Bo Knows Now

On MLB Network Monday evening, contemporaries Dan Plesac and John Smoltz opined that Bo Jackson could have been a Hall of Famer, at least a regular All-Star, had he committed to baseball.

Jackson produced a career wRC+ of 111 and 7.7 WAR over parts of eight major-league seasons, hardly the stuff of bronzed immortalization in Cooperstown. But had Jackson fully committed to the sport, what could he have been? What could he have done?

Who is going to bet against a guy who can scale a wall?

Or accomplish this ….

The Bessemer, Ala., native was drafted by the Yankees in the second round of the 1982 draft but elected to attend Auburn. He did many impressive things at Auburn, starring in track and football, winning a Heisman Trophy. But he also posted a 1.364 OPS as a junior. He was drafted by the Royals in the fourth round of the 1986 draft after being selected first overall in the NFL draft. Jackson said publicly he would not sign with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

And he didn’t sign.

Months after being drafted by the Royals, Jackson played 25 games in the majors in 1986. In 1987, he hit 22 homers and posted a .750 OPS with the Royals. In context – Jackson played only 53 minor-league games and 89 games in college – Jackson’s rookie numbers are remarkable.

The next year, Jackson was selected again in the NFL draft – this time in the seventh round – by the Raiders, who offered him a lucrative contract. From 1987 to 1990, Jackson split his time between the majors and the NFL. A football-related injury truncated his playing career.

Jackson was the subject of that conversation on the MLB Network because his name appeared in the news last week, as he made an interesting revelation: the star of Tecmo Bowl told USA Today’s Bob Nightengale he wished he had “never played football.”

“I wish I had known about all of those head injuries, but no one knew that. And the people that did know that, they wouldn’t tell anybody.

“The game has gotten so violent, so rough. We’re so much more educated on this CTE stuff (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), there’s no way I would ever allow my kids to play football today.

“Even though I love the sport, I’d smack them in the mouth if they said they wanted to play football. I’d tell them, ‘Play baseball, basketball, soccer, golf, just anything but football.’”

Jackson is arguably the country’s greatest living athlete, certainly one of them. And perhaps at a time when many parents are questioning whether they should allow their sons to play football, Jackson’s thoughts can be influential. He could perhaps become a de facto ambassador for baseball.

Growing the game at the youth and amateur levels, making baseball more inclusive, is one of MLB commissioner Rob Manfred’s priorities. He should be applauded for identifying the issue and trying to implement change. Manfred is behind the push to unify youth, amateur and professional baseball through One Baseball. Under Manfred, baseball has launched its Play Ball initiative.

Baseball has gone from a game of the masses at the youth and amateur levels to an activity reserved for the upper middle class. This is in part due to costs of equipment, travel ball, and private instruction. Expanding the participation base is not just about attracting future players, but future customers. Those that play the sport at a youth level are more likely to continue to follow it in adulthood.

Many have noted the advantages a major-league career has over one in football: guaranteed contracts, longer careers, and lower risk of severe injury.

But reaching the majors is another thing entirely.

Amateur athletes are in part incentivized to play basketball and football because Division I baseball generally offers only partial scholarships.

Baseball is a high-skill, high-repetition sport and acquiring those reps, and necessary equipment, can be expensive and prohibitive.

Early in my writing career, about a decade ago, I was reporting on a story about the decline of African-American participation in baseball for the Myrtle Beach (S.C.) Sun News.

I traveled to Georgetown, S.C., to investigate one of the most extreme examples, locally, of the trend at Carvers Bay High School. About three-quarters of the student population of the rural school on the coastal plain remains African-American, but that spring about 80% of the varsity baseball team was white. The school had a football tradition with NFL alumni, but the baseball team’s demographics spoke to baseball’s struggles at the grassroots level to attract African-American players.

A decade later, the demographic trends remain largely stagnant. According to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, 8.3% of players on Opening Day rosters last year were African-American. According to SABR, African-American participation in the majors peaked at 18.7% in 1981 and has generally declined since then, reaching as low a 7.1 % in 2009.

Last year Adam Jones called baseball a “a white man’s sport.”

