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Jim Murray

Perhaps Life Just Threw Him a Curve

July 23, 1987|Jim Murray

All right, Miss B, how about taking a letter to the good fans of Kansas City, all of them. Mark it personal. Don't tell them who it's from.

Dear baseball fans of Kansas City :

It has come to my attention that you are upset at the projected defection of your left fielder, Bo Jackson, to that childish other sport of, ugh! football.

I have been advised you are booing the young man and pelting him with plastic footballs for his treachery.

Now, I like that in a baseball fan. It's in the best traditions of the grand old game. Baseball fans should care. It's what we're about. It's kind of an old-fashioned virtue and we're old-fashioned people, right? We baseball fans are all right out of the 19th Century, right? And what's wrong with that? It was better than this one, right?

It was when ballplayers stayed right where they belonged. They were not only part of the community of baseball, they were part of the community, period.

We took pride in our community and we knew he did, too. They were playing for their town, our town. We didn't have these mercenaries, these this-bat-for-hire, have-curveball-will-travel guys. We had hometown heroes.

So, I know where you're coming from when you feel rejected by this young man in your outfield. I mean, he's not only rejecting Kansas City, he's rejecting baseball.

Horrors! It's enough to make a fellow doubt himself. Like, how can a guy give up the greatest game in the world in the greatest little town in the world to go play, ugh! that awful nosebleed and torn cartilage sport? What's next? George Brett in tennis shorts?

You recall the late Fresco Thompson's line whenever some young man came up to him, torn between a future in baseball or football. "What do you want--a career or a limp?" Fresco used to leer.

Apparently, Bo wants the limp. Well, he's going to the right place.

But I would ask you to look at it this way. Something has happened in Bo's life to convince him he may not have made the right career choice after all, limp or no limp.

Consider that something else may be at work here. I mean, it was only a month or so ago that Bo was saying there was no way he would ever climb into a football suit, ever again. You have to think he meant it. At the time.

Bo hasn't had a life up to now, it's been a procession. God gave him this magnificent body that just made everything that had to do with running, jumping, swinging or catching or throwing balls as easy as a fish swimming, or a bird flying. Bo could run with footballs or throw baseballs these incredible distances. He had a choice of careers. Baseball seemed like the most lucrative, the one with the most longevity. So, Bo chose it.

Bo is not the first great athlete to opt for baseball in these circumstances. Way back around the days of the first World War there was this similarly magnificent hunk who came out of a football school in Pennsylvania and he was such a specimen that the King of Sweden, no less, said: "Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world!"

Jim Thorpe probably was, too. He didn't think they made a game he couldn't play.

Neither, as it happens, did the New York Giants, which was a baseball team in those days. They signed old Jim to a contract--and went out and put new nails in the fences.

Well, sir, old Jim didn't wear the fences out much. He wore catchers out. And infielders.

The word went out, and it hung on him like a scarlet letter. "Jim Thorpe cannot hit the curveball," it said. Baseball being baseball, it became an article of faith. It went into the lore, like Ty Cobb would cut you with his spikes. It's part of the myth of the great game.

Now, I don't know whether Jim Thorpe could or couldn't hit the curveball. His figures were unimpressive, batting averages of .143, .194, .231, .237, .248.

But Thorpe could run with the football. And, when the newly formed National Football League took the field, Thorpe was signed to it.

You may have noticed in the public prints the other day where one of the last guys to play two sports simultaneously, Dave DeBusschere, the ex-basketball forward and baseball pitcher, suggested that Bo Jackson's trouble was that he had been introduced to "Uncle Charlie," the ballplayers' term for the all-purpose curveball.

Only the other day I had lunch with Bob Gibson, the Hall of Fame pitcher. "Do you think Bo Jackson has run into the fastball?" I asked him. Gibson shook his head. "The curveball, more likely," he suggested.

Roy Campanella used to call it "Public Enemy No. 1." It should be banned, like cigarette smoking in elevators.

The numbers young Mr. Jackson has put up are not bad, .257 batting average, 19 home runs, 47 runs batted in.

He has been at bat 300 times. But 124 of those times, he has struck out. Now that Dwight Gooden's pedestal has slipped, Bo may be the real Dr. K.

So, I think a little understanding is called for here. I mean, our young hero may not want to go down in history as Swish Jackson. Or Casey. He may fancy something like Mr. Inside or Mr. Outside. Or Mr. Touchdown. A man has a right to address posterity with his best shot.

Besides, I wouldn't give up. Patience is the watchword. Spending the off-season with the L.A. Raiders is not exactly like spending it on a yacht in the Mediterranean. Besides, if he thought the curveball was tough to make a living off, wait till he runs into Lawrence Taylor.

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