Bo Knows Pain -- and Dismissal

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He always said he would make his choice when the time was right. But his prodigious athletic gifts and the rewards they brought made choosing between pro football and pro baseball difficult for Bo Jackson, 28. For four remarkable seasons he didn't have to: in winter he was a devastating running back for the Los Angeles Raiders, and in summer a power-hitting outfielder for the Kansas City Royals. Last season he became the first player ever selected for both the All-Star game and the Pro Bowl. But last week, when the Royals suddenly dropped him because of a serious injury to his hip in a football game two months earlier, the incredible career of the two-sport superstar seemed in grave jeopardy, and quite possibly at a premature end.

"Don't count me out," Jackson said at a press conference last week in Haines City, Fla., where the Royals were in spring training. But also don't count on him for at least a year. While physicians disagreed on whether he could ever recover from his injury, most agreed that he would be out of baseball and football for that long, if not longer, and that if he returned, he most probably would not regain peak form. In general, Jackson stayed mum about his plans. "I don't talk about football in the baseball season, and I don't talk about baseball in the football season," he said.

It will be an expensive hiatus. By letting Jackson go before March 20, the Royals were obligated to pay only $395,000 of his one-year, $2.3 million contract. His $1.6 million salary for the Raiders this year is not immediately at risk, but it will be if the effects of the injury persist. And a foreshortened sports career may truncate his higher-paying second job as the endorser of Diet Pepsi, AT&T and various sports medicines -- plus his starring role in Nike's "Bo Knows . . ." commercials. All that off-the-field effort brings in about $5 million a year.

Jackson's injury occurred during the A.F.C. semifinal play-off game between Los Angeles and Cincinnati when he twisted his leg trying to escape the tackle of a linebacker. After he was helped from the field, the injury was diagnosed as a left-hip fracture-dislocation. When another exam two weeks ago showed that Jackson's hip cartilage had deteriorated further, the Royals' team doctor pronounced the prognosis for Jackson's return "uncertain."

As shocking as Jackson's release was, it made sense -- and dollars -- for the Royals. Because Jackson's injury occurred on the gridiron, the Royals have a contractual right to release him. If the damage had occurred on a baseball diamond, the Royals would have had to pay his full salary. Royals general manager Herk Robinson said the team considered keeping Jackson on the disabled list, but that would have tied up more than $2 million with very little hope of a positive return on the investment this season.

Royals management had made no secret of its displeasure with the physical risks Jackson took moonlighting as a backfield star. Says Royals owner Ewing Kauffman: "It definitely was not best in the long run for Bo to play football. It destroyed potentially the best talent ever to put on a baseball uniform." Several major-league managers said they would never take a two- sport athlete, even one of Jackson's caliber, because of the risks of injury. New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner last week loudly announced that he wanted Jackson on his squad, but Steinbrenner is no longer allowed to speak for the team, and Yankees general manager Gene Michael said the "risk is just too great" to hire Jackson. At week's end, when no team had claimed him, Jackson became a free agent.

Bo's departure is the spectators' loss. In an era when less talented ballplayers pull down equally towering salaries and occasionally indulge in public temper tantrums, Jackson's grace and zeal on the playing field brought fans out in admiring droves. "When I'm playing, I'm relaxed," Jackson once said. "I'm like a fish in water." Fellow Royals star George Brett noted that fans fell out of the hot dog lines and hurried back to their seats when Jackson stepped to the plate. They were frequently gratified. In July 1988, he hit a blast off Boston's Oil Can Boyd that many said was the longest home run ever hit in Fenway Park. Last year Jackson hit a middling .272 and, despite missing 51 games, still led the Royals with 28 homers and 78 runs batted in.

One veteran American League team physician remarked that Jackson's stocky, heavily muscled physique was the only one that had made him gawk. But other players are bigger, stronger or faster, making the two-sport athlete a rare and endangered species. The only other active two-sport pro, Atlanta Falcons defensive back Deion Sanders, was dropped by the Yankees last season after several trips to the minors, but he has since been picked up by the Braves as an outfielder. There is an old sports dictum that Jackson should perhaps have studied with greater care: baseball pays more, and you get hit less.


CREDIT: TIME Diagram by Steve Hart

CAPTION: Bo Jackson's dislocated-hip injury has 3 elements, the first of which has probably healed.