Reggie Jackson returned to Yankee Stadium tonight just as he would have dreamed. No, no, better than anyone could ever have dreamed.
Jackson returned to bed-sheet bleacher signs saying, "We Love You, Reggie," and to oooohhs and aaahhhs as he hit a half-dozen batting practice homers.
Jackson returned to a consensus, not-a-boo-in-the-house standing ovation by the crowd of 35,458 in his first at bat.
Jackson returned with a base hit and a speedy scamper across the plate with a tie-breaking run on a suicide squeeze bunt in his second at bat.
Above all, and almost unbelievably, Jackson returned with a titanic, colossal, can-you-believe-this-guy, 450-foot home run into the right field third deck off Ron Guidry in the seventh inning of this 3-1 California Angels' victory over the sagging Yankees.
When that mighty first-pitch blast left his bat--and every soul in this famous yard knew it was crushed as completely as any of the 144 "taters" he mashed in five Yankee seasons--Jackson stood at the plate and, involuntarily, threw his arms wide, as though taking the whole crowd in his embrace.
Then, the chants of "Reggie, Reggie, Reggie," rolled down on him as he stoically ran the bases. All his new Angel teammates stood on the lip of their dugout in the game-long drizzle, gazing at him as though he were a mythic hero, not some guy who had been in a .179 slump until tonight.
But that wasn't the best. Not nearly the best.
After Jackson had taken his helmet-off curtain call, the crowd simply had to find some gesture that captured all the feelings, not only about Jackson's return from exile, but about the firing of benevolent old Yankee manager Bob Lemon on Sunday and the callous rehiring of manager-in-waiting Gene Michael, who skippered his first game tonight.
It started quietly, until all the third-base box seats, then the whole lower deck, and finally, the whole ballpark was on its feet, bellowing in unison for two minutes a slightly obscene chant about Steinbrenner.
Then, as though all this were orchestrated by some old Yankees in the sky--maybe an offended Joe McCarthy or Miller Huggins--Angels Manager Gene Mauch took Jackson out of the lineup (for defense) and, as soon as the bottom half of the seventh inning was in the books and Jackson's homer was safe, the rains came, the tarp appeared, and, in due time, the game was called with Jackson's homer its last mighty act.
"The feeling was one of elation, like a load was off my shoulders. . . I'll never forget that moment. . . It was right up there, compares to the last World Series homer (in '77). But there was more pressure on this one," said Jackson.
Of the fans' pithy critique of Steinbrenner (who was sitting unnoticed in an unaccustomed lower-deck box), Jackson said, "It was hard to believe. But the people in New York are very direct . . . I chuckled inside . . . Fans sometimes have a way of reading your mind, of being more direct than you can be."
The Yankees, almost to a man, had the same smirking reaction. "I didn't hear a thing," said Rick Cerone, his face cherubic.
Said Angel Don Baylor, "You didn't have to go down to Broadway tonight to see the main thing in town."
Finally, as always after these moments of fiction come to life, Jackson was asked, "How could you do that?"
Jackson looked up, amused and delighted. "I don't know how I did it," he said. "If I did, I wouldn't be a .270 lifetime hitter."
From the beginning, this day was Reggie's revenge.
Before pregame batting practice, Rod Carew had his arms full of white towels. One by one, the eight-time batting champion neatly laid them down in a royal carpet from the tunnel of the Angels' dugout all the way up the steps and onto the field.
Dozens of curious cameramen and reporters gathered.
"Ladies and gentlemen," intoned Carew solemnly, sweeping his arm grandly, "Reggie Jackson."
Jackson stepped out of a prearranged hiding place behind a door at the mouth of the dugout and made his glorious return entrance to The House That Reggie Refurbished. It was just the start of the magic.
In a pregame press conference, Jackson, in his best just-plain-folks manner, got a thing-or-twelve about Steinbrenner off his chest.
"I didn't want to prostitute myself to come back (to the Yankees). I didn't want to bow down to the guy," said Jackson in, by far, the hardest verbal blow he has ever taken at the man who signed him for $3 million in '77.
"I have not seen him, talked to him or heard his voice since the day after the World Series," said Jackson of Steinbrenner. "I would have loved to end my career here. I would have loved to be a Yankee and wear No. 44. But it wasn't to be . . .
"No (contract) offer was ever made to me (by the Yankees after last season)," said Jackson, clarifying why he had signed with the Angels.
If the Yankees didn't contact him to talk free-agent dollars, did he give Steinbrenner a contract figure?
"After the way things went (in '81), I didn't want to get involved," said Jackson. "After he made a fool of me last spring . . . I had to go back on some of my morals and principles just to stay here . . .When it was projected to me (by Steinbrenner's acts) that I didn't have the talent or character to play here, I got tired of being run down . . . It didn't make any sense to come back here."
So, this evening, Jackson decided to show the Yankee owner, the man who has fired the manager eight times in 10 seasons (and six times in the last four), just what he was missing, both as a player and a seat-filling entertainer.
Before the game, at the players entrance, stood a buxom woman wearing a T-shirt that said, "I love Reggie Jackson Best of All."
Inside were more bed sheet "Welcome Home, Reggie" signs than were on display for the entire (6-8) Yankee team.
The president of the borough of Manhattan issued an official proclamation--complete with five "whereas" clauses citing Jackson's greatness--that made this "Reggie Jackson Day."
When Jackson caught a routine batting practice fly, the right field bleachers began their eruption, a burst of cheering that Jackson gave them no reason to halt.
While the first-place Angels romped, the Yankees continued to simmer, despite Michael's return. "Lem's firing was in the air all spring. You wondered when the ax was going to fall," said thoroughly aggravated Goose Gossage. "I don't know whether they have a plan or too many plans, but they're not worth a damn . . . I haven't had any fun since the beginning of spring training began . . . It's chaos . . .Toward the end, I think Lem was kind of confused about what was going on here. I don't know if his whole heart was in it."
Tonight, as usual, Reggie Jackson's whole heart was on stage in an emotional game. And Yankee Stadium, plus its owner, got to see just what they're missing. One fan said it all for the lovelorn of New York. This gentleman, a huge bunch of yellow flowers in his hand, jumped the box seat fence, ran into right field, then, upon approaching Jackson, got on his knees, bowed thrice, and handed Jackson the bouquet.
Even the tough security cops of Yankee Stadium, paid by Steinbrenner, walked slowly on their way to arrest the miscreant so that his presentation might be completed in proper style.