Reggie Jackson turned 40 Sunday. Let's watch him while we can. Watch him swing for the moon and wear his uniform too tight -- top button open to let all those muscles breathe. Watch him boast and brawl and take the heat for being Mr. October, Buck Tater Man and The Straw That Stirs The Drink. We may not see his like again for quite a while.
That's not to say we won't see others who will hit 537 home runs. We will.
What's becoming increasingly scarce, however, is the star athlete who revels in his celebrity and eats it up -- even though it may eat him up.
The country that has always loved its brave and risky extroverts -- men such as Babe Ruth and Dizzy Dean, Muhammad Ali and Joe Namath, Dr. J and Riggo -- is in danger of breeding a generation of timid, self-protective and boring heroes.
Smart and gifted, we have watched what has happened to the Jacksons and Pete Roses in the last 15 years. We've read the biographies by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and even Steve Garvey. And we've felt from afar the warping, wounding effects of a big persona in a public life.
As a nation, we've built ever larger stages for our jocks, offered them millions, plus fame that refuses to quit. And they're saying, "No thanks. Do what you've done to Reggie and the rest of 'em to somebody else."
On Sunday in Baltimore, Eddie Murray of the Orioles, who may one day surpass most of Jackson's achievements, drove in seven runs and hit the 14th grand slam of his career. Only one man has more than 18 slams: Lou Gehrig with 23.
After the game, instead of discussing his pursuit of the Iron Horse, instead of enjoying his 11 RBI in two games, instead of playing the hero in exchange for his new $13 million contract, Murray said, "I've got nothing to say." Pressed for a reason, he elaborated, "Because I don't choose to."
Reggie Jackson says that Eddie Murray is the best player in baseball.
But he's no old-fashioned hero.
When the klieg lights shine, Murray puts Murray the Man far ahead of Murray the Myth. If that means that the Orioles lack a team leader -- which they do -- and if it means that the public is given little more than a performance conducted behind a deliberately crafted mask, then Murray couldn't care less.
Like many others of his generation, he's decided that it's all or nothing. Let the press and public in, as Jackson has, and they'll take up residence in every room of your emotional home, going through the laundry and the linen.
How can we blame Murray any more than we can criticize the influx of clean-livers such as Cal Ripken Jr. and Dale Murphy, or the monosyllabic Wade Boggs and Don Mattingly, who pick their spots to utter a 10-word sentence? Why shouldn't Dwight Gooden live in a total media blackout, except for a few guarded minutes after he pitches? What good did it ever do Mark Fidrych?
Guys such as Keith Hernandez, beer in one hand and cigarette in the other, or Dave Parker or Mike Schmidt have let their egos show -- taken the leash off their personalities -- and what did it get them? They get booed in their home park as Schmidt did. Or, when it's tale-telling time in court, they're the high profile ones who take the bust.
Might it not be safer just to be a grouch like Jim Rice or a recluse like Steve Carlton?
Plenty feel that way. They see John McEnroe, battered into hibernation at 26 by the 400 blows of maturing in public, while Ivan Lendl -- the prototype of the introverted but physically superior athlete -- inherits the tennis kingdom.
Jackson's manager, Gene Mauch of the Angels, said: "I wouldn't be Reggie Jackson for all the money in the world . . . I can't begin to comprehend the life he's led. No one can. It's unimaginable . . . His entire life is public."
"I'd be me for all the money in the world," Jackson said last week, but he added, "It's tough. I find I've become bigger than my career, if that's possible . . . The expectations of people are a tremendous burden . . . The average person has absolutely no idea what I go through. No way."
Monday night, Jackson talked about the dwindling desire of stars to be heroes as well. "It gets easier as you get older. People tend to remember the best. But it bothered me a long time. At one time or another, I've come across as everything -- a good guy, a bastard, humble, an egomaniac. I got called an egomaniac a lot more than I liked. I know I'm fallible, flawed, but I think I'm a nice man.
"What I've been through it all is human." And that's what we're losing now.
Luckily, we still have exceptions -- stars who don't fear what Jackson once called "the magnitude of being me." You can't tell Magic Johnson not to smile or The Refrigerator not to snack.
What we're left with is a dilemma. Everybody likes virtue, humility, strong character and wisdom. But in the meantime, what are we going to do for red meat? In an earlier age, Americans didn't mind if a man was a glutton for food or bathtub gin, didn't mind if he broke a few laws and taboos, just as long as he held the bat down on the knob and hit 60 home runs, just as long as he visited the kids in hospitals and smiled for the camera like a big fat lusty moonrise.
We let an athlete be a hero then and looked the other way when he wasn't. Now, we never blink, we seldom forgive, we tell all. One standard fits all. And we wonder why the stage is getting kind of empty.
Just hypothetically, let's say that one night in a bar, Babe Ruth had it up to here with some fan badgering him for an autograph. And, let's say, the Babe grabs this guy, squeezes him 'til he's blue in the face, then casually drops him on the floor like a bag of flour.
Back then, America would have had a good laugh. And the guy who ended up with a couple of stitches would have showed that scar off proudly for the rest of his life and said, "The Babe sure laid one on me that night."
Now, it's see you in court, Reg.
And Eddie Murray decides he'll take the fifth after his grand slams.
It's probably progress.
But sometimes you wonder.