Reggie turns 40. Well, now. Let’s see. What might the New York tabloids do with that one?

MR. OCTOBER HITS HIS SEPTEMBER 40 CANDLES FOR A BLOWHARD

JAX TO OLD AGE: DROP DEAD!

REGGIE: OLDER OR 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. 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. He once took a pitch in the face in Baltimore, sat out five days, then hit a home run in his first return at-bat. When the 1977 World Series reached the seventh game, he hit three home runs in three consecutive swings to win the thing for the Yankees — and was forever christened Mr. October. Easy things bore him. 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. Too old, they said. 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.

“I have miles to go before I sleep,” he says now, when asked why he’s still playing. “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. I’m not finished the composition. 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 fireworks in Oakland and New York, for all the video recorders and colognes he’s sold us, I still don’t think we’ve fully figured the guy out. Maybe he’s sticking around until we get it right. Maybe he’s sticking around for history.

Maybe he’s sticking around because there is no other stage as well suited to him as the ballpark.

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,” he said. “It has tradition.” It was a nice scene. Veteran. Rookie. Now, after 50 or 60 swings, Jackson was sitting 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. The instincts are there. But some things I just can’t do.”

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 the game 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 unthinkingly 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. He was a pioneer of sorts, bat on his shoulder and celebrity in his pocket.

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 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,” said Jim Palmer.

“A total phony,” said former Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee.

The numbers do not bear them out. Jackson 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 played in six World Series. 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 the attention, or did the attention lead him to do the things he did?

Whatever. The encounters came. And there were some doozies. It might be interesting to see who sends Jackson birthday greetings today, and more interesting to see who doesn’t. 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 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 refuses to go out in public alone anymore. 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.”

And yet, he will likely receive no sympathy from his contemporaries. They might argue that there’s no room in Jackson’s life for anyone else. It is a bright spotlight that falls on him, but, they’d say, a narrow one.

They are probably correct. Jackson’s biggest fault over the years has been the transparency of the legend he is trying to manufacture. He knows, too well, how to keep the faucet of attention flowing over his head.

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 one was not. Reggie Jackson has always been a worthy enough subject for Reggie Jackson, and his failure to hide that has always been his Achilles’ heel.

When you interview Jackson, you are not unpeeling a quiet hero from layers of humble skin. More often you sense 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. The message comes clear. He is Mr. Big.

Just the same, you never really know what a man like this goes through. During that early batting practice on Friday, his hits stayed conspicuously inside the ballpark. Doubles and singles stuff (to be fair, it may have been intentional). But 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 think that Reggie 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.”

The Hall of Fame is on his mind. It ought to be. “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. There may be guys who I’ve offended over the years.’

OK. Probably true. But baseball should be baseball. And off- field should be off-field. 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’s played most of his career in New York and California, that’s pretty remarkable.

“I’m pretty much a loner,” he said. “If you took 100 people who know me and

100 who don’t and asked them about me, the answers would be distinctly different.

“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 are saying, there’s a guy who doesn’t care.”

He shrugged. The thought occurs that we may ultimately come to admire Reggie Jackson for surviving the very storms he created.

Back in the locker room 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 that I’m old, 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. CUTLINES Reggie Jackson: “I have miles to go before I sleep.” Joe DiMaggio, as A’s coach, gives some hitting pointers to Reggie Jackson in 1969.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This