Thursday, September 29, 2011

"As Good as It Gets"

     Bo Jackson’s role as a glib celebrity pitchman in countless TV commercials tended to make people forget that he was not a cartoon character but a shy, modest man who was grateful for the gifts nature had given him. Jackson was an All-Star in both the NFL and Major League Baseball—a unique achievement—until a 1991 football injury left him with an artificial hip.
     His career seemed to be over, and when Jackson appeared at the White Sox’ spring training camp in 1993, few observers gave him much of a chance to make the team. “I have a little hitch in my giddy-up,” Jackson admitted, but he had put himself through a tortuous rehab program and claimed to be getting better every day. Jackson made the team, thus fulfilling a promise made at his mother’s deathbed several months before.
     Jackson’s first at-bat of the year (and first in 18 months) came in the home opener at new Comiskey Park on April 9. He belted the second pitch he saw over the right-field wall for a home run. The crowd of 42,775 went wild, calling him out of the dugout after he had circled the bases. “The only thing I could think of at that time was my mother,” Jackson said after the game. “I made myself a promise after she passed that when I got back in the game and got my first hit, I was going to give that ball to her.” He had the ball bronzed, inscribed, and affixed to his mother’s tombstone.
     Although the Sox lost to the Yankees, it was a stirring start to what would prove a storybook season on the South Side. After a listless three months in which they flirted with the .500 mark, the Sox stormed through the second half to open up a comfortable lead over the Texas Rangers heading down the stretch. First baseman Frank Thomas, Jackson’s football teammate at Auburn University, was having the greatest offensive season in White Sox history and would soon receive the first of back-to-back MVP awards.
     By September 27, the White Sox were poised to clinch the American League West title. On this crisp Monday evening, the Sox’ Wilson Alvarez and Seattle’s Dave Fleming dueled through five and a half scoreless innings. In the bottom of the sixth, Ellis Burks led off with a single. Craig Grebeck followed with a bunt single, and the crowd of 42,116 began to stir. But Fleming settled down and retired the next two Sox hitters. Then Jackson stepped into the batter’s box. Sensing the dramatic possibilities, the fans came to their feet cheering and waving a sea of white socks over their heads. Fleming approached Bo carefully, and the count went to 3-and-0. Given the green light, Jackson swung at the next offering and hit a sky-high drive to left field.
     “I thought it was a pop-up,” Jackson said. But the ball kept soaring up and out, up and out, until it finally landed beyond the wall for a three-run homer. “It was amazing,” said the Sox’ Lance Johnson. “I thought Bo missed it and popped it up, but the left fielder went back, back, back until he just ran out of real estate.”
     “That,” Seattle manager Lou Piniella said, “is one strong man.”
     Bo’s blow gave the Sox a lead they never relinquished as they won 4-2 to wrap up the division title. It was a miracle finish not only for Jackson, but also for Alvarez, who had returned from the minors in August to win his last seven starts.
     After the game, the champagne-soaked Jackson went back out to the field to thank Sox fans for their support. Few had left, although the game had been over for half an hour. Jackson jogged around the field, waving a white sock of his own at the delirious fans. “This is as good as it gets,” he said. “The most fun I’ve had as a professional athlete.”

Reprinted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c) by Christopher Tabbert.

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