SURPRISE, Ariz. — Two baseball lifers are swapping stories and smiles, because this is what happens when you ask about Bo Jackson. The Royals have opened fan voting for their teams hall of fame, and Jacksons name is on the list. Maybe this is the year that one of two transcendent stars in Royals history is finally inducted.
By SAM MELLINGER
The Kansas City Star
The lifers are laughing now. Some of the things Art Stewart and John Boles remember are so ridiculous, so impossible, theyd never believe any of it if they didnt see it for themselves. Like, one day in 1986, Bo hit a ball in Memphis that went over the left-field wall, out of the stadium and onto the football field behind it.
Boles was scouting for the Royals then, sitting behind home plate. He rushed home to call his boss.
Art, he said, you wont believe this. I just saw the longest home run in my life.
Stewart smiles and leans up in his chair. He is a member of the Royals hall and has been asked to keep his vote secret. But he signed Bo, and the spark in his eye is not off the record. He asks me who I will vote for.
Bo, I tell him. But he was the athlete of my youth. I cant be objective about this.
If you werent around to see Bo play baseball for the Royals, so much of this must sound made up. The 500-foot home runs. The 4.12-second 40-yard dash. The Throw against Harold Reynolds in Seattle.
The home run over the scoreboard in spring training. Trucking Brian Bosworth at the goal line. Running sideways on the wall in Baltimore, like a spider. The head of a mountain lion he brought to the clubhouse one year.
For the longest time, this franchise was George Brett and the Royals. That changed around 1987. It became Bo Jackson and the Royals. Bo was like a comet across the sky. A breathtaking sight you couldnt forget, but gone too quickly. His NFL career robbed him of a healthy hip. The Royals cut him in the spring of 1991. He was 28. They went back to being George Brett and the Royals for a few more years.
Hed be in Cooperstown if he didnt get hurt, says John Wathan, the former Royals catcher and manager whos been with the club since 1971 and has his own case for being in the teams hall of fame. Bo was one of a kind.
The case against Bo is simple enough. Only played four full seasons. Had 1,344 fewer plate appearances than any of the eight position players currently in the Royals hall. Bo hit just .250 for the Royals, with 109 home runs (Billy Butler will pass him early this season) and 313 RBIs (Alex Gordon passed him late last season).
If you need longevity, Bo is not your candidate. But valuing Bo through these statistics is like judging a Ferrari on cargo space. It misses the point entirely.
Bo made the Royals an event, and whens the last time that happened?
The Royals three best years in attendance, still, are Bos first three seasons. There are other factors, of course (Bretts retirement, for starters), but Bos last season in Kansas City was in 1990, and the club hasnt drawn 2 million fans since 91. Players and team employees who were around then remember a disproportionate amount of the surge being kids.
I was one of those kids, 11 years old when Bo homered in the 1989 All-Star Game. Ive often thought much of my lifelong love for sports came from watching Bo in those formative years. How many others are there like me?
With Bo, the Royals were more than a baseball team, their games about more than pitching and defense and moving the runner over. Bo drew people in, and once there, he stretched their imaginations about what was possible. He never played baseball regularly until turning pro, after all. He basically learned to play baseball in the major leagues.
He broke weight-lifting machines with his power. He broke basic baseball rules you dont tag up from first on a routine fly to center, or from third on a pop fly shallow enough for the shortstop to catch with his speed. Wathan was coaching first base when Bo debuted and remembers a different sound when it was Jackson who was coming down the baseline.
When Bo signed with the Royals, he surprised everyone by taking batting practice. He hadnt swung a bat in months, but he hit two straight balls off the center field scoreboard. Brett and Frank White used to stand and watch him swing, like kids themselves. Buck ONeil famously said he heard that special sound of bat hitting ball watching only three players in his life: Babe Ruth, Josh Gibson, and Bo.
Halls of fame mean different things to different people, of course. Some consider personality, others just performance. Some prefer high peaks, others sustained success. But one thing they all have in common is the preservation of memories, of moments, of experiencing something that reminds you what sports can be.
Nobody did that better than Bo. The Royals hall of fame would be better with him.
Back to the two lifers, men who together have watched baseball professionally for close to 100 years. Boles mentions something you dont often hear, but it makes sense: Bo had exceptional eyesight. If his inexperience made it difficult to hit sliders, his eyesight gave him a chance.
Stewart says Bo did things he never saw before, or since. Boles says that ball in Memphis is still the furthest home run he ever saw.
And he was just learning, Stewart says.
Once these stories get going, the only way to bring silence is to ask for a comparison. Is there a player you can think of whos like what Bo wouldve been if he stayed healthy? Crickets. Its not just Stewart and Boles, either. I asked a handful of other baseball men for a comparable talent, and nobody had an answer. The awe. The wonder. The possibility. Nobody. Not before, or since.
Look at it like this, Boles tells me. Like you said, you were a kid and he was an icon to you. But he was like that to me, and I was a grown adult.