In 2015, Andrew McCutchen wrote a piece for the Players Tribune about the challenges of playing the sport as a poor kid growing up in central Florida.

Only 2.9% of Division I baseball players in 2015 were African-American last year, according to the diversity study.

Reported Peter Gammons in his notebook last week:

“The U.S. Hockey team that last week beat Canada in the finals of the World Junior Championships had three African-American players, as many as last summer’s Team USA baseball team comprised of the best college players.”

Baseball is losing ground in all types of rural communities. Jordy Mercer’s high school in remote Taloga, Oklahoma, no longer sponsors baseball and its varsity field has become overgrown, which I reported for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in 2015. Mercer is white and from a middle-class background.

Of course, much has been written about the decline of African-American participation in the sport. What has changed in the last decade, though, is the knowledge of the dangers of participating in football, which has displaced baseball as the country’s most popular pro sport.

Baseball has its own youth participation issues according to an NFSH study of youths between 6 and 17, as baseball participation dropped 4.3% from 2009 to 2014. But tackle football participation declined 17.9%.

Bo knew football. Bo knew baseball. Bo knows what path he would choose today. But how does baseball compel the next Jackson to choose baseball?

Jackson’s words perhaps resonate with thousands of families. But if more and more parents are seeking sporting alternatives for their sons, baseball must present itself as a viable one. There’s much work to be done.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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5 years ago

Watched the 30 for 30 show (again) about Bo just last night. 220 pounds. Strong as an ox. Arm like the Grim Reaper and he ran the fastest 40 time ever in an NFL combine. I feel fortunate to have seen him play. We will never see anybody like him again. Thank God for baseball. Sad to say that football is a dying sport.

Joshua Millermember
5 years ago
Reply to  hanstone

Funny thing about the 30 for 30 is bo and his coaches acknowledged he didn’t really have much interest in practice, a great football player and a all star caliber baseball player without practicing, it was all just natural to him.

Warning Track Power
5 years ago
Reply to  Joshua Miller

To be fair to those that might misunderstand, part of Bo’s lack of interest in practicing was that he did so many things, practice had a higher opportunity cost for him than it did others, especially when he was a pro dual-sport athlete.

5 years ago

Sounded to me like track was Bo’s first love, at least for a while when he also played football and baseball… He must have known very early, regardless of the sport, with little or no preparation, he could show up and expect to do well, if not dominate.

Damon G.
5 years ago
Reply to  hanstone

The fastest 40 time is probably folklore. But, yeah, he was quick.

5 years ago
Reply to  Damon G.

Shouldn’t it be easy to figure out if it’s folklore or not? They should have his 40 time, to the tenth of a second. They should also have everybody else’s. Who had the lowest?

When we’re talking about how far Mickey Mantle hit a HR, that could be folklore. We don’t have exact numbers. But 40 time should be pretty exact.

Damon G.
5 years ago
Reply to  vivalajeter

The NFL Combine was not as formal as it is today back when Bo played, so its official records don’t go back that far.

Supposedly Bo ran his record-breaking 40 for some NFL scouts before track practice. He claims it was all legit, but it’s not part of any official record. In fact, based on Bo’s top times in official track and field events there is reason to be very skeptical of his claim.

The fastest official 40 time of the NFL Scouting Combine is Chris Johnson who ran 4.24 is 2006. However, there have been players who might have run faster for scouts in regional combines and pro days.

5 years ago
Reply to  Damon G.

Interesting, thanks for the clarification! (to you, as well as SpencerLB below).

5 years ago
Reply to  vivalajeter

The issue with the 4.12 record is that at the time of Jackson’s combine, the 40 was still timed by hand, which is pretty imprecise. His other 40 at the time was logged as 4.22, which is still BLAZING, but a tenth of a second is a relatively gigantic spread for one person’s 40s done at the same event. When you look at the athletes at the combine now and the 40s they post, a 4.12 from a 220lb guy, even one who’s undeniably a generational athlete, WITH the imprecise timing and the giant spread between that and his other time from that day, casts a lot of doubt on how true the 4.12 is. What is definitely true is this: he was fast as all get-out.

5 years ago
Reply to  Damon G.

Check this out! Bo on his actual 40 time. He says 4.13 recorded electronically.