Reggie turns 40. Well, let’s see. What might the New York tabloids do with that one? MR. OCTOBER HITS HIS SEPTEMBER JAX TO OLD AGE: DROP DEAD! REG SEZ: I’M NOT OLDER, I’M BETTER
That last one might be a bit too tame for the Big Apple. But it rings true. Jackson, who is now, of course, a California Angel, not a New York Yankee, celebrates his 40th birthday today in the middle of a surprisingly fine season: a .323 batting average, with seven home runs and 17 RBIs as a designated hitter. Last week, Jackson passed Mickey Mantle for sixth place on the all-time home run list with 537.
Surprise. And no surprise. For Jackson has always done the most when he felt the wall against his back. Mostly, he hits home runs. He once took a pitch in the face in Baltimore, sat out five days, then hit a homer in his first return at-bat. He hit three in three swings to clinch the seventh game of the 1977 World Series — and be forever christened Mr. October. Easy things bore him. He admits it. But knock the chip off his shoulder, and watch out.
So we could have seen this season coming when, over the winter, the Angels told him they didn’t want him anymore. Too old, they said. Hmph. Why not just wave a red flag at El Toro? Jackson took two inches off his waist, started doing 700 sit-ups every other day, went down to spring training and came out swinging. “Why are you still playing?” someone asked him recently.
“I have miles to go before I sleep,” he answered. “I’m not finished yet. I’m not done yet. I haven’t quite reached the end. I don’t want to wring the rag out. I haven’t quite made my total statement. The thesis isn’t done . .
Well. OK. What did you expect? This is, after all, Reggie Jackson we’re talking to here, the eternal spotlight man, and for all the time he’s been around, for all the home runs and World Series, for all the fireworks in Oakland and New York, for all the video recorders and colognes he has sold us, I still don’t think we’ve fully figured the guy out. Maybe he’s sticking around the ballpark until we get it right. Or maybe there’s no place else for him to go.
He gets there four hours early these days. For extra batting practice. On Friday he traded cage time with Wally Joyner, the Angels’ rookie who’s off to a blazing start. In the clubhouse earlier, Jackson had lectured Joyner on the joys of Tiger Stadium, which Joyner was playing in for the first time.
“This is a real park,” Jackson said. “It has tradition.” Joyner looked on, wide-eyed. It was a nice scene. Veteran. Rookie. And after they took their swings, Jackson sat down on a stool next to the dugout, a man of tradition in a park of tradition, discussing the headline of the weekend.
Reggie turns 40.
“Yes, there are certain things I can’t do anymore,” he said. “Last week I hit a long ball to right-center field. I came around first and all the instincts were there to go for a sliding double. But I didn’t. I rounded the bag wide and slowed down. Held to a single.”
He paused. He still has those chipmunk features, still wears the glasses, still has an upper torso the size of a Buick. His hair is thinning on top, but typically, it is forming a crown on his head.
Reggie turns 40.
There are those who may wonder why any ball player’s 40th birthday should be noteworthy, what with all the athletes now playing beyond that. But I think this one means something. And here is why:
The Ty Cobbs and Babe Ruths and Mickey Mantles played a different baseball, a simpler baseball, before sports celebrity included sneaker endorsements and guest spots on “Diff’rent Strokes.” It was a different era. It was not this era.
Reggie Jackson was in on the ground floor of this era, of what we now reflexively call superstardom. TV commercials. Daily headlines. Free agency millions. Paparazzi flashbulbs. Candy bars. It may be old hat now. But Jackson caught the wave right at its crest and rode that sucker all the way in to shore.
How much of Reggie is huff and how much is puff, I’m not quite sure. But if today, he has reached some landmark of middle age, then in a certain fashion, so has baseball fandom. Put a candle on the cake for John Q. Public. In a lot of ways, we’ve made Reggie what he is.
And what is that? Well, one part, undeniably, is the baseball player. No one hit those 537 home runs for him. Yet for all those dingers (as he likes to call them), for all the shots off light towers and over the walls and into the parking lots, there are those who downplay Jackson’s baseball talent.
“Reggie Jackson is an average player,” Jim Palmer once said.
“A total phony,” said former Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee.
Critics point to his lifetime .264 batting average. But playing numbers against Jackson is a losing game. He hit more home runs in his first 14 full seasons than any man in baseball (424 from 1968 to 1981). And his teams have won 10 division titles and five world championships — with him almost always the cleanup hitter. You can’t call that coincidence.
