Sunday, October 18, 2009

October 18, 1977: Reggie and Me

Pictured: A-Rod and Reggie.
Not Reggie and me, or me and Reggie.

October 18, 1977: Game 6 of the World Series at Yankee Stadium. Yankees 8, Dodgers 4. The last out is a popup – and I still don't know why he bunted, it made no sense – by Lee Lacy that is caught by Mike Torrez, who went the distance on the mound to get the win.

Chris Chambliss homered. So did Reggie Jackson. Not once. Not twice. Three times. For a total of 5 homers in the Series, a new record. The Yankees won their 21st World Championship, first in 15 years, putting themselves back on top of the baseball world where they belong.

Fans poured onto the field, havoc was wrought – but no injuries as far as I know. Some of them were animals in the way they acted, especially sitting on the fence in right field behind Reggie, the possibility of genuine danger leading Reggie to get a batting helmet to wear out there, and then, after the last out, deciding it was better to use the helmet to protect his glasses and run like hell, and, using his experience as a football star at Cheltenham High in the Philly suburbs and one year at Arizona State before switching to full-time baseball, throwing a couple of nasty blocks before reaching the safety of the dugout, where all he had to worry about was the cold of champagne and the possibility of it stinging his eyes.

Four years later, Lacy would be in the outfield for the Dodgers, as they won the 1981 World Series, getting some revenge for '77 and '78. Good for him. Bad for the Yankees, bad for me.

But this is about a night, a season, and an era that was good for me -- at a time when I, and all Yankee Fans, and New York City all really needed it.

*

Has it really been 32 years since Reggie went Boom, Boom, Boom? He was only 31 at the time. He's now lived more since it happened than he did before.

Where was I when he hit the 1st one? At home, in East Brunswick, watching on WABC, Channel 7.

Where was I when he hit the 2nd one? Still watching.

Where was I when he hit the 3rd one? In bed. My parents, thinking that, at 7-3, the Yankees had the game wrapped up, sent me to bed. Well, it was a late night. But it wasn't until the next morning, at Bowne-Munro Elementary School, that everybody was talking about 3 homers. (The school, which opened in 1954 and is still in use, had recently been renamed after Mary Munro, the only principal the school had ever known to that point, retired – she seemed old then, but she lived to be about 95.)

My parents sent me to bed early the next year, too, when the Yanks beat the Dodgers to clinch in another Game 6, as I said in my last entry. Until October 26, 1996, when I was knocking on the door of age 27, I never saw the most successful of all baseball teams wins a World Series.

Still, even though I was 7-almost-8 and 8-almost-9 when they happened, I treasure those '77 and '78 titles more than I can express in words. I had a miserable childhood, and the Yankees did so much to ease my pain.

No, I'm not looking for sympathy. It wouldn't do any good at this point, anyway.

That's what makes the Yankees' failures in '79 and all through the Eighties so much harder to take: I had some great times in those years, but precious few of them involved baseball, and from 1984 onward I had to deal with a bunch prick kids who were Met fans expressing an arrogance that they and their team (with the exception of 1986) had not earned. They made the hard times worse, and made the good times not nearly as good as they could have been.

No, I'm still not looking for sympathy. Not expecting to get it. I am asking you to now understand why I hate the damned Mets so much. And why I hate Met fans -- not all of them, but Met fans in general, as a concept, even more. And will not let up on my criticism of these bastards. Ever.

And don't think they don't hate the Yankees, and especially Yankee Fans, even more than I hate them. I think, at this point, after the Red Sox have finally won a World Series, and then another, Met fans might now hate Yankee Fans more than ever. If not, wait until next month, when a 27th flag flies. Then they'll hate us even more than they do now.

"Oderint dum metuant," said Lucius Accius, a Roman poet and playwright of the 2nd Century BC. Meaning, "Let them hate, as long as they fear."

*

Reginald Martinez Jackson had his share of flaws. And his share of contradictions: Few people in the history of this planet have had his combination of outsized ego and equally outsized need for approval, for applause, for love.

I didn't understand that at the time, between the ages of 7 and 12. I couldn't understand why so many people didn’t like him.

He's got a big ego? You would, too, if you had earned the right to be called Mister October. He talks too much? He's got plenty to talk about. He doesn't hit lefthanded pitchers well? He hits all those home runs, some of them have to come off lefties. He strikes out too much? So did Babe Ruth, and so did Mickey Mantle, and you loved them. He's not a good baserunner? He had quite a few steals in his Oakland days -- if only Billy Martin, so appreciative of the running game, had realized that while managing Reggie. He's not a good defensive outfielder? He made some good catches, and, besides, aside from Willie Mays, hardly any outfielder in the 500 Home Run Club had his defense talked about as anything other than, "And he can do that, too." He criticizes his teammates? It worked, because they wanted to show him that they were great, too, and they won 3 Pennants and 2 World Series. He makes too much money? He won, so it was worth it -- and, besides, it's George Steinbrenner who has to pay him, not you, you jealous dope!

