Over the past week, I was quietly light in my tweets and nonexistent on the blog as I wrapped up moving into my new home. This move, one I suspect will be the last for awhile, afforded me the opportunity to open some boxes that hadn’t been unpacked since I was 17 and moved away to college, and I was more than a little enthused to find my excitement for books stuffed with carefully placed baseball cards (many now more than 30 years old) and other random memorabilia had not waned, not even a little.
In fact, perhaps it has grown more recently as I search out ways to share my boyhood experience with my nephews who are becoming old enough to shape their own.
As I dug through and marveled at a little kid’s passionate patience to place thousands of cards in order by year and card company, then alphabetically by team and then player, I came across a plastic bin that housed what the adult me now appreciates more now — many copies of old Sports Illustrated magazines.
Years before Thursday meant drinking too much and skipping Friday classes at college, it meant a new SI showing up in the mail box. SI was the absolute pinnacle of sports coverage for me as it opened the window past my local print stories and gave me a breath of in-depth national air on broad topics, as well as providing some insight into how national people viewed my local teams and players.
It easily was my first extended lesson on perspective.
Sorting through the magazines (with the Kansas City Royals and Toronto Blue Jays serving as a little background noise), I came across Magic and Michael squaring off in the 1991 NBA Finals. Then, I found the November issue dedicated to Magic’s HIV announcement. George Brett’s 3000 hits issue now sits on one of my shelves, as do several newer copies I managed to keep, including Chase Daniel and Missouri earning the No. 1 ranking in college football, Mario’s miracle against Memphis and Zack Greinke’s crowning as a born-again phenom.
I also found several copies of SI that had fallen victim to a teenager’s want to decorate his bedroom walls one cover at a time. Gratefully, my poor decisions back then opened the way for me to see the April 1, 1991 “Point After” column, well before Rick Reilly was a household name.
Penned by longtime Boston Globe and SI senior writer Leigh Montville, “Ascending to a League of His Own” took a hard look at a sports world trying to figure out whether Bo Jackson was going to have a shot at taking care of unfinished business.
“He was promise as much as performance,” Montville wrote. “He was promoted as much as any one man ever had been. He was a package. He was versatility and invincibility. he was a real-life cartoon hero, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound if the cameras were pointed at a certain angle.
“Hurt? How could he be hurt? He was entertainer and leftfielder and running back. Product. What do you mean Bo Jackson can’t run anymore? What do you mean it’s over?”
We know how it turned out, of course. Essentially, it was over for Bo, who signed with the Chicago White Sox and appeared in 23 games for the club in the 1991 season. He would appear in only 160 more games over two years past that — one season apiece for Chicago in ’93 and then with the California Angels in ’94. And no, Bo couldn’t run anymore. He had just one stolen base over that time.
Time, ironically, has had time to kick enough sand and dirt over the end of Jackson’s career that many folks, even many die-hard Royals fans, don’t remember that those final two-plus seasons, in which Jackson managed to knock 32 home runs over 556 at-bats, likely were fueled by the Royals and owner Ewing Kauffman.
After Jackson swore Royals team doctor Steve Joyce to secrecy via patient confidentiality, the unknowing Royals gave their athletic phenom a one-year, $2.375 million contract. Once the full diagnosis was revealed, however, Kauffman almost immediately cut Jackson, paying him 1/6 of that deal. (The Royals replaced Jackson with Kirk Gibson, Jim Eisenreich and Gary Thurman.)
Bo knew bitter, telling the media a month after he was let go that it was a “personal vendetta of Mr. K” to cut him from the Royals. Considering it took weeks for the White Sox to sign him — after every team passed on the opportunity — it was hard to side with Bo, even though I’m one to naturally side with players in contract struggles with ownership.
However, 21 years after that episode, I found myself lost in thought over that spat on the same night Royals broadcaster Ryan Lefebvre discussed Alex Gordon’s writing “12″ on each of his batting gloves — his tribute to recently DFA’ed Mitch Maier.
Maier was the longest-tenured Royals player in the organization, and the club’s move to let him go was treated like a funeral. Players all lamented his dismissal. The broadcasters raved on Maier’s willingness to do whatever the club asked of him. He was an “organization guy.”
The statistical embodiment of below-average, he was a .248/.327/.344 guy who hit 10 homers and drove in 93 runs… since appearing in 5 games in 2006. From 2008 (Maier’s first full year in the League) through his dismissal prior to the July 4 game with the Blue Jays, the Royals were 314-413 (.432) overall. Still, the Royals found a regular precious place for him on the 25-man roster. When the Royals cut Bo, they were 261-250 with him in the lineup, 88-77 in games he wasn’t. (Yep, contrary to popular memory, Kansas City was actually better without him. Let your head explode on that one for awhile.)
The apples-and-oranges comparison here, of course, is that the move on Jackson was made once a significant injury had occurred whereas the Royals simply made a move to clear off a proven marginal player (even if the club’s hand was forced by the need for additional pitching).
But, that’s the problem.
The sinking feeling is that had Bo been a part of this organization now, faced with the same circumstances, he wouldn’t have been cut. He would have been coddled, rehabbed, hidden, not rushed back, and paid. There would have been talk of potential. There would have been talk of process. If he played right field, Jackson likely would have managed to block Wil Myers from making it to the big club. (Thankfully, we don’t have to worry about things like that…wait…)
There’s a chance he would struggle as nearly every rookie does, but Myers can’t make it to the Majors because the guy in front of him is hitting .256, has seven home runs, 21 total extra-base hits and 25 RBI in 79 games? (How much does leadership cost in KC? Yuniesky Betancourt has five more runs batted in than Jeff Francoeur does… in 38 fewer games.)
For as much work as has been done by the current Royals front office, a crucial piece still missing is urgency. Kansas City talks of this being a production-based business, but it took severe pitching woes and a bullpen merry-go-round to release Kansas City’s G.I. Joe kung-fu love grip on a player of Maier’s ability.
Wil Myers can’t find his way on the team, and for five-plus seasons, Maier couldn’t find his way off.
Comparing his career path to Jackson’s wasn’t something I expected when reading that old Montville piece, but even two decades later, the magazine again proved its ability to shine some national perspective on my current local team. It showed me if decisions like Maier are able to emotionally hamstring the Royals, unlike when the team was competitively viable, the mediocre road still may have a lot of miles left.