Reggie Jackson believes there is a direct correlation between a name and success as a baseball player.
"When you say 'Mickey Mantle,' it does something to you, you know?" Jackson said the other day. "How could his parents have known to name him 'Mickey Mantle'? Or 'Babe Ruth'? What great names."
How about "Reggie Jackson," a reporter suggested.
Jackson paused, as if silently repeating the name to himself once or twice. Then he began to smile.
He became a member of that elite company May 11 when he hit his 536th career home run, allowing him to tie Mantle for sixth place on the all-time list. Three days later he hit his 537th.
He is the only active player among the top 16, and he could surpass Harmon Killebrew (573) and Frank Robinson (586) before his career ends. Only Willie Mays (660), Ruth (714) and Hank Aaron (755) appear to be out of reach.
"It's so nice to be associated with those names," he said. "I mean, these guys were my idols when I was growing up. We had to root for the black players like Mays when I was a kid, but I always admired Mantle. I tried to imitate him, to wear my pants and my stirrups like he did . . . You had to root against the Yankees because they were so good, but Mantle was it."
As a rookie for the Kansas City Athletics in 1967, Jackson first met Mantle. Jackson was trotting out to right field in old Municipal Stadium as Mantle came in from first base.
"I looked down at his spikes and saw 'Mantle, No. 7' on the tongue," Jackson said. "Chills went up my spine.
"We almost bumped into each other and he stopped and said, 'Go ahead, Reggie.' I couldn't believe he even knew my name."
When he tied Mantle, the crowd of 35,418 at Anaheim Stadium gave Jackson a rousing standing ovation. Yet he was booed after going hitless in three trips the next night. His recent three-for-31 slump and erratic fielding drew ridicule from the media, and he cussed out one writer for what he considered an unfair story.
He drew heavy fire recently for criticizing the Minnesota Twins' dearth of black players and is accused of punching and choking an autograph seeker in a Milwaukee bar recently.
Since Jackson came to California as a free agent from the New York Yankees in 1982, his manager, Gene Mauch, has watched Jackson's quest for attention turn against him. "I wouldn't want to be Reggie Jackson for all the money in the world," Mauch said. "You know, a guy in his position can be right and still be deemed wrong by a lot of people.
"I can't begin to comprehend the life he's led," Mauch continued. "No one can. It's unimaginable. People have no conception of what it's like to be recognized absolutely everywhere you go . . . His entire life is public."
"I'd be me for all the money in the world," Jackson said, laughing. Yet he admitted his flamboyance has become a problem.
"It's tough," he said. "I find I've become bigger than my career, if that's possible . . . The expectations of people are a tremendous burden. I try to use that pressure positively, to turn it around and make it work for me, but it's not easy.
"The average person has absolutely no idea what I go through. No way."
His career appeared at an end in 1983 when injuries limited him to a .194 batting average and 14 home runs in 116 games. Never a standout defensive player, he began to drift toward the periphery as the team's designated hitter.
"I began to have doubts," he said.
But a strict weight-lifting and conditioning regimen allowed him to lead the Angels in home runs each of the last two years. Five days shy of his 40th birthday, he entered this season with little hair but lots of muscles.
After ripping through April with a .407 average, five home runs and 13 runs batted in, the slump brought his average in in the low .300s. Yet he still ranks among the team leaders in virtually every offensive category.
"I just turned 35, and I wake up stiff all over," said teamate Rick Burleson. "I work all day long just to get the stiffness out. But here's a guy almost 40 years old who looks like he's 20. I'm just trying to make it to September, but Reggie could play another five years."
"Age is irrelevant with Reggie," said Angels catcher Bob Boone.
Ironically, Jackson now credits the designated hitter role he formerly disdained for part of his success.
"I'd rather be DH-ing, and that's God's truth," said Jackson, whose two forays into right field this season were, to be kind, an adventure. "When you only go out into the outfield once every 35 days, you find out quick how much you like to DH."
But when he retires, will he go down in baseball history as one of the greatest power hitters to play the game? Or will he be remembered as a brash, cocky loudmouth who battled the media as much as his persona?
"Aw, people will forget all that bad stuff in a second," said Mauch. "When he's through, they'll put him in the Hall of Fame. And you know what Reggie will be proudest of? It won't be the home runs or the records. It'll be that he played on championship teams in Oakland, New York and here. That's irrefutable."