Publish date:

Say It Ain't So, Bo

A hip injury put two-sport superstar Bo Jackson on the sidelines, and opinions varied wildly as to how long he would remain there

Running up the leftfield wall. Bowling over the Boz. Blasting three home runs in a row.

The images of Bo Jackson seemed to keep coming, week after week, 10 months a year, in two very different sports. For almost five years now the Royal-Raider has been a human highlight film, a god-given gift to the bedtime sportscasters. Although Jackson's exploits were beamed into millions of homes, they were really being shown on one big screen for the American sporting public. Breaking bats over his knee or, sometimes, his head. Breaking tackles en route to another touchdown. Throwing out a runner trying to score from third on a single to left.

Then the film snapped, just like that. The Kansas City Royals, unwilling to pay Jackson $2,375,000 this season as he tries to rehabilitate the left hip he hurt while running for the Los Angeles Raiders, released him. The audience groaned, the lights came on in the theater, and everybody turned toward the projection booth. What happened? Who's responsible? When is the movie coming back on?

The irony of last week's installment of the Bo Knows saga was that nobody seemed to know. The contradictions came fast and furiously.

•The Royals announced, on March 18 at their spring training camp, in Haines City, Fla., that they were putting Jackson on waivers because they thought he would not be able to play at all this season on his injured hip. However, in a press conference earlier that afternoon in Birmingham, James Andrews, a noted orthopedic surgeon who is treating Jackson, maintained that Bo could return as early as the All-Star break. On an easel behind Andrews was the message BO KNOWS—I'LL BE BACK.

•On March 19, while cleaning out his locker, a smiling Jackson said, "I hope to come back to Royals Stadium and knock down the new scoreboard in leftfield." But that same day, a more subdued Jackson offered this scenario: "If worse was to come to worst, I'd go back to Alabama and buy me a small farm—300, 400, 500 acres—build a home, put my kids through school and buy a couple of buffaloes." You didn't know Bo knew buffaloes, did you?

•His Kansas City teammates were bereft. Said George Brett, "I once vowed I would never miss a Bo Jackson at bat. I would never be caught in the clubhouse changing my sweatshirt, getting a new bat, cap or glove, going to the bathroom, because whenever he bats, you never know what you're going to see that you've never seen before." On the other hand, some baseball experts offered the opinion that the Royals won't miss Jackson at all. Said one American League West executive, "I think they'll be a better club without him, I really do. I think he—and his football and everything—was a distraction."

•Marketing analysts evaluated the effects of the injury on Jackson's worth as a pitchman, another role in which he has excelled. Mike Vineyard, president of Cramer Products, a Kansas company that makes the Bo Med line of sports-medicine products, put a positive spin on the situation: "Bo can transcend all of this a little easier than most athletes. He has a very strong personality that goes beyond his performance on the athletic field. He will survive and prosper even if he never steps on the field again." Nevertheless, maneuvering to protect Jackson's interests began. Gene Orza, associate counsel for the Baseball Players Association, questioned the details of Kansas City's release of Jackson and said he would ask the club for the player's medical records.

•In its March 22 edition, USA Today reported that the New York Yankees, who had first shot at Jackson by virtue of having had the worst record in the American League last year, would definitely claim him on waivers that day. That day's 2 p.m. deadline for claiming Jackson on waivers then passed without the Yankees or any other team anteing up the $1 fee. Well, that's not strictly true. The Live Oak (Fla.) Gray Ghosts, a Little League team in need of power, scraped together the dollar. But even they had a condition for Jackson. "Practice is on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays," said Gray Ghost coach Daniel McKeever, "and a missed practice means he will not start in Saturday's game."

How the mighty has fallen. Actually, he was tackled—in an NFL playoff game back on Jan. 13 by Cincinnati Bengal linebacker Kevin Walker. At first Jackson's injury was considered by the Raiders to be minor. However, when the condition did not improve during rehabilitation, Jackson was examined by the Royals' doctor, Steve Joyce, on Feb. 14. He found 1) a small fracture in the back of the hip socket, 2) a loss of blood supply to the head of the femur—interpreted by some as avascular necrosis—which can weaken that portion of the bone, and 3) a loss of cartilage in the joint.

For another opinion, Jackson went to Birmingham on Feb. 18 to see Andrews (who has also treated Roger Clemens, Charles Barkley, Jack Nicklaus and Bruce Smith). Andrews concurred with Joyce's diagnosis. That same day, the Royals, who were apparently still unaware of the extent of Jackson's injury because Joyce had complied with his patient's request for confidentiality, agreed with Bo on terms for a one-year contract for $2,375,000.

While Joyce and Andrews agreed on the diagnosis, each has a different prognosis. Joyce believes that the injury will prevent Bo from playing this year at least, and on the basis of his judgment the Royals released Jackson, thus obliging the club to pay him only one sixth of his salary ($391,483), because his contract was not guaranteed. Joyce's reports also scared off the Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays and Atlanta Braves, all of whom were considering claiming Jackson until their own medical advisers told them not to take the chance.

Andrews appears to be a voice in the wilderness. "I really believe Bo Jackson will be back," he told SI last week. "He might be able to play this season, but we have time to make decisions. I don't want to take issue with what other doctors have said. My job is to get Bo well. But this is not a typical avascular necrosis. Number one, it occurred due to a single traumatic episode, a shearing of the cartilage as the hip joint slipped partially out. Number two, it occurred in the back part of the head of the femur, rather than in the front part, as it normally does. Number three, he has no pain, no tenderness, and he has full range of motion." Andrews said that he has had athletes with similar hip injuries who have recovered.

