CHICAGO -- When Bo Jackson stepped into the batting cage yesterday to prepare for his Chicago White Sox debut, he stole the normal ballpark sounds from the air. Only the crack of bat against ball pierced the eerie stillness; twice, the crack was followed by the muted thud of a line drive hitting distant seats.
"If he were to quit football and devote himself to baseball . . . I think he'd be one of the best ballplayers ever," Kansas City Royal George Brett said after watching Jackson. "As long as he continues to play football in the offseason, I don't think we'll see how good he can be."
It was a football tackle Jan. 13 that damaged his left hip so badly doctors said he might never walk again unaided, leading the Royals to release him March 19.
Two weeks later, while he was still on crutches, the White Sox signed him and guaranteed him $700,000 even if he never played and $10,000 for every game he played.
That bonus kicked in yesterday. After months of therapy and a week's rehabilitation in the minor leagues, Jackson was activated by the White Sox, who are desperate to fortify their offense. Batting sixth against Luis Aquino, designated hitter Jackson went 0-for-3 with a sacrifice fly in Chicago's 5-1 victory.
"No one expected me to do what I did tonight -- ever," said Jackson,who grounded to the pitcher in the second inning, to third base in the fourth, flied to deep center in the sixth and drove in a run with a bases-loaded fly to center in the eighth.
"This has to be at the top of the chart [of personal thrills], because I never had to work this hard to get back on the playing field. Everything always came easy to me. With God's help and everyone working with me, I was able to do it."
His performance exceeded the most optimistic hopes of manager Jeff Torborg, who got seven innings of one-hit pitching from rookie Roberto Hernandez and home runs by Frank Thomas and Dan Pasqua.
"I'd never seen Bo run without a limp. He always had a little hitch in his giddy-up, but he didn't tonight," Torborg said. "He looked like he was on everything tonight."
Jackson ran powerfully and fearlessly. "[Teammate] Robin Ventura said my time to first base was faster than his, and he's perfectly healthy," Jackson said. "I'm satisfied with what I have now, and I know things are going to get better."
In contrast to the awed silence he evoked before the game, his first at-bat drew a standing ovation from the crowd of 37,187, and warm applause greeted him in his subsequent plate appearances. He later said he was so moved, "You have to be in my shoes to know how it felt. I can't describe it."