I didn't understand all those criticisms -- and, at that age, I had trouble answering them as I just did. All I knew then was, he played for my team, and he hit home runs, and he helped us win games, and he helped us win championships, and he had a smile that could light up Times Square. He was exactly the right man, in exactly the right place, and, for me, he came in at exactly the right time, the beginning of my awareness of things beyond the few people I knew.

And my declaration of him as my favorite player did not change when George refused to lift a finger to re-sign him and Gene Autry was more than glad to sign him for the Angels. Nor did it change after he retired from play.

*

Years later, with me grown up (or so to speak), and Reggie in the Hall of Fame with his career examined in full in an exercise of nostalgia by books about the Seventies A's and Yanks, and by ESPN profiles, I could see the contrast between ego and neediness – and I could see that it matched my own. Reggie and I don't have much in common, but we have that. The difference being that a pretty good chunk of his ego had been earned. Mine has not. (Nobody but you cares for more than a few minutes if you smack somebody on the Internet.)

It's like my parents' generation finding out that JFK did everything he did despite all the health problems he had: It made me admire Reggie even more. I am very happy that he became, and remains, my favorite athlete of all time.

No, I didn't see all 3 home runs as they happened. But seeing the highlights years later, I see the 1st, and say, "Thank you, sir, may I have another?" I see the 2nd, and say, "Thank you, sir, may I have another?" I see the 3rd, and say, "Thank you, sir!"

*

I only saw Reggie play live once. It was my 1st big-league game, May 27, 1978, at The Stadium. He got hurt, and the Yankees lost, 4-1 to Toronto, because they didn't hit, and because Billy Martin, so often trusting of his bullpen, this time kept Sparky Lyle and Goose Gossage in the pen, left Ed Figueroa in until the 9th, and that's when Figgy ran out of gas. He won 20 games that year, I think still the only Puerto Rican pitcher ever to do that, so I can't blame him. Jim Clancy pitched a great game (and turned out to be the last member of the original '77 Blue Jays to leave the team), and that’s the biggest reason we lost.

But the chant of "Reggie! Reggie! Reggie!" when he came to bat has stayed with me over three decades later. It seemed enormous to a little kid surrounded by 54,000 of his closest friends. Hearing it years later on Old-Timers' Days, as a grownup, with a lot of younger fans who don't remember it the first time around joining in, is a great tribute to the man, and to those of us who did do it the first time around, every bit as much as it was when my generation saluted Mantle and Joe DiMaggio on Old-Timers' Days.

By the time my parents took me again, I was 15, and we never saw the Angels. By the time I was old enough to go on my own, Reggie was retired. And I couldn't afford to go up to Cooperstown for his Hall of Fame induction ceremony in '93.

But I did have enough money in '93 to head up to The Stadium and see Reggie Jackson Day, and the retirement of his Number 44. Why they didn't give him the Monument Park plaque then, I don't know. But they did announce he'd get it in 2002, and I had to be there again -- you know how it is -- and I was.

*

I don't know him – and I don't know how many people really know him. I'm sure some of those who do are wondering if anyone ever really knows him.

But in the interviews I've seen lately, he seems at peace with himself, his career, his former teammates. And I’m happy about that.

What I'm not at peace with is the fact that it's been so long since he did the biggest of it. And I may never be able to figure out why Yankee achievements of 1976 to 1981 seem so much fresher than the few from the bad old days of 1982 to 1995.

Dave Winfield's home runs, the no-hitters of Dave Righetti and Jim Abbott, the Pine Tar Game, the fine fielding of Don Mattingly and Mike Pagliarulo, a sensational catch in left field by Ken Griffey Sr. in '85, Righetti’s 46 saves in '86, setting a short-lived single-season record, Mattingly's homering in 8 straight games and hitting 6 grand slams in a season (the same one, '87), the just-missed postseason runs of '85, '86, '88 and '93, the '95 Playoffs...

They seem a lot farther ago than Reggie, Chambliss, Thurman, Catfish, Sparky, Bucky, Guidry and the Goose. This season, when Melky Cabrera hit for the cycle, it was the 1st Yankee cycle since '95, Tony Fernandez, and John Sterling remarked that it seemed a lot further ago than it really was, even though he had been in the booth to call it. Now that was something that I understood completely.

I guess it's because the good stuff of '76 to '81 is better, simply because it led to Pennants. It gets shown more on highlights, and gets packaged in DVDs, and gets books written about it and movies made out of it (Summer of Sam, The Bronx Is Burning).

That's fine with me. Reggie, thank you, sir.

*

But my favorite Reggie moments came in October 1996. He was in the dugout in Baltimore as the Yankees won the Pennant. It was Joe Torre's first Pennant after so many years of trying as a player and then as a manager. And Reggie, never a teammate, gave him a big hug. Afterward, in the locker room, Reggie was interviewed about the current team. Understanding the value of praise when it is deserved, he is never one to skimp on it when the Yankees are rolling, but he added to it this time: "They've got another leg to go. They've got another lap to make. Not done yet."