So why the criticism? This is why. For too many, Jackson’s personality was like sandpaper rubbed against an open wound. He was abrasive, outspoken and then suddenly humble, and it all played itself out in front of cameras and tape recorders. “I would not,” Jackson admits, “be what I am today without the media attention.” But it was always a chicken-or-the-egg thing — did the things Jackson did bring him attention, or did getting the attention lead him to the things he did?
Whatever. The encounters came. And there were some doozies. Jackson ticked people off. And he was belligerent when they came back after him.
“Superstar, my ass,” Dick Williams once mumbled while he was with Oakland.
“Hey, man, who the bleep are you to talk to me like that,” Jackson said to his manager. “I remember when you played, you didn’t do bleep.”
To his manager?
Why not? Jackson has, at one point or another, gone toe- to-toe with George Steinbrenner, Billy Martin, the IRS, a Manhattan gunman, Charlie Finley, every decent pitcher in the American League, the New York Times, Graig Nettles, SPORT magazine, the Minnesota Twins, and just last month, a Milwaukee bar patron, who is now suing him for six figures.
Reggie turns 40.
The excitement never ends.
“That Milwaukee incident,” he said Friday, “has really soured me. Just the way it was blown out of proportion. It was a grandstand play. If I was just a regular guy who worked a 40- hour week, they wouldn’t be seeking $150,000 damages for grabbing a guy by the shirt. That’s gonna hold me back for a long time.”
Jackson already refuses to go out in public alone. Nor does he sign autographs in public. When asked what he has sacrificed to be in the game of baseball, he says, “I’ve never really been married (there was one brief attempt at it when he was much younger), never had any kids, never really have the time to spend with friends. No carefree, leisure time. I’ve sacrificed that.”
That is quite a lot. And yet, he’ll receive no sympathy from many contemporaries. They’ll argue that there’s no room in Jackson’s life for anyone else, that it is a bright spotlight that falls on him, but a deliberately narrow one.
And they are probably correct. Jackson’s biggest fault over the years has been the transparency of the legend he is trying to manufacture. He wants to appear intelligent yet tough, bold yet humble, the hero yet the villain. He wants to keep the faucet of attention flowing over his head. His sin is he lets it show.
On Friday, for example, after nearly an hour of questions on Reggie Turns 40, a reporter asked Jackson about Wally Joyner. Reggie replied, “That’s not really on the subject we were discussing,” and turned to the next question. The subject he was discussing, of course, was himself, and while others might have felt too self-conscious to shrug off a question about a teammate, this man was not. Reggie Jackson has always been a worthy enough subject for Reggie
When you interview him, you are not unpeeling a quiet hero from layers of humble skin. More often you are simply a witness to an unveiling; as if Jackson were simply painted in Day-Glo colors and decided there was no point in hiding it.
“I’m the straw that stirs the drink,” he was once quoted as saying, although he denies it. Doesn’t matter. He has reached that vaulted status in America where one name is enough. Elvis. Pele. Reggie.
Call him Mr. Big.
And Mr. Alone. Because he spins in his own galaxy, none of us really knows what goes on inside Reggie Jackson, the highs or lows. During that early batting practice on Friday, his hits stayed conspicuously inside the ballpark. Doubles and singles stuff. He then leaned behind the cage, his chin resting on his forearms, and stood alone as he watched Joyner stroke ball after ball into the seats. The stadium was empty. A cool wind blew a wax wrapper across the field. The scene had an autumn feel to it and it was hard not to sense that Jackson’s thoughts, as he watched this kid nearly half his age, were not at least tinged with mortality.
Reggie turns 40. For today that’s the story. And after this, of course, the inevitable next story: How much longer?
“I don’t know,” Jackson said. “Physically I think I could play three more years (he is, indeed, in excellent shape, if looks are any indication). But mentally, I just don’t know. This could be my last year.”
“Which team should retire your number?” he was asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Oakland feels the most like home. The New York fans, I think, understand me the best. And California gave me a chance. It’s hard to say.”
“The Hall of Fame?” someone asked.
“I think I’ll get in,” he said, “but I don’t know about the first ballot. I’ve hit a lot of my home runs as a designated hitter and there may be guys who I’ve offended with things I’ve said over the years.”
