Only doctors are counting out Bo in big-league return

February 22, 1993|By Phil Rogers | Phil Rogers,Dallas Morning News

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Bo Jackson is back in his element. He is competing on an athletic field, and it is as if he has never been away.

For now, anyway.

Jackson smashed batting-practice pitches all around the field at Ed Smith Stadium the other day. He sprayed line drives from the left-field line to the right-field line. A few baseballs even flew over the outfield wall.

When Jackson had finished, he picked up a first baseman's mitt and trotted out on the infield. He spied some friends leaving the park, raised a clenched fist toward them and shouted, "Keep the hope alive!"

Hope is alive at the Chicago White Sox's training camp. Jackson, 30, is gaining ground on becoming the first person to play professional baseball with an artificial hip. There are many hurdles ahead -- perhaps the biggest being to regain his batting eye after playing only 23 games the past two seasons -- but no one who has seen him recently is counting him out.

Jackson has worked so hard with personal trainer Mack Newton since having surgery in April that he says he's in the best shape of his life. He's on a mission to keep a vow he made to his mother before her death.

"Before my mother passed away this April, I promised her two things," Jackson said. "I promised her that I would get back on the baseball field and play ball and get my college degree."

Jackson is one class short of receiving a degree in human sciences from Auburn. He's six healthy weeks away from being at the Metrodome for the White Sox's opener.

"I've really been impressed," said manager Gene Lamont. "He's actually ready to play [in exhibition games]."

Jackson arrived in Florida ahead of his teammates. Last Friday's workout was the first for pitchers and catchers, but it was his third day of hitting and running at the team's complex. No one seems to appreciate his effort more than the senior citizens who stand behind chain-link fences and marvel at his every twist and turn.

"This is unbelievable," said Earl Lewis, a 68-year-old retiree vacationing from New York. "I give that young man all the credit in the world. I got a new hip five years ago, and it took me more than a year until I could play golf -- and that's riding a cart."

About 125,000 hip replacements are done every year in the United States. Most are performed on people like Lewis, who are happy only to be able to walk without the pain of sore or worn-out joints.

Jackson, injured in an NFL playoff game with the Los Angeles Raiders in January 1991, is trying to stretch the frontier for someone with metal rods and a plastic-lined ball joint replacing the original hip. His comeback is viewed skeptically by those most familiar with the procedure of hip replacement.

"It's not a question of whether he aggravates it," Dr. James Richards, an orthopedic specialist in Orlando, has said. "It's a matter of how long he takes to do it."

Doctors say Jackson runs an increased risk of a broken leg or a hip dislocation in a collision. The prosthesis itself could break. He is risking long-term problems.

"What the doctors are saying is true," said White Sox trainer Herm Schneider. "But the variable involved is these people don't know Bo. . . . The way Bo is approaching this is he says: 'Herm, I understand the negative side, but they don't understand it's my hip. This is what I want to do.' "

Jackson has promised not to turn his comeback into a freak show. He is friendly to the reporters who have come to chronicle the attempt, but he only occasionally grants interviews on the subject.

"I'm living my life right now as if I never had an injury," he said. "The difference [from last year] is like night and day, to tell you the truth. Everything feels great."

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