He knew. And after the World Series was won, there was Reggie, in the locker room. The clip lasted about 2 seconds on Channel 7's Eyewitness News, and, uncharacteristically, he didn't say a word. He didn't have to. He was wearing a Yankee jacket, smoking a big victory cigar, and smiling.

He knows what it's like to get it done. He likes seeing the Yankees who follow him, and Mickey, Joe, Lou, the Babe, get it done. At age 63 -- the same age Joe was when I first saw him on TV in those Bowery Savings Bank and Mr. Coffee commercials, the same age Mickey was when he died, now that's spooky -- he's enjoying the Yankee run of the moment.

If he lives long enough to see the generation that follows Jeter, Mo and A-Rod get it done, he'll enjoy that, too. The great ones always appreciate greatness in others, even if it's against them: It may take a while, but they'll always admit, "Damn, he's good." And, especially since Reggie is again on the Yankee payroll as a "special advisor" (as is Yogi Berra), and since players such as Jeter and A-Rod have come to him for advice on hitting and other matters, he can say he has a part in it.

He has earned that pride. Again, Reggie, thank you, sir, not just for Title 21 and Title 22 (and I thank your teammates as well), but for anything you may have said to the players that might have helped them bring Title 23, Title 24, Title 25 and Title 26.

Now, as for you current Yankees, now 6 wins away from Title 27... Thank you, sirs. May I have another?

*

For more on Reggie and that period of Yankee history, check out the following:

* Hammerin' Hank, George Almighty and the Say Hey Kid: The Year That Changed Baseball Forever, by John Rosengren. This book is about baseball and America in 1973, before Reggie joined the Yankees. But it does feature Reggie and his Oakland teammates, including another future Yankee, Jim "Catfish" Hunter. It also discusses George Steinbrenner's first year as Yankee owner, with Watergate and George's tangential role in it threatening to send him to the federal pen. There's also a discussion of the Mets putting together a season that seems to match their 1969 title as a "miracle," including profiles of such great players and great characters as Yogi Berra (then the Met manager), Tom Seaver, Tug McGraw, Rusty Staub, and the poignant last days as an active player for Willie Mays. But the most gripping reading is about Hank Aaron's racism-clouded pursuit of Babe Ruth's home run record.

* Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City, by Jonathan Mahler. He's the same age I am, and he's got it down pat. At 339 pages, he gets it all: The team, the City's financial crisis, the Mayoral election, the crime rate including the Son of Sam case, and the cultural changes, including and even especially the way journalism covered it all, from Jimmy Breslin at the Daily News to Rupert Murdoch's purchase and reinvention, for the more profitable if not for the better, of the New York Post.

* October Men: Reggie Jackson, George Steinbrenner, Billy Martin, and the Yankees' Miraculous Finish in 1978, by Roger Kahn. The man who covered the 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers for the Herald Tribune, and then immortalized them in middle age in The Boys of Summer, gives the Reggie-era Yankees the same treatment. Into his 70s, Kahn's writing got better than ever. The book mainly leads up to the 1978 comeback against the Red Sox, and the climax is the Bucky Dent Game, but you can't really write about the '78 Yanks unless you go into some detail about the '77 Yanks.

* Yankee For Life: My 40-Year Journey in Pinstripes, by the late Bobby Murcer. I miss him. He spoke so well about the game, and he writes just as beautifully about his teammates, including Reggie.

Each of these books came out the last few years, and so is a nostalgic look, seeing the personalities, warts and all, through the prisms of both then and now, and allows us to understand why we felt the way we did about them. This is not the case with such contemporary books as Steve Jacboson's right-after-'77 classic The Best Team Money Could Buy, and Reggie: An Autobiography, which Reggie knocked out with Mike Lupica in 1984. It was too soon for Reggie to write about his entire life and career, and I thought he had more to say -- that's right, I wanted Reggie Jackson to talk more.

Which is why I'm pleased that Reggie has now written more. I haven't yet read the newly-released Sixty Feet, Six Inches: A Hall of Fame Pitcher & a Hall of Fame Hitter Talk about How the Game is Played, which Reggie co-wrote with Bob Gibson with assistance from Lonnie Wheeler (who helped Gibson and Aaron with their memoirs), because, as much as I love Reggie, I'm afraid of buying it myself and then getting it for my birthday or Christmas, which has happened with books and videos before. And it's not like any of them needs the money. To hell with it, next payday, I'm getting it.

2 comments:

Mandie Reed said...

can you believe a girl is reading about sports. lol :) i can't help it i love it!

mandie reed

Uncle Mike said...

Thanks, Mandie. I not only believe it, I revel in it.

Too bad I'm too old for you. But, please, feel free to read and comment in the future!