Reggie Jackson is one of the names that always seems to get a discussion going. When I was working for the A's in 1974, one of the coaches was a serious detractor of Reggie's.
"Reggie [bleep]ing Jackson!" he would say, spitting out the words. "What's so great about Reggie [bleep]ing Jackson? This guy wouldn't even have gotten an at-bat for the old Yankee teams.
"I mean, this guy is so overrated. He strikes out all the time. He doesn't hit his cutoff man. Reggie [bleep]ing Jackson my eye!"
I'm not mentioning this coach's name for two reasons. The first is that when he said these things to me, I doubt he expected to read them in a book twenty-four years later. The second is that the quotes don't hold up under the test of time. I mean, how overrated could you be if you hit 563 home runs and were so good in the clutch they named you "Mr. October"?
That coach was way out of line, but he wasn't the only one in the A's organization with doubts about Reggie. The big knock against him was that he wasn't committed to the game, that he didn't work hard enough on his skills.
When Reggie first came up, he had all the tools: great speed, tremendous range, and a powerful arm. A lot of people thought he was capable of being a Gold Glove outfielder. As it turned out, Reggie got progressively worse as an outfielder. By '74, many of his A's teammates were complaining privately that Reggie didn't care about playing the outfield and that he wasn't the world's most alert base runner.
Joe Rudi, the talented left fielder on those A's teams, could become exasperated by Reggie. In 1974, Rudi was having his best year in the big leagues -- a season in which he'd go on to lead the league in doubles.
One night in Cleveland, Rudi was at bat with Reggie on first. Joe launched a deep fly ball over the head of the right fielder, a sure double -- or so it seemed. But Reggie, for some inexplicable reason, had gone back to tag up at first base. When the ball sailed over the outfielder's head, Reggie belatedly took off for second, but not before Rudi, unaware that Reggie was still hanging around first base, had almost passed him.
Rudi ended up with a single, and after the game he was really steamed about Reggie's gaffe. I remember him telling me, "Here I have a chance to lead the league in doubles, and he costs me one -- because he's not mentally in the game."
Reggie wasn't always contrite about the mistakes he made, or pleased when they were pointed out. On a Sunday afternoon at Shea Stadium -- the home of the Yankees during the '74 and '75 seasons while Yankee Stadium underwent renovations -- Reggie was in right field. With a runner on second, a Yankee batter rolled a single into right.
Reggie charged in, picked up the ball, and without hesitating a moment, threw home -- which would have been the right move, except that there was no play on the guy coming home, and no hope of one. It was so obviously the wrong move that it hadn't even occurred to anyone that Reggie might throw home. The first baseman hadn't even set up a cutoff. The guy who hit the ball ended up at second when he should have been held at first; thanks to Reggie's inattention, he'd gotten a gift base.
"Reggie threw to the wrong base on that one," I said on the A's broadcast, stating the obvious. "He's allowed the Yankees to take an extra base when a proper throw would have held the runner at first."
The next afternoon, in Baltimore, I was with the A's in the lobby of what is now the Omni Hotel, waiting with a group of players to get on the team bus. And off the elevator strolled Reggie.
He didn't look at me. But I knew he was speaking to me.
"Well, Charlie Finley called me last night here at the hotel. And Charlie said, 'Hey, Mr. Superduperstar, my broadcaster said you made a stupid throw. Yup, my broadcaster said my highly paid superstar doesn't know where to throw the ball.'"
Reggie was quite the orator. He sounded like a Pentecostal preacher delivering a fiery sermon to his flock. But Reggie didn't stay angry long. At the ballpark, I stopped at Reggie's locker and we talked.
"You don't know the whole story, what was really going on out there," Reggie told me. "When Dick Green is playing second base, he keeps me in the game. Before each pitch, he'll tell me where to throw the ball if this happens, if that happens. I just follow what Greenie says.
"Yesterday, Ted Kubiak was playing second. He doesn't keep me in the game the same way."
"So," I reasoned, "if the same thing happens again, to get it really accurate, I should say on the air, 'Reggie threw to the wrong base because Dick Green isn't in the game to tell him where to throw it?'"
Well, not exactly.
That was Reggie then. Today's Reggie is in the Hall of Fame. He's a senior statesman, an establishment figure. Back in 1992, Mark McGwire was having a terrible year in Oakland. Reggie had retired after the 1987 season and was with the A's as an instructor and television analyst.
I'll never forget Reggie's comment about McGwire that year: "The problem with the young guys today," Reggie declared, "is they make mistakes and you can't talk to 'em. They won't listen. I'm trying to help the guy and he won't listen."
I laughed about that. Twenty years earlier, some veteran ballplayer on the A's was making the same exact statement about Reggie Jackson. Now Reggie was carrying on the tradition. Years from now, I can imagine Albert Belle making the same criticism about a new crop of players in the twenty-first century: "The thing with these young players today is they don't hustle and they have an attitude problem," Albert will say.
Why not? There hasn't been a time in baseball history when retired players gave the current players their due.
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Copyright © 1998 by Jon Miller and Mark Hyman. Excerpted with permission.