Mark Twain said that politicians, old buildings and madams become respectable with age.
Reggie Jackson would like to make it a foursome.
It isn't easy for a hurricane to become its own calm eye, but the former Buck Tater Man is trying.
After years of straining to be the straw that stirs the drink, it has dawned on Jackson that, perhaps, he is the drink that is getting stirred.
When you go to the movies and get sued, when you walk to you car and get accused of battering a child, when you foul off a sacrifice bunt and get suspended for insubordination, it makes you wonder who's getting stirred. It makes you wonder who's in control.
When you jog in from the outfield and your manager is waiting in the dugout to punch you, or else you step in a hole and disable yourself for a month, it makes you wonder about your luck, about your approach to things.
Jackson has not staked out his new position -- his new image, as he perhaps unwisely chooses to call it -- in any single way, but rather in dozens of ways. u
"I must take off my black hat . . . I have to control my tongue . . . I have to substantiate my thought rather than just raise hell . . . you have to sell yourself and politic a little in this life . . . I have to stop getting into things too deep . . . I don't want to offend . . . It's good to feel wanted and be respected . . . part of the trouble with Billy (Martin) is that I misunderstood his wants."
These snippets of conciliation, these bon mots of a once-burned, twice-shy man, are extracts from Jackson's recent conversation -- all said within 15 minutes.
If the New York Yankee slugger suddenly has to go on the disabled list, no one should have to ask why. It'll be a slipped disc. This is a man who is spending a lot of time bending over backwards.
Jackson, just a few days before his 34th birthday, seems to be a man in the midst of a long, gradual, yet uneasy personal transition.
His locker in the Yank clubhouse is in the corner, almost hidden, as though he were an animal gone to earth. He no longer seems to seek attention in the little ways that ballplayers notice and resent.
No one ever mastered the tricks of the limelight game better than Jackson. No need to list them -- the places to be, the times to be there, the expression to have on your face -- if you want the microphones, the note pads or the cameras to congregate. Just say that Jackson has changed his habits. Now you have to ask, "Hey, where's Reggie?" and then go find him.
Tonight, the Yanks open a three-game series in Baltimore.Last Wednesday Jackson hit a game-winning homer against the Orioles. The media crowd gathered. And he drove them away with kindness. Instead of colorful jokes and made-for-headline phrases, he turned the conversation to somber labor topics, to sober debate, to taking owner representative Ray Grebey to task for some obscure violation of labor logic.
Only later, almost alone, did he revert to type, saying, "I hit it so far my eyes weren't good enough to see it land. That one had some voltage."
It may be Jackson's misfortune that the new Reggie, when he is eventually notices, will be mistaken for a Madison Avenue concoction by a man who, after selling candy bars, jeans, VWs and cologne, can certainly take care of repackaging and selling himself.
It is probably more accurate that Jackson is simply making an effort to show the flip side of himself that has always been there, that has always been the best side of him, but also the least noticed.
"I didn't really know what I was getting into when I came to New York. I never guessed how tough this town was," he said last week. "It's a city that loves visiting celebrities and treats them great. Makes you want to come here.
"If they see you two days a year, you're royalty. If they see you every day, you're a bum."
Ironically, Jackson the ballplayer should be best appreciated by those who see him every day. But it takes an eye.
"Reggie's not a difficult player to manage, 'cause he's what you call a 'hard' player," says Baltimore's Earl Weaver, who managed him one year and has watched him for a dozen. He hustles, runs everything out, hates to embarrass himself. He'll take a guy out on the double play, or run into a wall, make a sliding catch. His whole career he's missed games because of 'hustle' injuries.
"Most important, he can reach a special level of concentration in the key situations that win games -- just like Frank Robinsons. And, kinda like Frank, when the score's 9-2 either way, his concentration lapses and he gives away at-bats or makes a meaningless error.
"That may hurt his batting average or his fielding average, but it don't hurt the team none. Eddie Murray's like that, too . . . a tough out when it matters, but in a hurry to get finished when it don't.
"Reggie's a curious person and he's a person who likes to be shown the respect he's earned. He'll ask you why you made a certain move that involved him, which is unusual, 'cause most players don't give a damn. It's no challenge to authority. You explain it. You teach him somethin' maybe he didn't know. He nods. He appreciates it."
