Bo's brilliant run, sadly, nears end

KEN ROSENTHAL

March 10, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Even yesterday, there was the familiar electricity, the sheer thrill of seeing Vincent Edward Jackson perform. But he limped so slowly to home plate, hobbled so gingerly to first base, he would have been better off using his bat as a cane.

Don't remember him that way. Remember him scaling the Memorial Stadium wall like he was riding a skateboard. Crushing a monstrous home run to lead off the 1989 All-Star Game. Starring in another hilarious Nike commercial. Flattening Brian Bosworth for the good of all mankind.

It has not been a good year for sports heroes -- first Magic, then Tyson, and now Bo. Tragedy is a word invoked too casually in these matters, and for a man who leads a life as rich as Bo, it's probably misplaced here. But sad, yes, this is certainly that. Sad and unfair, it's both of those things.

Spring training dispenses optimism like a narcotic -- the Orioles, 4-0! -- but now, in this heartless '92 edition, it's impossible to be optimistic about Bo. He can still hit, better than ever, in fact. But the left hip he injured 14 months ago is turning him into the sporting equivalent of an old man.

Jackson, 29, is listed at 6 feet 1 and 235 pounds in the Chicago White Sox media guide. Yesterday, for some reason, Orioles manager John Oates thought he looked smaller. It was his legs. Once they were massive. Now they appear devoid of strength. Jackson generates bat speed with his upper body.

His injury occurred when he was tackled in an NFL playoff game at the end of a 34-yard run. Yesterday, he could barely negotiate the 90 feet to first base after bouncing an RBI single to left. His awkward journey was still in progress when the Orioles' Brady Anderson picked up the ball.

It is painful to watch, and no doubt painful to bear. Bo being Bo, he admits to very little. He stiffened yesterday on the 45-minute bus ride from Sarasota, but shrugged it off by saying, "I guess I'll have to start using my limo." Bo being Bo, he never even thought, "I guess I'll have to retire."

Alas, that acknowledgment seems more inevitable each passing day. Earlier this spring, Bo said, "I'm very disappointed with my running, if you want to call that running." He looked better then than he did yesterday. He looked better last September than he did then.

Now he's considering every available option, from a new rehabilitation program to career-ending hip-replacement surgery. Jackson won't openly discuss the latter, but yesterday he conceded, "Anything is possible." Obviously, surgery of that magnitude is a last resort.

"I know what I'm capable of," Jackson proclaimed with the usual Bo bravado, but when he was replaced by pinch-runner Joe Hall after his second at-bat, it took him forever to limp off the field. He made like he was panting. Only he knew if he was exaggerating.

Meanwhile, the White Sox need a DH (Kirk Gibson? Kal Daniels? How about Randy Milligan?) Bo clears waivers at 2 p.m. tomorrow. No team will claim him and assume his $910,000 contract. This way the Sox can pay him a lesser salary -- Bo's idea -- and remove him from their 40-man roster.

Why doesn't he just quit? Because great athletes relish the challenge. Orioles first baseman Glenn Davis was told he might never play again after suffering a rare neck injury last season. But Davis, too, grew obsessed with his comeback. Yesterday he hit a two-run homer in the Orioles' 8-4 victory.

"I could have paralyzed myself severely," Davis said afterward. "But as an athlete, there's something within you. We're a different breed sometimes. There's something in us, a desire to keep pushing until we can't go any more."

Jackson clearly is reaching that point. Even Davis was shocked by his condition. "I hope he can continue playing for a few years," Davis said. "But eventually, I think it's going to catch up with him. I just hope he doesn't take it to a point where it's going to damage him later in his life."

Indeed, there has been enough damage already. Bo will be missed, so missed. Who else would beckon a screaming 6-year-old boy from Odenton into his dugout for an autograph during batting practice? "You were just going to call my name until I answered you," Bo said to little Joey Zihala. "I like that."

Fans love Bo. Players do too. Rick Sutcliffe yesterday struck him out looking, but was far more anxious to discuss a recent practical joke in which he asked a waitress to pour ice down Bo's back. "She thought he was going to kill her," Sutcliffe said, laughing. "She mentioned my name right away."

What's your favorite Bo story? Oates remembers standing in the first-base coaching box one night when the Orioles were playing Kansas City. He remembers a baserunner moving off first as Jackson caught a deep fly in left. And he remembers Bo making a supersonic throw to first trying for a double play.

"I jumped," Oates said. "Usually a ball thrown from leftfield, you think it's going to die. But this one had some giddy-up on it. I wasn't sure [George] Brett was going to catch it. And I had a feeling the way it skipped off that grass, it would have hurt me if he didn't."

Now it's Bo who's hurt.

Some things make no sense.

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