For now, Jackson's rehab program will include swimming, walking and running in a pool; stationary bicycling; and strength training. "I love working with someone with Bo's natural ability," said Andrews. "It's easier to get him well than it is some Joe Schmo."

Joe Schmo doesn't make what Bo makes, either. Even though the Royals cut him loose—and as of Monday no team had picked him up—Jackson is hardly hurting financially. His contract with the Raiders is guaranteed, so even if he can't play, Jackson will get $1,617,500 from Al Davis for the 1991 season. He also has a $2.8 million-a-year contract with Nike through 1993. (Nike, originator of the Bo Knows campaign, so values Jackson that it named its fitness center in Beaverton, Ore., after him.) He has other lucrative endorsements, including AT&T, Cheerios and Pepsi.

"We haven't had any cancellation of endorsements," says Jackson's agent, Richard Woods. "We think the injury will actually help Bo in the long run. The legend of Paul Bunyan will grow by a mile or so when he comes back to play."

Bunyan-Jackson also has a very nice safety net in the form of a $4.5 million Lloyds of London insurance policy in case he has to go into buffalo ranching sooner than expected. The only area of the Bo market that seems to be suffering is the price of his baseball rookie card: Memorabilia dealers have already reduced prices and say they could fall by as much as 40% by season's end.

There was also a certain devaluation of Jackson's worth on the baseball grapevine last week. Detractors pointed out that Bo has one of the highest strikeout rates in history (one for every 3.2 plate appearances) and an awful lifetime fielding percentage (.960), and that he has been reluctant to play hurt. And since Jackson's 1986 debut the Royals have had a better record without him in the lineup (88-77, .533) than with him (261-250, .511).

But even at 28, Jackson is still considered a raw baseball talent. His batting average increased each year, and his all-around skills were improving. There's no telling how good he could have been if he had played baseball full-time and had gone through a few instructional leagues. "In some ways," said Royals owner Ewing Kauffman last week, "I feel we failed to do what we could have done with Bo as far as insisting that he just play baseball. He would have been so much better off. It [football] destroyed potentially the best talent ever to put on a baseball uniform."

Another area in which Jackson was showing improvement was the clubhouse. Remember, this is a guy who gave out autographed pictures of himself to his teammates when he arrived as a rookie. On March 19, as he cleared out his locker, Jackson was on the verge of tears while talking about his fellow Royals. "If there is any hurt to come out of this," he said, "it isn't because the Royals released me. It's because I won't be playing with my teammates. George [Brett], Sabes [Bret Saberhagen], Goobie [Mark Gubicza], Danny [Tartabull]. Really, I can't talk about the little guy, number 36 [Tom Gordon]. He means so much to me. I'll come see him when he pitches."

Jackson professed to have no hard feelings toward the Royals. "I don't want this to be another War of the Roses," he said. As he left the clubhouse on crutches, Jackson hugged third baseman Kevin Seitzer, with whom he feuded last season, and promised Brett he would let him drive his Testarossa.

For now, the Royals will replace Jackson in left by platooning Jim Eisenreich and Gary Thurman. Life goes on. No sooner had Jackson vacated his locker in Haines City than Archie Corbin, a minor league pitcher whose uniform number is the reverse of Bo's number 16, moved in.

Jackson hung around central Florida for a few days before heading back to Kansas City late last week. He even went bass fishing on Thursday. "He knows his priorities," said Woods, "and bass fishing sometimes comes ahead of football and baseball."

Jackson's intent now is to spend time with his wife, Linda, and their three children; work on his hip; maybe even take the four courses he needs for a bachelor's degree in childhood education from Auburn. (Linda is working on her doctorate in child psychology.)

More than likely, major league teams will wait to see how his rehabilitation progresses. There's no sense in spending millions on damaged goods. Yet they're gambling, too, by waiting, because if Bo does return to form, he can name his price. What team wouldn't want him, strikeouts and all? As for the Raiders, a team official said, "We're not doctors, but we expect him to wear the silver and black again."

Jackson has a high fence to scale, higher than the one he ran up in Baltimore's Memorial Stadium last summer. Doctors, baseball people and fans are saying he won't be back. But then people said no one could ever play pro football and major league baseball at the same time, much less make the All-Star team and the Pro Bowl. There he goes, up the middle for 91 yards and a TD en route to a 221-yard night. There it goes, a leadoff home run in his first All-Star at bat.

Late-night sports reports won't be the same without him.



As the sports world offered conflicting opinions, Jackson was both downcast and upbeat.



After Walker's tackle (above) felled Bo in January, the Raiders thought his hip injury was minor, but Jackson's condition soon worsened.



[See caption above.]



Andrews believes that Jackson will recover nicely, but other doctors are more skeptical.



The injury to Jackson's left hip led to a form of avascular necrosis, in which a reduced blood supply—in this case to the head of the femur (shaded area)—weakens the bone. The blow also caused a shearing of the cartilage (red) essential for reducing friction in the joint.



[See caption above.]



Jackson limped off in January, not dreaming his storied athletic career was in jeopardy.