Jackson is delighted with this synopsis of The Care and Feeding of Reggie as seen by The Certified Genius.
"That's right, that's right," he repeats. "I give away at-bats, I'm careless. Last night, I wasn't 'in' the game until the sixth inning. The cold weather distracted me . . . took my mind off business. Maybe that's an area where I can improve as I get older."
Changing, improving as he ages, and achieving a middle ground where all sides of his nature are put in perspective are now priorities for Jackson. The Yanks' new, and young, manager and general manager -- Dick Howser and Gene Michael, the tandem called Dick and Stick -- make that easier.
"Dick shows a lot of respect for me, makes me feel wanted. He knows people, tries to understand them," says Jackson, who, like the gifted child in class, is a devil when he must demand attention, but an angel when he gets it.
"I'd go out of my way not to offend Howser, because I think he's a fair man."
About the unfairnesses of the past, Jackson has learned to remain mute: Every time he has talked, he has lost.
"I don't think Billy is gone for good. I think he'll be back as manager of the Yankees," says Jackson, joining Martin in a minority of two as the only living people who think the two-time Bronx Bomber manager will return.
"I can't explain why. I just think so," says Jackson, with the same firm assurance as the golfer who roots for his putts by yelling at the ball, "Don't go in the hole, ball. Don't you dare go in the hole."
Of the other fellow in the old Yankee vicious triangle, Jackson says, "There have been times when I disagreed with (owner George) Steinbrenner, times when I wanted to be heard and couldn't even get a conversation.
"But I have to realize that he's never been late with a (pay) check. A professional athlete has to accept responsibilities. I've always understood that, but I thought it applied to staying in shape, bearing down every game. I understand now that it also means controlling your tongue, not being too disparagingly critical of the owner.
"Maybe I'm just seeing the other side -- the side of the people who run things. I represent companies (in commercials) and accept their money, so I have a responsibility to project an image, to come across as a person who substantiates his thoughts, not as some guy who's blowing off again."
Jackson has always wanted to run in the intellectual fast lane, or, at least, somewhere near it. He loves the big words and the complicated issues, wants very much -- perhaps too much -- to have an opinion on all the topics he thinks a smart man should have one on. He can't resist a pretentious subject any more than he can lay off the fast ball in his wheelhouse -- even if it's a ball. So he'll always strike out plenty.
It's not easy being a man who is embarrassed by short home runs.
For Jackson, the struggle continues to be all things.
He wants to be compassionate, simple, religious. But he wears gold chains and owns a fleet of kingly cars.
He loves being his team's player representative. No star would warm more genuinely to the 'noblesse oblige' of losing money in a strike if it would benefit other marginal players who really need a union. The anomaly of being a millionaire labor spokesman is just his style.
It is not a rare psychological bent to want to be both the cop and the robber, the oppressed and the oppressor, the hero and the villain, the object of love as well as hate, the loner who is also the leader.
But it is wearisome, this always swinging for the parking lot, always changing costumes and masks so that every role in the play can be yours.
For a man who has hit cleanup for seven pennant winners in a decade and five world champions, it is easier to fly in all directions at once, to satisfy all the different appetites and personalities in one half-forged mind.
But even for such a man, the time comes when he must choose among all the characters in the cast of his soul.
"Last time I signed a contract, I wanted it to be loud," says Jackson, whose five-year, $3-million landmark free-agent deal runs out after '81. "This time, I'd like to sing a quiet contract."
The campaign for quiet respectability and the calm affection shown to aging future Hall of Famers has already begun.
"I want very much to be in the Hall of Fame. I'd kind of like to wait until the room is empty at night and go in once to look at the plaque.
"I worry some that I've made enemies, that I have a reputation that might hurt my chances. I think 500 homers and 1,500 RBI would prevent that," says Jackson, who has 370 and 1,124.
What distinguishes the great player, the man in the Hall?
"The pride," says Jackson, "that makes a player believe that he's better than the rest."
Reggie Jackson says these words like a boy bringing home a drawing from school, one that has "A-plus" written in the corner.
Perhaps he doesn't really mean to boast. What he wants, and still so seldom gets, is a measured, unhysterical response. Neither the rabid cheers nor boos that are supposed to be hi fuel but rather a friendly, honest appraisal that, indeed, his hard work has been found worthy.