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Bo Jackson “would never have played football” if he knew about head injuries

What could Bo have done in his Royals career?

Kansas City Royals Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Bo Jackson was probably the biggest superstar in Royals history, bigger than even George Brett, simply because of the hype surrounding his phenomenal athletic prowess. And the two-sport star lived up to a lot of the hype. As a basebal player, Bo was incomplete, but still capable of doing some of the most amazing things anyone has ever seen on a baseball field. Throwing out runners at home plate from the warning track. Hitting home runs that landed on the top of the grassy knoll at Royals Stadium. Beating out routing ground balls to second. Climbing up walls.

But it was Bo’s “hobby” - football - that really made him a star. Bo won the 1985 Heisman Trophy at Auburn, and after spurning the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, signed with the Los Angeles Raiders where he would play after his Royals season was over. It was that hobby, however, that cut his athletic career short, after he dislocated his hip after a tackle against the Bengals in 1991.

With more information available about the long-term dangers of playing football, Bo’s attitude towards the sport has changed. In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Bo had this to say.

“If I knew now what I had known back then,’’ Jackson said. “I would have never played football. Never. 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 long-term effects of brain damage caused by football have become more publicly known the last few years with many players deciding to voluntarily retire earlier. Bo played 38 NFL games over four seasons, rushing for 2,782 yards.

This new revelation is enough for Royals fans to wonder - what if Bo had never played football? He would have had time to devote himself to baseball all year, making himself available to play winter league ball to refine his skills as he was developing. And he certainly would not have been released in 1991 after his hip dislocation. What would Bo’s career have looked like?

There are some that feel that had Bo dedicated himself to baseball full-time, he might have been a more polished player. But I’m not certain that’s true. Bo was already a fairly polished baseball player, having played in the best collegiate baseball conference in American, the SEC. He began his pro career in AA, not exactly where raw players go, and he performed well. The Royals brought him up after just 53 career minor league games. In 1987, the plan was to have Kevin Seitzer start in left field, but Bo’s performance in spring training forced their hand and they gave him the starting job.

In other words, I think it is fair to say that Bo was what he was always going to be - a low-average, high-strikeout, immense power and speed player. He might have improved defensively - especially if he had a coach like Rusty Kuntz to tutor him. Despite his amazing speed and arm, Bo rated as a very poor defensive player by advanced metrics. But offensively, he wasn’t likely going to improve his plate discipline much at the professional level.

What, then, would Bo have been had he continued with the Royals past 1990? His last season with the Royals was his best by Wins Above Replacement, according to Fangraphs, with 3.1 WAR. He did show significant improvement that year in improving his walk rate and cutting down on his strikeout rate, and he posted a career high ISO of .252. He even improved his defense enough that year to be passable, rather than awful.

He was 29 years old heading into the 1991 season and in the prime of his career. Based on his 1989-1990 seasons, he looks like he would have continued to put up solid 2-3 WAR seasons hitting around .260/.320/.500 with 25-30 home run power.

Bo would have been eligible for free agency after the 1992 season, and his future with the Royals at that point would have been unclear. The 1993 Royals had the eighth-highest payroll in baseball, having splurged on big free agents like David Cone, Wally Joyner, and Greg Gagne. Perhaps the Royals could have offered a very competitive offer. Bo did seem to appreciate the Royals for taking a chance on him. Or maybe Bo would have sought a bigger media market to play in. We’ll never really know.

As a player, Bo would have continued his career in the silly ball era, when home runs skyrocketed around the league. And not just for suspected PED users either, home runs went up for all sorts of sluggers around baseball, which would have allowed Bo to hit 40 or more home runs in a season.

Would Bo have been a Baseball Hall of Famer? Almost certainly not. He did get a late start to his career, not debuting til age 26. He was a career .250 hitter, something that wasn’t likely to improve much. I think he probably would have retired from baseball with a career similar to that of Dave Kingman, who hit 442 career home runs, but hit .236 and struck out 24% of the time. Baseball-Reference lists his most similar player by age to Greg Vaughn, who hit 355 home runs, but hit .242. But he still could have provided us years and years of highlight reel plays we were deprived of.

What do you think? How does the Bo Jackson story play out differently if he never plays football?