"I've batted .450 in the World Series and I've hit .120. I've struck out in the clutch and I've hit the longest home runs you'll ever see. I've made great catches and I've fallen on my face and looked like a fool. I've been picked off, picked on and picked myself back up. Live big, die big. That's my way." -- Reggie Jackson, New York Yankees
Reggie Jackson isn't the best baseball player of his generation, but he's probably the greatest.
When the time comes to fix Jackson's place in baseball history, many fans may be shocked. Posterity will probably see Jackson as a far more major figure in his time than his contemporaries thought he was.
On the day Jackson retires, he'll probably hold only one all-time major league record: strikeouts.
Yet in the next century, Jackson will probably loom as the largest baseball figure to be part of, and come of age with, the post-war baby boom generation.
To find symbolic equivalents we would probably have to look at Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner in dead-ball times, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in early lively ball days, Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio in the Golden Age surrounding World War II, and Willie Mays and Hank Aaron in baseball's first wave of desegregation.
Of the baseball generation that began growing on our consciousness in the late '60's, only Pete Rose really is Jackson's equivalent in stature and cultural resonance. Others of that period -- Carl Yastrzemski, Lou Brock, Willie Stargell, Johnny Bench -- were as good, or even better, than Jackson and Rose.
However, Jackson and Rose, almost alone in baseball history, have insinuated themselves into our mythology as much with their being as their doing.
Last season, Rose at 40 seemed to accomplish a sort of career summation by leading the game's greatest losers, the Phillies, to a World Series victory. Rose's final-game, final-inning foul-pop catch in the World Series seemed to be the ultimate statement about an athletic life that takes complete responsibility for everything around itself.
This fall, it's Jackson who's refining his legend. In a game unique in its capacity to create mounting tension, Jackson is almost the only player who not only seems immune to pressure, but also converts it into personal energy.
Almost every player hits significantly worse in the cold, cruel postseason than in the regular season. Pitching staffs are truncated so only the best half-dozen pitchers, not all 10, get to the mound. Cold weather is a proven physiological disadvantage. Twilight, made-for-TV starting times are even worse for hitters. And so on.
In these circumstances, these are Jackson's stats in his last 25 postseason games: a .379 average, an .805 slugging mark, 12 home runs and 27 RBI. In his entire 224 career at bats, Jackson has a .303 average, 17 homers and 43 RBI. He has the highest career slugging average in World Series history (.767).
In the past 11 years, Jackson has batted cleanup for nine division winners and has been part of five world champions.
Numbers don't capture Jackson, however. On the Monday night NFL game this week, Frank Gifford said, "When Reggie hit his homer (on Sunday), I got goose bumps."
Jackson is indeed a goose-bump factory. In fact, Goose Gossage says Jackson gives him Goose bumps: "Reggie's the most inspirational player in the game." Rudy May says, "Without the Babe Ruths, Muhammad Alis and Reggie Jacksons, you don't have a game for the rest of us to play. Somebody's got to be larger than life. I wouldn't want that life, but I get off on watching Reggie do it."
"I don't go up there looking for a single to left field," said Jackson this week. "Every manager tells every pitcher before every one of these games, 'Don't give Jackson a pitch he can hit out of the park.' But my job is to hit it out of the park."
Jackson smiles. "So I do."
At 35, Jackson may finally be broadly accepted, almost embraced, by a public that found him only intermittently palatable through 14 seasons and 425 home runs. His slump earlier this year, and his dignity in enduring it, won sympathy. His admission that "I may be through . . . that's a possibility. I know it's coming someday soon," didn't hurt either.
Part of Jackson's lasting hold on sports history may come because he is, in many ways, typical of his generation.
He's smart and educated, using words like "nomenclature" without noticing. Yet he never seems entirely grounded in any one part of a personality that has almost too many facets for its own good. He still doesn't know if he is a millionaire or a man of the people.
His political and social sympathies are liberal, but his wallet is conservative. His hobby is photography, the instant-art of his generation. His social circle is a mixed bag; Reginald Martinez Jackson doesn't feel he needs to wear race on his sleeve. Jackson, with his jewelry and fleet of cars, his bachelor lifestyle is a 'Me Generation' fellow. Yet with the years, his style is turning tweedy -- corduroys, leather elbow patches and hush puppies.
As a ballplayer, he's also curiously in tune with his times. Jackson's first megaseason of '69 (47 homers) was also the first year of divisional playoffs. The year October became doubly important, Mr. October announced himself.
Now, baseball may expand its playoffs again; this season's experiment with eight teams could become permanent before next spring training. More than ever before, a team's success or failure will be measured by its ability to rise to the occasion in a short, arbitrary series.
That's Jackson, child of his times, in summation. Over a six-month haul, he gets bored, a little lazy. But for one month, one week or one game, Jackson is fierce.
Before each October game, Jackson is the last Yankee to take batting practice. He doesn't take his cuts piecemeal. Instead, with the other team almost forced to watch him, he takes 20 swings in three minutes of rapid-fire slugging. Sometimes one home run is landing while the next is on its way.
The crowd cheers, the adrenaline pumps, Jackson's taped hands clasp and unclasp on the bat handle. He's pumped up; attention is on him.
For a century, that was not how baseball was played. It was the summer game. October was just a time for a polite showcase.
Now, baseball increasingly is becoming another playoff-oriented sport. Soon, October will be all.
When that day comes, Reggie Jackson's place will be secure. He will go down as the first great October player in a sport that became an October game.