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Jim Murray

Bo Has Easier Time Hitting a Cornerback

November 26, 1987|Jim Murray

Burt L. Standish invented Bo Jackson. You look at the statistics and you figure there's no such real-life person. He just came walking off the pages of Frank Merriwell.

Only in a dime novel could a young man do the things he does. He does everything Merriwell did but rescue damsels from teams of runaway horses.

Still, the thing the Los Angeles Raiders have to be most thankful for this Thanksgiving morning is that Bo Jackson apparently can't hit the major league curveball. What has to worry them is, he can drive the fastball those incredible distances.

The notion here is, that's not enough for Bo Jackson. He does not have the look of a man who wishes to go down in history answering to the nickname of Swish. He does not want to be Dave Kingman, floating from franchise to franchise, lugging a .230 bating average and a tape measure.

Why be an out man in baseball when you can be a second coming of Red Grange in football? A Jim Brown? A combination of both? Why aggravate yourself trying to hit Bert Blyleven's breaking ball when you can flatten every cornerback who ever lived?

The late Fresco Thompson, who didn't think there was any sport except baseball, used to put it in perspective for the rookies torn between a life in baseball or in football. "What do you want, a career? Or a limp?" Fresco used to sneer.

Vincent Edward Jackson may opt for the limp.

He struck out 154 times with the Kansas City Royals last season. He struck out five times in one game. He also hit 21 home runs. In his minor league season, at Memphis, he struck out 81 times in 53 games.

But his first home run in the major leagues was 485 feet. Into the wind.

Bo is the type of athlete you expect to find only in the pages of fiction. In high school at McCalla, Ala., he hit 20 home runs in 25 games and was promptly drafted by the New York Yankees. He turned down a multiyear contract with George Steinbrenner to go to college.

At Auburn, he was a three-sport star. In addition to his football feats, he batted over .400 with the college baseball team;, he ran the 100 meters in 10.1, the 60 in 6.1. He pitched as a junior, and also batted .450.

Scouts in all three sports drooled. He ran for 4,303 total yards in football, was the leading rusher in the school's history with a 6.6-yard average carry. He won the Heisman Trophy as the best football player in the universe almost by acclamation.

But will he fall between two chairs professionally? He turned down Tampa Bay's football offer. He signed Kansas City's baseball offer.

The only athlete I ever saw I thought could have doubled in pro football and baseball was Jackie Robinson. Baseball wasn't even Jackie's best sport. Basketball was. Or football. Or track and field. He set long jump records almost between times at bat at UCLA.

The demands of major league sports today are such that even if there were a real-life Merriwell, he would have trouble being the all-everything his author made him out to be.

Athletes have tried the two-sport trick. Gene Conley played pro basketball and pro baseball without really being very good at either, until finally he tripped out--literally--and headed for Israel after jumping the team bus on the way to a ballpark.

Dave DeBusschere was a pitcher and a basketball player until the financial numbers began to come up in pro basketball. He threw away his glove and became an NBA all-timer.

Baseball players convene in February for a season that may last till the end of October. Football players convene in July for a season that may last till the last Sunday in January.

It's not the physical strain--Bo Jackson could probably hurl himself at a freight train 20 times every afternoon of his life without breathing hard--it's the mental strain. The concentration needed to play a game well is relentless.

Baseball is the easiest. It's not a team sport. You do not have to coordinate with 10 other players before you make a move. You either catch the ball or hit it all by yourself. Football is as intricately choreographed as a chorus line.

But Bo gets to give his undivided attention to baseball. He's free from spring training to World Series, if necessary. It's football, where you need the physics and geometry of the practice field, that he shortchanges.

Could even Frank Merriwell walk into the middle of a pro football lineup in the middle of October, in Game 6 or so, and make a difference? Well, if he could, so could Bo Jackson. And, if he can do that, why not try Mike Tyson? After all, he'll have a week or two off. Unless, of course, it's an Olympic year.

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