In 1986, Bo Jackson came to Charlotte to play baseball.
It was a big story. Jackson was close to gaining mythical status already. He had won the Heisman Trophy at Auburn the year before as a tailback. Then he had spurned the Tampa Bay Buccaneers even though the woeful Bucs had made him the No. 1 overall draft choice of the 1986 NFL draft.
Instead, Bo had decided he was going to play baseball – turning down the Bucs’ $7 million contract offer to make $200,000 in his first year of baseball. The decision was a thunderclap in the world of sports. Remember, this was before Michael Jordan left the NBA to try baseball in the 1990s.
Think of what would have happened had Cam Newton decided in 2011 that – after the Panthers picked him No. 1 – he was going to go play minor-league baseball instead. That’s what this was like.
A couple of weeks into his minor-league career, Bo and the Memphis Chicks came to Charlotte for a four-game series with the Charlotte O’s. His every move was followed closely by a clutch of national and local media. The Observer’s Tom Sorensen – yes, my buddy worked for us back then, too – proclaimed in his column that “Jackson will be the city’s most publicized visitor since Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.”
OK, well ... maybe that’s not the best example of Jackson’s reach. More to the point: Jackson made both the covers of Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News that same week.
At first, Bo’s Charlotte appearance in July 1986 went badly.
Always prone to strikeouts, Jackson struck out four straight times in his first game against the O’s. “His batting average, which out of politeness wasn’t shown on the message board when he batted, dropped to .095,” reported The Charlotte Observer’s Stan Olson.
“I’m in a slump, but when it [success] comes, it’ll come big,” Bo promised the media after that game.
Bo was right. He eventually would see the road trip to Charlotte as a turning point. He hit his first professional home run during that series before a modest crowd of 2,164 – and broke his bat while doing so.
Yes, that is true. Broken-bat singles or pop flies are common, because when your bat breaks the ball doesn’t go very far. But Jackson swung so hard in one game he muscled the ball over the fence in left-center – a rare broken-bat home run.
After leaving Charlotte, Jackson and broken bats would go on to have a splendid, splintered history. He broke one over his thigh, snapping it in two like a twig, after striking out. And another time – at least this is the legend – he broke a bat when swinging as hard as he could at a pitch and missing it.
Yes, Bo was a comic-book hero, prone to all sorts of feats. He eventually would play both in the NFL and the major leagues at the same time and would make the all-star team in both. The Los Angeles Raiders re-drafted him in 1987 in the seventh round and allowed him to finish each baseball season before changing uniforms and going to run in the NFL.
In the late 1980s, he was the star of the Nike advertising “Bo Knows” campaign, pushing his profile even higher.
It all came crashing down, though, when Jackson got hurt in an NFL playoff game following the 1990 season. I actually covered that game in Los Angeles and saw the play – at the time, it didn’t look like a career-ender. But it resulted in Jackson having to get a hip replacement. He never played in the NFL again and was never the same in baseball.
But in 1986, Bo seemed to have it all, and few people in Charlotte had ever seen anything like him. The four-game series in Charlotte was played in a makeshift facility near uptown, because Crockett Park had burned down the year before. The setup wasn’t ideal. Temporary stands ringed the same site, and a five-foot chain-link fence ran parallel to the right-field foul line.
At 6-foot-1, 220 pounds and boasting sprinter’s speed, Jackson was playing right field in one of those games when he tried to chase down a towering fly ball that curved foul. Because of his momentum, he didn’t have time to stop before crashing into the fence.
So he jumped over it.
That was Bo 29 years ago – hitting broken-bat home runs, nonchalantly jumping five-foot fences in a single bound and expanding the boundaries of what seemed possible. His career didn’t ultimately last that long, but what a delight it was.
Oddly enough, Jackson was back in Charlotte Friday night, playing in Cam Newton’s charity kickball tournament. He’s 52 now, not 23 like he was in 1986. But he still has a presence about him. He’s still Bo.