Everybody needs a hobby. Personally, I've decided to cap oil-well fires in my offseason; Red Adair looks rusty to me. Criminal law and brain surgery were possibilities for a while, but I've decided I want a challenge. If Buckeroo Banzai can be a secret agent, nuclear scientist, astronaut, punk rock musician and time traveler, well, how tough can these multiple careers be? So what if ol' Buckeroo's only a movie character. Bo Jackson and I know that life merely imitates art -- that is, once the right superperson comes along.
The first time Dexter Manley meets Jackson in the backfield, I'm rooting for the field mike. "Yo, Bo, let me help you put your head back on. Say, how's the hobby coming? It won't hurt your batting stroke if I tear off these two fingers, will it?"
If NFL defenders have anything to say about it, Bo's new hobby will be collecting stumps. Last weekend, Jackson compared playing NFL running back to "hunting or fishing" after his baseball season is over. Hunting what, aliens? Here comes Lawrence Taylor now: "Nibble, nibble, just think of me as a little guppie."
Actually, some of us suspect that Jackson has bitten off less than he can chew. Anybody who thinks that he can hit home runs all summer for the Kansas City Royals, then score touchdowns all winter for the Los Angeles Raiders, is obviously a big thinker. So why not go the whole nine yards? The National Security Council must have openings. The Democratic presidential nomination looks available. The election isn't until November so, even if the Royals were in the Series, he'd have almost two weeks to campaign. Besides, Jackson could think of politics as just a hobby. If elected, there'd still be plenty of time to decide then whether to keep playing left field for the Royals or become the chief executive.
When Jackson announced last Saturday that he would sign a contract and play for the Raiders as soon as the Kansas City season is over, the least surprised people at the shockeroo were Jackson's Royals teammates. They have long known where to find a donor if any of them need an ego transplant; Bo's got a spare. When Jackson first showed up last season, he shook hands with the Royals before heading to Memphis in AA ball. The next week, in the mail, George Brett and others got autographed pictures of Bo in his Heisman Trophy-winning football uniform at Auburn. Brett kept the photo above his locker a long time. Too priceless to forget.
All snickering aside, Jackson's decision makes plenty of sense. Bo is right. Compared with baseball, football really is just a hobby.
Ask Jay Schroeder, who was an unsuccessful minor leaguer with the Toronto Blue Jays' organization before becoming a star quarterback with the Redskins. Ask Tom Brown who bombed out with the Washington Senators before starting in the Super Bowl for Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers. Ask John Elway, who chose the Denver Broncos over playing outfield for the New York Yankees. Even ask Danny Ainge, who couldn't hit big league pitching, but has started for the Boston Celtics. Magic Johnson's hook shot never scared him half as much as Jack Morris' forkball.
Sport's history has plenty of examples of baseball failures who then excelled in other sports. However, has any multisport college star ever failed at pro football, then become a baseball standout? I can't think of an example. Vince Coleman of the St. Louis Cardinals failed one tryout with the Redskins as a punter. But he'd never seriously focused on football, so it's a bogus illustration.
Hitting a baseball, as Ted Williams always said, really is the hardest act in sports. Not the best or most exciting or most graceful. Just the hardest.
No job in team sports demands such psychological resiliency, such determination in the face of repeated failure and such stubborn self-confidence in the face of frustration and bad luck. To fail completely 70 percent of the time (or more) and keep coming back is a special type of athletic character. No, not the only kind, or even the best kind. But an important kind. To be a great baseball player, you need a little humility.
And that, to be blunt, is why Bo Jackson is heading for the door. If he has any significant success in cleats, you'll never see him back in spikes. This is a man looking for a way out -- without burning his bridges (or his $1 million contract with the Royals).
This season, Jackson has had as much trouble hitting a ball with a bat than just about any player in the history of big league baseball. By a clear margin. Jackson makes less contact with the ball less often than any regular player ever.
The all-time strikeout record is 189 by Bobby Bonds in 1970. This year, in his first 277 at bats, Jackson struck out 112 times. That's a 213-whiff pace. Chances are that the only record-that-may-never-be-broken that will bear Jackson's name is the strikeout mark. If he can stay in the lineup.
Because Jackson has 18 home runs (six of them very early in the year), many think that Jackson has been pretty successful. That's deceptive. In this year of home runs, that only ranks him 25th in baseball. His total of 45 RBI, although decent, is 60th best.
Considering his 53-game minor league "career," Jackson is making fine progress. His embarrassing flaws -- in the outfield and on the bases -- would presumably decrease with time, just as he would learn to adjust better to the fastballs up and in and the curves away that he now misses by half a foot.
The problem is that Jackson does not see it that way. You could hardly concoct a tougher adjustment in sports than from running back to batter. How often did O.J. Simpson or Jim Brown get criticized? If they're held to 40 yards rushing, then the linemen get blamed. Once in a blue moon, a great runner fumbles twice in a game.
In football, Jackson barely experienced personal failure. But what he's enduring now is unique and it's wearing him down emotionally. Night after night, he leaves runners on base or gets turned inside out by some fat old pitcher. Embarrassment is everywhere.
"Bo is really fairly modest," Royals GM John Schuerholz says, "for someone who's been a superstar every day since he was 8 years old."
A great footballer often finds a superiority complex useful. But for a baseballer it's enormous extra baggage.
As far back as two months ago when Jackson hit his first bad slump, Brett said, "I don't know what's wrong with Bo but he doesn't look to me like he comes ready to play every night. You can't let the failures grind you down. He's letting the game get to him."
For now, it looks like it's got him.