Commentary

Jackson's '89 blast turned pros into fans

Updated: July 12, 2010, 12:51 PM ET
By Mark Saxon | ESPNLosAngeles.com

JacksonAP Photo/Leonard IgnelziBo Jackson's first-inning home run off Rick Reuschel in the 1989 All-Star Game measured 448 feet.

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Mike Scioscia remembers the sense of fascination.

Bo Jackson's presence in Anaheim made Scioscia feel more like a fan than an All-Star 21 years ago. Like most of his teammates on that 1989 National League team, Scioscia had never gotten an in-person glimpse of Jackson. Interleague play was eight years away from being invented, so the Kansas City Royals outfielder was more of a legend than a flesh-and-blood reality.

"You saw him on some highlights and they talked about this guy all the time as just a special athlete, but we were anxious to see for ourselves," Scioscia said.

The last time the All-Star Game was played in Anaheim, it became a celebration of one of the greatest all-around athletes in modern times. At the time, no one knew how far Jackson could take it. As a football player, as a baseball player and as a celebrity.

Mark Gubicza was a teammate of Jackson's on the Royals and he was used to seeing the attention Jackson got. Nike's "Bo Knows" campaign was all over the airwaves. Gubicza watched future Hall of Famers like Dave Winfield and Don Mattingly looking at Jackson with awe that week. On the airplane ride to New York after the game, the pilots wandered back into first class to ask for Jackson's autograph.

"I was like, 'Wait a minute. Who's flying the plane?'" Gubicza said. "It was like going to a Rolling Stones concert and everybody wanting to hang around with Mick Jagger. That's what I always equate it to."

Jackson didn't disappoint that day in Orange County. Scioscia was in the left-field bullpen playing catch with Tony Pena when he heard the sound of Jackson's first-inning home run off Rick Reuschel. He glanced up to see the ball soaring toward the canopy beyond center field. To this day, Scioscia doesn't believe the measurement of 448 feet. He'd give it another 15 or 20 feet, easy.

"That ball he hit was legit," Scioscia said.

It wasn't just the home run, though that's what everyone seems to remember about the evening. Jackson also made a running grab of a Pedro Guerrero line drive to save a couple of runs. He was the MVP of the American League's 5-3 win and established himself as a legitimate baseball star.

Tommy Lasorda, the manager of the NL squad, remembers starting Reuschel because of his seniority. He wanted to reward Reuschel with a career moment. It turned into a moment, indeed.

"I thought the ball sounded like it was hit like a golf ball," Lasorda recalled. "That thing went way out to deep center field, like it was shot out of a cannon."

Said Vin Scully, who shared a broadcast booth with former President Ronald Reagan that evening, "It just sounded different, and it went forever."

Scully It just sounded different, and it went forever.

-- Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully, on Bo Jackson's All-Star homer

In Pine Bluffs, Ark., 13-year-old Torii Hunter watched that moment on TV. Tuesday, the Los Angeles Angels' center fielder plays in his fourth All-Star Game.

"In my era, Bo Jackson was the man. He was bigger than Deion," Hunter said.

What set Jackson apart from Deion Sanders was his strength, but don't underestimate his speed. Few people had ever seen a man that big who could run that fast. Gubicza remembers throwing a pitch in Boston that turned into a line drive to left-center field. He was resigned to backing up a base when he saw Jackson flashing into the picture out of the corner of his eye.

"He went flying through the air, truly like Superman, covered a ton of ground in the air and caught the ball," Gubicza said. "I'm looking at guys in the infield and they're looking at me like, 'He's not normal.'"

In the final analysis, Jackson's body was just as fallible as any other mortal's. Gubicza, now an Angels broadcaster, was at the Oakland Raiders playoff game in 1989 that ended Jackson's football career with a major hip injury. It wouldn't end his baseball career on the spot, but he would never be quite the same.

Gubicza accompanied Jackson's two little boys back to the car while Jackson struggled along on crutches.

[+] EnlargeScioscia
US Presswire"If you'd given him 15 years, he would have been something special," Mike Scioscia said of fellow 1989 All-Star Bo Jackson.

"He knew it was something bad, but he didn't anticipate that," Gubicza said.

The injury led to something called avascular necrosis and the deterioration of the cartilage and bone around his left hip joint. When the injury didn't respond to treatment, the Royals released him. Eventually, he needed an artificial hip.

When Jackson was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, he described football as his "hobby." He told Gubicza and others before the injury that he was thinking of giving up football. The injury would force him to give up the hobby and it would take the legs out from under his baseball career. After the injury, he became a part-time player for the Chicago White Sox and batted .228 before retiring after one season with the Angels in 1994.

Back in 1989, everyone still wondered how good he could become. He showed up in Anaheim with 21 home runs and 23 steals just a few months removed from having rushed for 580 yards for the Raiders. That 1989 season straddled a line in recent baseball history. The 1980s was an era of cavernous ballparks and athletic lineups. As the stadiums got smaller and players got bigger in the 1990s, athleticism played a smaller and smaller role in baseball.

Had Jackson stayed healthy and blossomed into the player people suspect he could have been, maybe that would have been different. Who knows? He hit 32 home runs and drove in 105 runs for the Kansas City Royals that year, but those numbers only suggested the force Jackson was becoming.

"It's obvious football took a toll on Bo. He was an incredible football player," Scioscia said. "As far as his baseball career, if you'd given him 15 years, he would have been something special."

Gubicza saw how susceptible Jackson was to high fastballs early in his career. He remembers him striking out in 10 straight at-bats one series, but he also saw him learning and growing from his mistakes. If he had given up football earlier, 1989 might have been only a taste of what he could have accomplished. Who knows? Not even Bo.

"When people tell me I could be the best athlete there is, I just let it go in one ear and out the other," Jackson said when his star was near its apex in 1990. "There is always somebody out there who is better than you are."

Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.

Mark Saxon

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.

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