Thursday, July 12, 2012

Bo, the baseball superhero

He was Superman, The Flash and Spider-man rolled into one super baseball player.

One moment, he was doing things on a baseball field most major-leaguers could only dream of. The next, he was a broken down player just hanging on, as if kryptonite robbed him of his powers. In a way, though, it only added to his legend.

The story of Bo Jackson, the baseball player, was amazing. In 1987 - 25 years ago this baseball season - Jackson became a full-time major-leaguer, and took the game by storm. When Michael Jordan gave up basketball to take up baseball, it was more of a sideshow. When Jackson gave up football for baseball, it changed the sports landscape.

Although the end of Jackson's athletic career wasn't what a Hollywood script would have called for, his short, spectacular baseball career only begged one question: How great could Jackson have been?

Answer: All-time great.

First things first for those who never saw Jackson play. He played college football at Auburn and won the 1985 Heisman Trophy as a senior running back, and was the eventual No.  1 overall pick in the 1986 NFL draft by Tampa Bay, but opted on baseball and signed with Kansas City. He spent time in the minors with the Memphis Chicks, before being called up in September.

Then in '87, he spent most of the season playing for the Royals. His numbers weren't fantastic (22 home runs, 53 RBI, 10 stolen bases), but that wasn't the point for the imposing dual-athlete. For the next few years, he did things normal baseball players don't. Let's review:

- At the 1989 All-Star game, Jackson led off and hit a mamoth 448-football home run to center, as TV announcer Vin Scully said, "Bo Jackson says hello!" Indeed he did.

-On June 5, 1989, Jackson ran down a long drive to left field, turned from the warning track and threw a strike flat-footed to catcher Bob Boone to get the speedy Harold Reynolds, who admitted he thought he would score easily from first base on the play.

-On July 29 of that same year against the Orioles, Jackson turned to the home-plate umpire for a timeout, but didn't receive it. No problem. He hammered that pitch from Jeff Ballard for a home run.

-A year later against the Orioles again, he performed his famous "wall run" when he caught a ball just short of the centerfield wall, and instead of slamming into it, he ran up the wall, one leg reaching higher as he ascended. At one point, he was parallel to the ground.

-Later that year, he hit three consecutive home runs in a game, but went on the disabled list after that game. When he returned, Jackson took Randy Johnson deep for a fourth straight homer.

-His first major-league home run was a whopper, 475 feet. Most of Jackson's long balls looked like that of the super-human variety.

-On the basepaths and in the field, Jackson looked like a bodybuilder but ran like a cheetah. It was awesome to watch.

-Jackson was also known to snap his bat over his powerful thigh after striking out. It appeared effortless.

-Longtime Indians fans won't ever forget what Jackson did to Indians catcher Rick Dempsey, which was turn Dempsey into mush during an '87 home-plate collision. Dempsey, nearing the end of his solid career, but looking more the part of a plumber, never had a chance. Imagine Justin Bieber taking on The Rock.

That's the story of Bo Jackson, whose baseball career ended much, much too soon when a serious hip injury while playing football - his hobby, Jackson called the sport - with the Raiders in 1990 broke him down to the point where he was never the same athlete. He could have been one of the greats. Even more depressing, there's a generation of baseball fans who don't know the legend of Bo.

"You know what?" said Jackson's teammate in K.C., Frank White in a published story five years ago. "I really did play baseball with Superman."

He was super. For many, he's gone from the game of baseball, but never forgotten.

- Mark Podolski | @mpodo


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