Any other ballplayer who hit only .237 for the season, and is a certified liability in the outfield, and was a .171 bust in those 33 games he was used as a designated hitter, would be no hot item in the free agent auction. Especially if he is now closer to 36 than 35.
But no ordinary specimen of ballplayer is Reggie Jackson. In the baseball marketplace he is a man unto himself, who can defy all embarrassing statistics. Five years ago, in the face of the glaring truth that he had never hit .300 in his life, he commanded the highest salary in baseball history, from the Yankees. Reggie has his own measure of himself: he puts people in the park.
On Friday, Jackson made a decision, after his year-long slump and those problems with assorted aches. For $1 million a year, or just a bit less, he would consent to play for the California Angels the next four seasons United Press International incorrectly reported Friday that the terms were for three years . It made the Angels very happy. Already they are savoring the jump in ticket sales next season.
Jackson ended 10 weeks of speculation after putting himself on the free agent list as to which team he would favor with his services. For those 10 weeks, he put the various bidders on hold with his coy game of "maybe it will be you."
Reggie played four rich club owners like so many snook, baiting the Yankees with hints he would like to return to that club; telling Ted Turner that Atlanta looked attractive to him; cuddling a bit with Ed Williams, recalling how nice it used to be in Baltimore and getting a fat offer from the Orioles.
Only after he chose the Angels did it come out how Reggie's flirtations with the Orioles and Braves and Yankees were so much fluff. He finally told the Baltimore Sun yesterday, "The Orioles were the perfect team for me. The problem with Baltimore is that it's in Baltimore (did he not know that 10 weeks ago?). I'm 35 years old and a bit tired. I can be home in 40 minutes. My friends are also there and I'm at the point in my life where I want to be near them."
Jackson had the Angels and Gene Autry, the richest owner in the bunch, in his sights all the while. He had his Phoenix-based agent, Gary Walker, palavering continuously with Buzzie Bavasi, Autry's general manager. When Jackson bargains, it is not a cottage industry but a far-flung organization at work. No single agent suffices Reggie. That is for other prosaic free agents. Jackson also has an East Coast adviser, Matt Merola, based in New York. While Walker was buzzing up Bavasi in Phoenix, Merola was talking numbers with the Yankees, Orioles and Turner.
The final numbers have not been announced, but Bavasi has said, "If we draw well, Reggie has a chance to make a great deal of money. And so do we." Other sources have said that a good year for the Angels at the gate would get Jackson his million and that his base pay would be around $800,000.
There has never been more positive evidence of Jackson's charisma and gate appeal than in his latest move. Only a few months ago, owner Autry loudly announced to the world that he would scorn the free agent market this year. He's had it; he was through. He'd been badly stung by previous, expensive ventures into the free agent market. He was the symbol of a disenchanted investor in that area.
In recent years Autry had spent $21.5 million on 16 free agents (among them Don Baylor, Bobby Grich and the late Lyman Bostock) and $13.8 million more buying such available tradees as Rod Carew and Rick Burleson and Fred Lynn. The tab mounted to more than $35 million and what did it get him? One division title (1979) and last year a team that finished dead last in the AL West.
Only a Reggie Jackson could charm Autry out of his vows to turn his back on the whole free agent business. It was with Autry's money that Bavasi chased himself to Phoenix and back a half-dozen times (Jackson's Phoenix agent has a fear of flying), and finally settled on the deal that would be appealing to Reggie.
The Angels' excitement at the prospect of fielding a team with Jackson on it is understandable. Even when he isn't hitting those home runs, the threat of them is highly suspenseful. In the batter's box Reggie commands the television cameras, flaunting not one, but two batting gloves, with the white wristlets, flexing those macho shoulders, spitting through that gap in his teeth. Even in the on-deck circle, awaiting his turn, Jackson going through his leg stretching and other exercises often transcends the guy at bat. He makes a scene. And when he hits one out of the park, hallelujah.
Bavasi has said that "from a standpoint of excitement and drawing power, Reggie and Pete Rose are in a class by themselves. I've long admired Reggie for his hustle nad his desire and I know about his unique temperament. He adds a new dimension to a club." And then, maybe more to the point: "Reggie is an entertainer, and we are in the entertainment business."
Atlanta's efforts to land Jackson never seemed as intense as Reggie made them out to be. The Orioles made a big pitch, but always feared they would be priced out. They couldn't give Jackson as much as the $1 million they were paying Eddie Murray, the city's darling.
George Steinbrenner apparently didn't want Jackson at his price, but would take him back as a designated hitter. Steinbrenner is seeking to recast the Yankees, anyway. He was jealous of the speed and the bunting and the one-run skills the Dodgers showed in beating him in the World Series. One Dodger, Davey Lopes, stole as many bases (four) as the whole Yankee team, and Steinbrenner has decided to deemphasize power. He wants a thinking Yankee team, with himself as the head thinker.
The past season, Jackson was not too happy in New York, anyway, not wholly because of that .237 batting average. Steinbrenner was hinting that henceforth his role would be only that of designated hitter. Reggie also was much vexed by loss of face. "How would you like to come to bat behind a man getting $600,000 a year more than you?" he blurted out once. Dave Winfield had whooshed way up to the head of the Yankees' salary list.
In Anaheim they won't name a candy bar after Reggie. Those Panasonic commercials and other tidy benefits will diminish if not disappear. He'll be out of the mainstream. He won't have that Big City press, whose favorite he was.
He'll put people in the park, but only if he regains his muscles and hits. He has financial security, but can a 35- 36-year-old outfielder who was Madison Avenue's darling find true happiness in Anaheim? The next chapter in the saga of Reggie will be seen, heard, reported, in April.