Now it's what Bo can't do, but the fans are still his

MIKE LITTWIN

March 10, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The worst moment came not when he ran to first, although that was enough to break your heart. Bo had slashed an RBI single to left, and how he keeps hitting -- he's 4-for-7 this spring, playing virtually without legs -- no one can tell.

Usually, they just say it's Bo, as if that explains it. Or, more reasonably, they say that this exotic dance with pain continues to be a small miracle.

Anyway, Bo ran to first, except you couldn't really call it running. It was more a sad parody of running, as his legs struggled to keep pace with his body.

And, then, White Sox manager Gene Lamont sent in a pinch runner. Imagine, pinch running for Bo Jackson. It's like pinch hitting for Ted Williams. It's like pinch jumping for Carl Lewis. Heck, pinch running for Bo is like dubbing Brando.

This is where you get choked up. Bo didn't run off the field -- because he couldn't run off the field. He walked, actually limped, all the way from first base to the third-base dugout as the crowd at Al Lang Stadium cheered him in. It was the long goodbye. The air was thick withemotion, filled with the sense that this was the last time these folks would ever see him and also with the hope that somehow Bo would find a way back.

"The fans were great," Bo would say later in the White Sox clubhouse. "This afternoon, I wish I could have taken off my hat and blown a kiss to everyone."

He then blew a kiss, and it looked exactly like a kiss goodbye.

"But to some," he said, "that might seem cocky."

Bo isn't cocky now. Bo, at 29, is humble. Bo is fighting the fightof his life, and everyone is with him. Maybe that's the humbling part. When Bo said he could play football and baseball simultaneously, that was seen by many as cocky. While daring to be great, he was often accused of hubris.

Now, it's different. He is playing with an injured left hip that may actually have to be replaced simply to allow him to walk freely again. Bone rubs again bone, and the pain must be agonizing. You can feel it yourself with each measured step he takes.

"You can't help but root for him," said the Orioles' Glenn Davis, who knows rehab himself. "I sympathize with him. Most people can't understand what he's had to go through, the challenges he's had to face. People shouldn't have to go through that."

Bo does. He talks about his high threshold of pain and his complete determination. When asked if he's optimistic, he says he leaves that to others. For himself, this has gone beyond pessimism and optimism or realism or even magic.

By Sunday, they're supposed to make a decision on Bo's future. He was put on waivers. They're going to restructure his contract, but that's just business. This is more important.

"Bo will know," his manager says.

But if Bo knows now, if he's willing to concede what seems so clear, he isn't saying.

"I'm going to sit down with the doctor, and we're going to cover all aspects of the injury, from A to Z, from rehab to surgery to everything in between," Jackson said. "If riding horses will help, then I'm going to ride the hell out of some horses."

Riding buses didn't help. The one-hour ride yesterday left him stiff, and you could only be glad that he wasn't made to play with the forced-busing Orioles.

"Maybe I'll take my limo next time," he said, smiling.

Through this, Jackson has been ready with a smile, maybe thinking that it would ease the pain. He's ready to try anything.

"I don't think anyone knows the pain Bo is in," his manager said. "What he's doing is a miracle of a kind."

And yet, he can't play if he can't run. Still, without his hips, without being able to turn on the ball, he has doubled off the wall. You don't explain it. He is Bo. And he's not Bo.

Rick Sutcliffe, who struck him out in the first, is an old friend of Jackson's. He says it hurts him to see Bo this way. But he also understands the majesty of the player, who wasn't content simply to be great. He wanted to be something better than that.

"I can't describe it," Sutcliffe said. "Bo is at a different level -- the Heisman Trophy, an all-star in two sports, the Nike commercials. You might be well-known in one city or even the United States, but this guy is international. I think everyone's got to be pulling for him."

And so, a media frenzy follows him, and probably will to the end.

But there was a moment writ small yesterday before the spring game against the Orioles that captured the aura of Bo better than mere words could. One young boy, a 6-year-old from Odenton, near Fort Meade, dressed in an Orioles uniform, was standing near the Orioles dugout while Bo sat across the field.

"Bo Jackson!" yelled Joey Zihila. "Bo Jackson! Bo Jackson!"

He kept yelling in a voice too loud and too insistent for your normal 6-year-old until Jackson finally shouted out a good-natured but emphatic "What?"

"Come here," demanded Joey from behind the fence.

"You come here," said Bo.

And the little boy, in a daze, was led across the field, and Bo signed his ball, but only after making Joey promise not to yell his name again.

The cameras recorded the moment, and Bo was being Bo, in all his glory, in all his Bo-ness. He loves being Bo. He's going to miss it as much as we are.

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