I've been thinking a lot about Bo Jackson lately, because every time I watch MLB.tv (i.e. every day), I see this commercial, and I die a little inside:
I don't begrudge Bo the chance to trade off of his name and his status as perhaps the greatest American athlete since Jim Thorpe, but to see that he needs an energy drink to finish 18 holes of golf just depresses the hell out of me. It's like watching an elderly Superman robotically talk about how he can leap two steps on a staircase in a single bound. Like a lot of you, Bo's short career(s) was (were) a major part of my childhood, and Bo just... I don't know... he just means something to me. Doesn't he mean something to you?
(Look, for the sake of continuing this article, I'm going to pretend we all answered an enthusiastic "yes" to my rhetorical question above. Everybody cool with that? Good.)
But what is it about Jackson that still speaks to us almost 20 years after he retired? In speaking with my friend, Carson Cistulli of FanGraphs, the other day, he mentioned how amazed he was how posts that he thought were tremendous were being dwarfed by a video of Bo throwing Mike Gallego out at third base in 1993:
It's clear that there is still a large proportion of baseball fans that yearns to see him perform miracles.
And what miracles they were. He was explosive, violent, strong, and blindingly fast. He could defy gravity and possessed one of the greatest outfield arms in the game. He was a superstar in two sports, in a fictional video game universe, in commercials, and on Saturday morning cartoons.
Bo was everywhere, and could do supposedly anything (except hockey), but of course it was mostly hype. He wasn't nearly as good at baseball as we all remember. By now, it's become standard to note that he rarely walked, posted low OBPs, struck out a ton, and had a much higher offensive burden from left field than he would have if he'd been in center. Both Fangraphs and Baseball Reference agree that he was worth around eight wins above replacement in eight seasons -- total, not each -- and that, at his peak, he was no more than a three to four win player.
But in a pre-Internet age where most fans couldn't seek out highlights, and instead only got video from the local news or on This Week In Baseball, Bo was the rare athlete who shone through the void. Fans were uniquely aware of the things he could do. And without an active writing community with the capability to dissect Jackson and his performance, and to distribute that analysis, most fans like me, especially when we were kids (Bo's peak hit right when I was 10-12 impressionable years old), relied on these imperfect sources. Bo Jackson was a god; didn't everyone say so? Didn't Mark McGwire say so? You don't question a god unless you want to be plagued with boils or have Richard Dawkins' book deals.
Of course, Bo also proves alluring because of the hip injury that ended his football career and severely shortened his time in baseball. We feel simultaneously cheated and incredibly fortunate for the short time we got to watch him. In The Dark Knight, Harvey Dent said "You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain," and that's really the case with Bo Jackson. The only decline phase we got to see was tinged with pathos, as we watched a broken man struggling to put his game back together -- and then he was gone at 31. Like a great marriage that ends in tragedy, we never fell out of love with Bo Jackson and so we feel the sting of his loss even decades later. Especially when we see him robotically recounting his love of energy drinks.
I often wonder if there's a comparable player in the game today, someone kids will look back on with a sense of uncomplicated nostalgia. Someone who's going to do a commercial in 20 years and make me incredibly sad. Felix Hernandez? Justin Verlander? Matt Harvey? Buster Posey? Matt Kemp? Mike Trout? Bryce Harper? All great candidates. But I feel badly even thinking about it, because so much of what made Bo Jackson memorable is rooted in how his career ended. Even if it makes them heroes, it's far more fun to watch them play and make new miracles than to watch the old ones over and over on YouTube. Gods, as it turns out, are overrated.