True. But if you take away points for Jackson’s bombastic ego, give him credit for never popping up in stories about cocaine, or gambling, or prostitution busts. For a guy who has played most of his career in New York and California, that’s something.
“I’m pretty much a loner,” he said. “People have this image of me as a guy who’s uncaring and selfish, very into himself. I get that image by never throwing my helmet, by always running to my position, by rarely arguing with umpires. Yet, people say, there’s a guy who doesn’t care.”
“Can you change what people think of you anymore?” he was asked.
“No,” he said quietly. “I don’t think so.”
The thought occurred that we may ultimately come to admire Reggie Jackson for surviving the very storms he created.
But OK. Say what you want about Reggie — he’s still the only baseball player I know to have his own candy bar. There is still no one in the game quite like him. Eddie Murray? Dale Murphy? Mike Schmidt? Sure, they put balls into the seats. But there are no brass bands playing when they land. That is the difference.
So yes, Reggie is unique, and yet, what he started has now become commonplace. The superstar status, the no-such-thing-as- overexposure that has touched players such as Goose Gossage, Pete Rose, Steve Garvey, Fernando Valenzuela, and Kirk Gibson, was really birthed with Reggie. That’s neither good nor bad. It just is. Today is its anniversary. And there may be a few more.
Back in the clubhouse on Friday, Joyner was listening to Jackson talk about coming to the park early.
“When I was a young man,” Reggie said, “I used to come out here just for the joy of hitting in this park. Now, I have to come out four hours early just to stay in shape. This old body gets rusty very fast.”
Joyner laughed. “It’s not old, Reggie,” he said, “it’s just . . . been around.”
Been around and back. Forty years today. “JAX TO OLD AGE: DROP DEAD!” Mr. Big goes on.
Reggie Jackson’s career at a glance
Reggie’s fast facts
* BACKGROUND: Born May 18, 1946, in Wyncote, Pa. . . . 6 feet, 206 pounds .
. . throws left, bats left.
* HIGHLIGHTS: Holds major league records for: most strikeouts lifetime, 2,835
(at end of ’85 season); most years (17) 100 or more strikeouts; most consecutive years (13) 100 or more strikeouts; most strikeouts season (171) for left-handed batter. Tied American League record for most years leading in errors, outfielder (5). Led AL in homers (32) and RBIs (117) with Oakland in 1973. Tied for AL homer lead with Oakland in 1975 (36), with New York in 1980
(41), with California in 1982 (39). Major league and AL player of the year and AL MVP with Oakland in 1973. Holds playoff record with 10 series played. Holds World Series record for most homers (7) two consecutive years (1977-78). Has 10 World Series home runs in five series.
* TRANSACTIONS: Selected by the Kansas City (later Oakland) A’s on first round, June 1966; traded to Baltimore, April 1976; signed with Yankees as free agent, November 1976; signed with California Angels as free agent, January 1982.
The ups and downs
A look at Jackson’s highs and lows: CATEGORY HIGHS LOWS RBIs 118 (1969) 49 (1983 Home runs 47 (1969) 14 (1983)
Average .300 (1980) .194 (1983) Hits 157 (1971) 77 (1983) Errors 13 (1977) 0 (1984) * Strikeouts 161 (1971) 105 (1974) *
Comparisons do not include 1967, when he was called up from minors and played 35 games for the Kansas City A’s, and 1981, the strike season.
* Designated hitter 134 games, outfield 3 games.
Homers vs. age
Jackson hit more homers than age in:
YEAR AGE HR 1968 22 29 1969 23 47 1971 25 32 1973 27 32 1974 28 29 1975 29 36 1977 31 32 1980 34 41 1982 36 39
Home run leaders 1. Hank Aaron 755 2. Babe Ruth 714 3. Willie Mays 660 4. Frank Robinson 586 5. Harmon Killebrew 573 6 Reggie Jackson-x 537 7. Mickey Mantle 536 8. Jimmy Foxx 534 9. Ted Williams 521
(tie) Willie McCovey 521 11. Eddie Mathews 512
(tie) Ernie Banks 512 13. Mel Ott 511 14. Lou Gehrig 493 15. Stan Musial 475
(tie) Willie Stargell 475 x-active CUTLINE Reggie Jackson: “I have miles to go before I sleep.”