North County News 8/5/93
IN SEARCH OF REGGIE…
For the better part of ten years, I was surrounded by pictures of him on my bedroom walls. Every night before I fell asleep he’d be staring down at me, and every morning I’d awake to a still photograph of his famous powerful, two-handed swing.
I listened to his exploits on my radio and studied him on the tube. His career marked my childhood: the Swingin’ A’s in grammar school, the Mighty Yanks in high school.
It was during one of those years that I swore I’d be there when they put him in Baseball’s Hall of Fame. And last week, Reginald Martinez Jackson and I had a date with destiny.
I arrived in the quaint village of Cooperstown, not as the wide-eyed fanatic of my youth, but just another member of the bulging media; trying like hell to look uninterested in my suit and tie, like it was just another job, and Reggie Jackson was just another story to cover.
Of course, when Reggie was involved there was always a story. For 21 years he was the quintessential sports superstar, a human spotlight magnet. He talked with unhinging bravado and backed it up; from his rookie season in 1969 when he shocked the baseball world by blasting 41 home runs by the all-star break, his Ruthian blast in the ’71 mid-season classic, to every consecutive swing of the bat during his three-homer outburst in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series.
The humble smile he’s been donning for most of the day, his day, leapt off his face, and the dauntless grin of coiled arrogance that managed to hit belt 563 career home runs nodded toward me. “I wasn’t thinking of anything, son; I was just trying to turn on a fastball.”
Everywhere you ventured to look throughout the usually quiet hamlet of upstate New York, there was a likeness or mention of him. Just a simple “Reggie” would do. No second name was needed. Unless, of course, it was “Mr. October.”; a name he earned in five World Series appearances in which he would hit a lifetime .357 with 10 home runs and grab two MVP awards.
Collectors’ cards, photos, silver coins and tee shirts of every size and color lined Main Street on the way to the building where they would hang his plaque forever. But the image of him had somehow changed from the hero of yesterday. That was a Reggie Jackson who glared unceasingly into the eyes of convention without blinking. He broke the rules, set the pace, and put a considerable mark on a game bloated with atavistic traditions and unspoken etiquette for the black athlete balancing a sizable chip on his shoulder. Who exactly was this man I thought I’d known from the seemingly endless array of games I watched and books I’d read?
I first met him in the baseball summer 1990 as a member of the television medium. He was casually moving about the batting cage at Yankee Stadium working for the California Angels radio team. He was standing only a few feet from where he slammed those three incredible home runs on three consecutive pitches that October night 13 years before, when I sat a million miles away in Freehold, New Jersey beaming.
I shook his hand, making an offhand remark about some motivational letter I’d sent him earlier that historic season when he was struggling and being booed unmercifully by fans home and away, and jokingly wondered if he remembered receiving it. He looked at me strangely, the way I’d pretty much expected, and I thanked him for the memories. “Thanks buddy,” he smiled and strolled away confidently.
Although that classic Reggie ego had shown through, he appeared small in his pink polo shirt and jeans, not at all the giant in pinstripes from bygone days swaggering across my television screen like a conquering knight from the court of King Arthur.
Now on a lazy Sunday morning on the first day of April, 1993, I found myself standing just a few feet from the podium he was delivering his Hall Of Fame induction speech. His eyes were swollen from tears of joy. He appeared worn, his hair line in a gray, middle-aged recede, decked out in a navy blue suit and bright blue tie; a vision of the quiet executive he’d become the last few years.
He spoke gently about his loved ones, his influences in the game he loved, and his ultimate respect for the honor bestowed upon him. The young lion that once quipped “I’m the straw that stirs the drink,” was now the straw that was happy to just be in the glass. He was humble, gracious, and at times apologetic for the in-your-face attitude that made him the kind of player that would expect a trip to immortality. In other words, he was anything but Reggie Jackson.
There was little in that speech that hinted at that Reggie Jackson. But I figured that in the post-ceremony press conference, away from his adoring public, probing cameras, and the rows of baseball great behind him, the real Reggie would emerge from the shadow of this mellowed facsimile. I was wrong.
There he sat, less than 20 minutes later, grinning politely, offering the odd joke and talking about his respect for the beauty of the game. I couldn’t take much more, so I up went my diminutive left arm, waving for his acknowledgment.
Before he was done pointing at me to begin, I rambled out a double-edged question about his years of frustration battling against the tide of adversities that often finds a young man of pride, talent, and conviction. I asked if he contemplated chucking the whole thing to waltz into an easier life devoid of blaring headlines and echoing boos. I eluded to the moment of his speech when he chronicled his agonizingly controversial first year with the Yankees, after he’d won three consecutive championships in Oakland and took less money to play for the Bronx Bombers only to be treated like a journeyman by manager Billy Martin, a man he’d admitted to despising in his autobiography.
“Quit?” he snarled, his stare burning a hole through my skull. “I had 300 more home runs to hit, and too many moments to create.”
Before he was done, that infamous intimidating Reggie heat was beginning to rise from out of his tightly buttoned collar. Yet, I mustered the audacity to conclude that perhaps by releasing the anger of the entire year acted as motivation for the events of Oct. 18, 1977 when those three World Series swings planted him in the record books and in the lap of legend.
“Are these real questions?” he asked, looking around the room packed with media from all over the world. “Because it sounds like your just throwing these off the top of your head,” he laughed. “Maybe you should ask one of these guys to help you out.”
The room of mostly grizzled sports writers and broadcasters chuckled at my dilemma. It was likely that each of them had been on the wicked end of Reggie’s venom before. However, I smiled back at him and demanded an answer. “What were you thinking when you stepped to the plate to make history?”
It was at that moment when the larger-than-life figure of boyhood memories melded together with the man before me. The humble smile he’s been donning for most of the day, his day, leapt off his face, and the dauntless grin of coiled arrogance that managed to hit belt 563 career home runs nodded toward me. “I wasn’t thinking of anything, son; I was just trying to turn on a fastball.”
I still haven’t stopped smiling.