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Royals await return of new, improved Bo Jackson; 'bye to Billy

The river of power that surges through Bo Jackson's arms and legs makes him a home run hitter for the Kansas City Royals and a runner of distinction for pro football's Los Angeles Raiders. Jackson, according to Kansas City manager John Wathan, was about to cash in on his talents as one of the best young ballplayers in the American League when he was sidelined a month ago with leg injuries. Bo was hitting .309 with 9 home runs and 30 RBIs, had 14 stolen bases, and led the league with 9 outfield assists.

``Jackson was right on the threshold of permanent stardom, when it happened,'' Wathan told me. ``I mean he had it all together.''

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Even with Jackson out of action, the third-place Royals have stayed within striking distance of Oakland and Minnesota in the American League West. Now they are eagerly awaiting his return, targeted for sometime after the July 12 All-Star break, in hopes that he can help them mount a challenge for division honors.

Bo's hot bat this spring was more than anyone could reasonably have expected after a rookie season in which he showed good power but struck out at an alarming rate.

``When Bo went to spring training with us this year he didn't have a job,'' noted Wathan. ``He had to make a place for himself on this ball club.

``Well, he did. He had a terrific spring and at the time he got hurt he was swinging the bat as well as anyone in the league [a .389 batting average over his last 18 games]. In fact, I've never seen anyone learn so fast. Remember, when Jackson first came up he had a lot of bad habits as a hitter, because he played in only 89 games in college. He was putting all his attention on football.''

Football, of course, was Bo's No. 1 sport then - and the one that made him famous. He was an All-America tailback and Heisman Trophy winner at Auburn, and the top overall pick in the 1986 National Football League draft. But to the surprise of most observers, he opted for baseball and signed with Kansas City.

In 1987, Jackson's first full season with the Royals, he hit 22 homers but also struck out 158 times in 116 games.

``Bo wasn't what you'd call disciplined,'' Wathan said. ``Actually he didn't know much about the strike zone. He liked high pitches that were even above the letters on his uniform, balls that nobody can hit. He'd swing at pitches like that almost every time. And the pitchers up here aren't dumb, they'll throw high to a hitter just as long as they keep getting him out.

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``Personally, I don't mind how often a hitter strikes out as long as he's driving in runs. Even though Jackson's strikeout totals were higher than usual, we could live with that situation. Anyway, that's not what we were pressing him about. The thing we wanted him to work on was how to adjust to opposing pitchers.

``At the time Bo was injured, he was doing that. He was also one of the league leaders in home runs and RBIs and we think he would have just kept getting better. It probably won't be easy on him when he comes back, but he'll overcome it because of his talent.''

Jackson angered some teammates when he decided to try playing both sports and signed with the Raiders last fall, but Wathan's reaction was primarily one of disappointment.

``Bo would be better off not playing pro football,'' he said. ``The wrong kind of football injury could ruin his baseball career. But if he doesn't get hurt, the only damage I can see is that it is going to take him longer to achieve his true potential in baseball. Trying to play two pro sports whose seasons overlap is tough''

Jackson is an exceptional athlete, though - and so far the results seem to justify his attempt. Although he didn't join the Raiders until several weeks into the regular season, he was a starter in five of the seven games he did play before injuries forced him to miss the last two weeks of the schedule. His best game came on Nov. 30, when he rushed for a Raider record 221 yards on 18 carries, including a spectacular 91-yard touchdown run against the Seattle Seahawks. Martin out again in New York

Although the New York Yankees were fighting a slump when it happened, the team was still 12 games over .500 when owner George Steinbrenner fired Billy Martin last week for the fifth time in a period of 11 years. In fact, the Yankees under Martin had winning records both at home and on the road this year.

Steinbrenner's decision apparently was based on two things: (1) the erratic way Martin had been handling his pitching staff, using starters as relievers and vice versa; and (2) Billy's alleged ongoing health problems.

Lou Piniella, who had said he would never manage for Steinbrenner again, reversed himself after the owner reportedly made several unannounced concessions that increased Lou's authority. Piniella had been serving as the team's general manager. How a hitter tapers off

Rick Monday, a hard-hitting outfielder for several teams in a 19-year big league career, explains what it's like when a hitter is nearing the end of his career.

``No good hitter ever wants to admit to himself that he can't go up to the plate and rip a pitcher anymore,'' Monday, now a TV sportscaster in Los Angeles, told me. ``In fact, anything less than complete confidence in your ability to hit the ball can lead to disaster.

``What happens late in your career is this: Home plate stays the same but the effectiveness of your personal strike zone begins to shrink. Suddenly pitches you used to hit with ease, you can't handle anymore. You're not exactly through, because if a pitcher makes a mistake, you might still hit that mistake occasionally for a home run, but you definitely know you've lost something.'' Elsewhere in the majors

The San Diego Padres could be the next stop for Chuck Tanner, the eternal optimist who was replaced a few weeks ago as manager of the Atlanta Braves by Russ Nixon. Tanner and general manager Bobby Cox had different ideas of how a team should be run on the field.

Max Patkin, the Clown Prince of Baseball, whose Silly Putty body has been entertaining fans (mostly in minor league parks) for 47 years, gets to do two of his most popular routines in a new movie entitled ``Bull Durham.'' The picture features Tom Robbins as a hotshot rookie pitcher on the way up and Kevin Costner as a veteran catcher on the way down.

From broadcaster Joe Garagiola on domed stadiums: ``How can you hit inside a dome when you grew up listening to your mother tell you not to play ball in the house?''

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