The tangled and talented man mused on the task before him. Only in the rush of events, in the boiling truth of athletic crisis, has he ever absolutely known who he is. Then, it comes to him and he is sure.

He's Reggie Jackson.

And tonight in Yankee Stadium in the crunch in October, Jackson did it again, crushing a 475-foot, my-God-he's-done-it-again home run that inspired his New York Yankees to a 7-3 fifth-game playoff victory over the Milwaukee Brewers for the American League East championship.

"It won't be long now," Jackson had said before the game, speaking as though he were analyzing some other man. "I'm interested in finding out how much of this Reggie Jackson stuff is true. I keep reading about how great I am in the clutch. Well, if I'm ever going to do anything, it ought to be tonight."

And, since he did it tonight, the Yanks play host to Oakland on Tuesday at 8:20 p.m. to launch an American League championship series that reunites Jackson, George Steinbrenner and Billy Martin with a baseball world watching.

At the very moment the Yankees seemed on the verge of perhaps the most humiliating loss in their history, Jackson unleashed a game-tying blast into the upper deck that completely transformed the tense AL East series and reversed the momentum of events.

When Jackson stepped to the plate in the fourth inning, the Yankees trailed the Brewers, 2-0. When he stomped on home plate, it was 2-2 and, as Jackson said, "We had a new life and we lived it."

Once Jackson lit the fuse, broke the New York tension, all the Yanks found heroism in themselves. Jackson had shown them how.

The next batter, Oscar Gamble -- Dr. Quick Stick -- hit a Moose Haas pitch into the pulsating bleachers on a 3-2 pitch and the Yankees were ahead for good. And before that fourth inning was over, a fourth run had scored.

Rookie Dave Righetti, replacing starter Ron Guidry, got a victory with three innings of one-run relief from the fifth through seventh. Then, the game was placed in the hands of Goose Gossage, who, despite one scary moment, pitched two shutout innings for the save.

As a perfect closing piece of theater, Rick Cerone, who had cursed owner George Steinbrenner in a wild Yankee clubhouse brouhaha the night before, conked an insurance homer off Jim Slaton in the seventh to increase the New York lead to a safe 5-3.

Though the final score was lopsided, make no mistake, the Brewers could easily have won. The Yanks, who had been berated by Steinbrenner as "overpaid fat cats" on Saturday, were in a fair way to lose three straight games in their own ballpark after a Gorman Thomas homer and a Cecil Cooper sacrifice fly off an ineffective Guidry had given the Brewers a two-run edge.

Then came Reggie.

In his first-inning at bat, Jackson had hit a towering fly with a man on that died at the foot of the fence. "It really got me down when that fly ball didn't carry," said Jackson. "I was tense and worried. I was afraid that was my one bolt for the night and I wouldn't get another pitch to hit.

"I was afraid that was my shot and I'd blown it."

However, Haas made one mistake -- the only mistake you can make to Jackson in October: he threw a strike.

Jackson hit it into tomorrow. When the rising liner dug its way into the first row of the top deck in right above the 353-foot sign, this game was over, never mind that the score was 2-2.

"You live by the hammer and you die by the hammer. You live big, you die big," said Jackson. "You can't duck the moment."

"Everything good that people say about Reggie is true," said retiring Brewer veteran Sal Bando, his comrade of the other Oakland glory days. "It's October, and Reggie is here."

"Reggie really is the straw that stirs the drink," said Gossage, who, with two out in the eighth and a 5-3 lead, sinned by walking two men, then held his breath as Don Money flied out to left, a yard short of the fence.

"When he stinks, we stink. When he's great, we follow. He's the greatest. I've seen this happen too many times. There's nobody like him in baseball who inspires his own team or demoralizes the other team so much. He's our leader, and I'll hate to see him go if he goes the free-agent route. When Reggie really wants it, it's there. And he's contagious."

"When Reggie does this, it almost upsets me," said Yankee batting coach Charlie Lau. "I understand reason and logic and common sense. But that's not what Reggie runs on. To see him do this, over and over, is terrible for a theorist of hitting because you know that what he's doing is an utterly unique gift and nontransferable. What he's got, I can't teach."

Blessedly, Jackson stole the stage this evening from the obtrusive Steinbrenner, the game's Mr. Bluster who violently injects himself into situations where he has no business. Today, Steinbrenner sent a note to Cerone, forgiving the catcher for cursing the owner when the owner flounced into the clubhouse Saturday and began giving the equivalent of a high school football coach's chew-out. Cerone had cursed Steinbrenner, then added: "You don't have any idea what you're talking about."

Some teams have a slogan, like "You Gotta Believe" or "Yes, We Can." The Yanks have now adopted Cerone's epigram -- or, at least, the clubhouse version of it -- and sing out in chorus, approximately, "Curse you, George."

"This was particularly satisfying because of what happened yesterday," said Jackson. "To be told, 'You're in the twilight of your career. What you do tomorrow will determine your future'. . . well, I didn't want to be embarrassed (on the field) on top of that.

"I didn't want to be remembered as part of a team that was the first in the history of the playoffs to blow three straight games at home to lose a five-game series. I want to be remembered for coming through . . . at least once in a while."

Baseball isn't bombastic owners or rich players or labor strikes. It is what Jackson did again tonight. It is facing the moment of most arduous crisis, loving it, feeding on it, and turning it into athletic art that sends delight along the spine of all who see it.