was obvious he would score the winning run. He rounded third, headed for home and prepared to have his teammates mob him when he saw his teammate Darnell Coles pumping his arms, the baseball signal for “SLIDE!”
Reynolds thought: “Slide? Are you kidding me?”
So, he was about to launch into what he called “a courtesy slide” when he saw that Kansas City catcher Bob Boone had the ball. Boone tagged him.
Bo Jackson had made a flatfooted throw of 300 feet in the air. It was a perfect strike. It was so impossible, so ridiculous, so absurd that no umpire was on the spot to make the call. Plate umpire Larry Young finally came to his senses and made a fist — Reynolds was out.
“Now I’ve seen it all,” Scott Bradley said.
“This is not a normal guy,” said teammate George Brett.
“That was just a supernatural, unbelievable play,” said Seattle manager Jim Lefebve.
“I just caught the ball, turned and threw,” Bo grumbled. “End of story. … It’s nothing to brag about. Don’t try to make a big issue out of it.”
Bo Jackson’s baseball career really ended on a football field in Los Angeles. He hurt his hip against the Cincinnati Bengals. He did come back and did a few remarkable things after that, but it was different. He wasn’t superhuman anymore.
Harry Houdini in cleats
The thing is, anyone who saw him play will never forget him. Every game was like a Harry Houdini performance — you expected to see something you had never seen before.
This story began with that July day in 1990 at Yankee Stadium when Bo Jackson hit three home runs before being injured.
He missed more than a month, then returned on Aug. 11 to face Seattle. He came up in the second inning. The pitcher was Randy Johnson. First pitch, Bo crushed a long fly ball to center field. The ball splashed in the waterfall to the left of the scoreboard. The Royals estimated the homer flew 450 feet.
“I’m not trying to brag,” Jackson said. “But I actually saw the threads on the ball right before I hit it.”
For once, Bo Jackson had impressed himself. And that might have been his greatest feat of all.