The new Reggie Jackson: still awesome, but mellower

Reggie Jackson, like so many of the great Yankees who have preceded him, is a player who was made for New York. He's like a grand skyscraper, and everything about him, from the boundless sense of power he conveys as he strides up to the plate to his ability to send a baseball skyrocketing over the outfield wall, is overwhelming.

It is no wonder that Yankee owner George Steinbrenner considers Jackson the key element behind the success of his organization. After all, the slugging outfielder does what every successful corporation man must do: He produces! Steinbrenner says, "Reggie is just about the only man in baseball who can carry a team for a month."

Since joining the Yankees in 1977, Jackson has continued to enhance the reputation he built during his years in Oakland as a slugger and team leader. But the man who antagonized his new teammates three years ago with his big ego and his famour remark that "I'm the straw that stirs the drink" seems to have mellowed and matured off the field this season. In fact, he goes out of his way these days to pass around the credit for the club's success.

"We've got many leaders on this team," he said after helping the Yankees to a four-game sweep in Boston last weekend that just about wrapped up their fourth American League East title in the last five years. "There's Ron Guidry, Willie Randolph, Goose Gossage, Graig Nettles. . . ."

Yet Reggie provides leadership in his own distinctive manner via the long ball. In his three previous years with the Yankees he averaged nearly 30 home runs and 100 RBIs per season -- and this summer he's been even more torrid than before. His batting average has hovered around .300 for most of the season, and he has also managed to clout 37 home runs and drive in 98 runs so far.

Bob Watson, a newcomer to the Yankees this year, thinks Jackson has had a tremendous effect on the team's success.

"He gets you up in the clubhouse and on the field -- and he also comes through with the clutch hit," the veteran first baseman said. "Look at the Red Sox series. On his first trip to the plate he hits the first pitch into the right-field seats.The next night he does the exact same thing: First trip to the plate, and the first pitch he gets winds up in the screen. We won the first game in extra innings and the other by one run."

Next year will be Jackson's fifth in New York, and some fans are already asking the question directed toward any big star who wears the pin stripes: "Does he measure up to the greats -- the Mantles, DiMaggios, and Gehrigs?

"Is he part of the Yankee tradition that was built by Babe Ruth and carried on by those other superstars, or is he merely a glamorous mercenary whose only allegiance is to his wallet and his silver Rolls-Royce?"

Jackson's detractors point to his occasional defensive lapses and to is celebrated run-ins with former manager Billy Martin -- such as the nationally televised game in Boston when Martin became so infuriated by Reggie's lackadaisical play that he pulled him off the field and almost came to blows with him in a wild dugout scene. "Would a Mantle or DiMaggio have dogged it on a play, or fumbled routine balls as Jackson has done in the past?" the anti-Reggie chorus asks.

But supporters can point to the fact that, like the Yankee greats who have preceded him, Jackson regularly rises to the occasion when the chips are down -- especially during the World Series. Although his lifetime batting average for regular season play is .272, his World Series average is .360. And in his two appearances with New York in the fall classic, 1977 and 1978, he hit .450 and . 391.

Regardless of how one feels about Jackson as an individual, one can't help being amazed by his ability to perform in key situations.

Steve Garvey summed it up best when he described his reaction to Jackson's three home runs during the sixth and decisive game in 1977. "I must admit, when Reggie hit his third home run and I was sure nobody was looking, I applauded in my glove," the Los Angeles first baseman said.

The three homers, coupled with two others, put Jackson in the record books along with none other than Babe Rugh for hitting the most homers in one World Series. And this was only one of many examples Reggie has given through the years of his remarkable ability to come through in the clutch.

Jackson also has his own distinctive way of conveying the grandness of his accomplishments. After hitting a ball that is obviously "gone," he will stand at the plate admiring his masterpiece as it sails into the stands, then slowly trot around the bases, savoring every cheer from the fans.

For Jackson, 1980 has been one of his more enjoyable years, both on the field and in the clubhouse. In his years with Oakland, of course, he was involved in the general player discontent with eccentric owner Charlie Finley. Then in his first few years in New York the controversies seemed to involve almost everyone -- fellow players who resented his fame and fortune, the fans who often booed when they felt he wasn't giving a "million-dollar effort," and the press, which duly recorded all the problems. But now for the first time since joining the Yankees, and perhaps in his entire career, he has felt a sense of harmony on his team.

"I can play now," Jackson said. "I don't have any battles to fight or any personalities to overcome."

The turmoil of previous summers no longer exists, and many of his peers have noticed the change in his attitude. As one of the team's veterans, he has taken it upon himself to help out some of the younger players. On one occasion he was seen chastising rookie centerfielder Bobby Brown for trying to steal second in a bad situation.

Rick Cerone has nothing but admiration for Jackson. "He is awesome," says the Yankee catcher. "He leads by example. He never loafs on the field. He plays hard. I really respect him."

So, after many years when even victory wasn't that sweet, Reggie Jackson the man has finally come of age.

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