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Original Issue

Ascending to a League of His Own

If Bo Jackson doesn't return, his legend will be all the greater

He will be 50 years old, and he will appear in the spring at the training camp of the Kansas City Royals. The hairline will have receded and he will walk with a limp from the artificial hip, but no one on the field will have more presence than Bo Jackson. Fingers will be pointed. Whispers will be exchanged.

"See that guy, son? He could have been the best ever...."

"A tragedy, I tell you. A flat-out tragedy...."

His waistline will be trim and his body will be hard because he still will be working with weights. His face will be recognizable because he still will be selling shoes and vitamin supplements and an assortment of products. The other players of his time will have disappeared into the fuzzy world of retirement, but he still will seem young and strong and lethal. "Why, if that hip were all right...."

"I saw him, I think it was 1990, strike out once and break a bat over his knee. Just break the bat as if it were a darned toothpick...."

"I saw him play for the L.A. Raiders. He came around right end and made a move I've never seen—before or since...."

The early end of his two-sport career, greeted with such shock and sadness in the spring of 1991, will make him even bigger and better in the future than he ever was in the present. The mind will finish the story by ignoring the numbers that are used to judge the typical player and replacing them with adjectives for Bo. All the moves that he was cheated out of making will be constructed in the imagination. He will hit home runs that defy description, shots that split the cover off the ball in midflight and end with a pile of string landing in the centerfield bleachers. He will run for touchdowns through all 11 men on the other side of the line of scrimmage, carrying at least two of them with him as he reaches the end zone.

The ads that he did—Bo Knows Whatever—will be part of the mix. Who is to say none of that happened? Or wouldn't have happened? Maybe he did skate with Gretzky. Maybe he did play tennis against McEnroe. He surely must have laid some mean guitar riffs on that Diddley fellow. Or driven in the Indy 500. Or ridden in the Kentucky Derby.

"Do you know how hard it is to play two sports? This guy would go straight from the end of the baseball season to the middle of football...."

"He called football his hobby. Can you believe that? Some hobby...."

He will be mentioned sometimes with Sandy Koufax or Gale Sayers or Bobby Orr or Bill Walton or some other figure whose career was shortened. He will be like them, for sure, touched by the gods for a moment, then whisked away to the sidelines. But he also will have his own distinct situation. Everything happened so fast for him. He never did have time to win a championship. Or a batting title. Or a rushing title. He was just getting started. He was 28 years old, and he was just getting started in both sports. Or so it seemed.

He was promise as much as performance. He was promoted as much as any one man ever had been. He was a package. He was versatility and invincibility. I le was a real-life cartoon hero, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound if the cameras were pointed at a certain angle. Hurt? How could he be hurt? He was entertainer and leftfielder and running back. Product. What do you mean Bo Jackson can't run anymore? What do you mean it's over?

There is a poster for sale just about everywhere that shows James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart sitting on stools in an all-night diner. Elvis Presley is the counterman. The scene is not so much about death as it is about unfinished business. The subjects share a curious fate: They never will age, never will finish out their careers as lounge acts or bit players, but they also never will perform again. Bo will take a seat. He will pass the sugar to Buddy Holly. Or to Mark (the Bird) Fidrych. Unfinished business. Think of the things he could have done.

"If the guy had ever stayed with one sport. Just for one year...."

"What if he had tried another sport? He could have made the Olympic team doing something. Don't you think? What about the decathlon? If he had devoted himself to the decathlon...."

The immediate reaction to his injury—the carping about the Royals' dropping his contract, the whining about the stress he placed on his body by playing two sports, the cash-register noises of the possible income lost—will give way to this bittersweet future. He will be a grand and tragic figure, trailed forever by melancholy thoughts of the songs he could have sung. The ovations will grow louder as the years pass. His abilities will be sealed into a perpetual now, untouched by the passage of time or the possibilities of failure.

He will talk with the young Royals hitters. He will wave to the senior-citizen crowd. There will be an elegance to him that even the Hall of Famers will not have. Maybe he will hold a bat in his hands, just to pose for pictures. See how he looks with that bat? See? An imaginary pitcher will stare in terror. An imaginary baseball will be sent to the moon.

"I wouldn't have wanted to be throwing a ball at him...."

"I wouldn't want to throw a ball at him now...."

The only way any of this can be changed, of course, is if his hip does heal. Then he will have to come back to work. He will have to come back to finish out reality.