Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Reggie Jackson – forever young

Few if any World Series MVP’s leveraged their World Series stardom. Mike Lowell, Cole Hamels, Hideki Matsui and Edgar Renteria aren’t exactly household names. It remains to be seen what 2011 MVP David Freese will become.

One exception is 1977 World Series MVP, Mr. October Reggie Jackson.

Jackson hit five home runs in the ’77 World Series, three in game six on three swings, leading the Yankees to a six game World Series championship over the Los Angeles Dodgers. It was a classic match-up featuring two iconic franchises.

Jackson played for 21 years from 1967-1987 for four different teams and currently serves as a special advisor to the New York Yankees.

He helped win three consecutive World Series titles as a member of the Oakland Athletics in ’72, ’73, and ‘74 and also won two consecutive titles with the New York Yankees in ’77 and ‘78. Jackson was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1993.

The Yankees signed Jackson to a five-year contract, totalling US$2.96 million in 1976. Upon arriving he discovered the number 9 that he had worn in Oakland and Baltimore was worn by third baseman Graig Nettles in New York. Jackson asked for number 42, in memory of Jackie Robinson, but manager Billy Martin brought his friend Art Fowler in as pitching coach and gave him number 42. Noting that then-all-time home run leader Hank Aaron had just retired, Jackson asked for and received Aaron’s number 44.

The title of “Mr. October” was given to Jackson following his epic 1977 World Series performance. However, between Jackson signing with the Yankees in 1976 and his epic game six World Series performance on October 18, 1977 Reggie and the Yankees were a topic of conversation for all the wrong reasons.

While Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and several players, most notably team captain Thurman Munson and Lou Piniella, were excited about his arrival, NManager Billy Martin was not.

Martin had managed the Tigers in 1972, when Jackson's A's beat them in the playoffs. Jackson was once quoted as saying of Martin, "I hate him, but if I played for him, I'd probably love him."

The relationship between Jackson and his new teammates was strained in part after an interview with SPORT magazine writer Robert Ward. During spring training at the Yankees' camp in Fort Lauderdale, Jackson and Ward were having drinks at a nearby bar. Jackson's version of the story is that the Yankees had won the pennant the year before, but lost the World Series to the Reds, and suggested that they needed one thing more to win it all, and pointed out the various ingredients in his drink. Ward suggested that Jackson might be "the straw that stirs the drink."

However, when the story appeared in the May 1977 issue of SPORT, Ward quoted Jackson as saying, "This team, it all flows from me. I'm the straw that stirs the drink. Maybe I should say me and Munson, but he can only stir it bad."

Jackson denied saying anything negative about Munson and that he was taken out of context. However, New York Times writer Dave Anderson wrote that when he had drinks with Jackson in July 1977 Jackson told him, "I'm still the straw that stirs the drink. Not Munson, not nobody else on this club."

Regardless, as Munson was beloved by his teammates, Martin, Steinbrenner and Yankee fans, the relationships between them and Jackson became very strained.

In a nationally televised loss to the Boston Red Sox in July 1977, Jim Rice hit a ball into shallow right field that Jackson appeared to weakly attempt to field. Jackson failed to reach the ball which fell far in front of him, allowing the notoriously slow Rice to reach second base. The always competitive and fiery Martin removed Jackson from the game without even waiting for the end of the inning, sending Paul Blair out to replace him.

When Jackson arrived at the dugout, Martin yelled that Jackson had shown him up. They argued, and Jackson said that Martin's heavy drinking had impaired his judgment. Despite Jackson being eighteen years younger, about two inches taller and maybe forty pounds heavier, Martin lunged at him, and had to be restrained by coaches Yogi Berra and Elston Howard. Red Sox fans could see this in the dugout and began cheering wildly, and the NBC TV cameras showed the confrontation to the entire country.

Yankee management managed to defuse the situation the next day, but the relationship between Jackson and Martin was permanently poisoned. Nevertheless, late in the season, after resisting requests from various sources to do so, most particularly Steinbrenner, Martin put Jackson in the fourth position in the batting order, the "cleanup" position generally reserved for the team's most powerful hitter. Jackson's hitting improved (he had 13 home runs and 49 RBIs over his next 50 games), and the team went on a winning streak.

Appearing on the Season Premiere of Studio 42 with Bob Costas on the MLB Network Costas asked Jackson how he feels about the late Billy Martin.

“I never had an understanding of Billy Martin. I did not accept the way he managed me. I did not accept the way he managed Ken Holtzman. I thought there was anti-Semitism there. ... I couldn't accept that. I couldn't accept the racial epithets in reference to players like Elliott Maddox or Billy Sample. There are players that played for him that would tell you that [he made racist or anti-Semitic comments about those players]. So there was an uneasiness, a knowledge about the person that I was very uncomfortable with. ... I wasn't his choice and he wanted to show George [Steinbrenner]. So that was kind of an oddity, a craziness that I never could follow, and I struggled to have respect for Billy as a person and had it reinforced with the anti-Semitism that I witnessed.”

The suggestion that Martin was anti-Semitic has touched off a firestorm. Billy’s son Billy Martin Jr. came to his father’s defence in a New York Daily News article.

"I can assure you, my father was not a racist," Billy Martin Jr. said in a telephone interview. "My father was about winning. That's all he cared about. He put people on the field as best he thought to get victories. He didn't care about anyone's background.

"He just wanted the best player on the field. My father could've cared less about anything other than winning. He wasn't there to make friends, but to make winners. Let's let my father rest."

Reggie likes being in the news and isn’t above making controversial remarks. Was Billy Martin a racist? Dead men can’t answer for their alleged sins, but be very sure Billy Martin loved to win more than anything else.

Jackson hasn’t forgotten the June 18, 1977 Fenway Park incident.

“I remember people saying to me just recently, a year or so ago, be it Fran Healy, Mike Torrez and a few people, that Billy had said to a couple of players, "Watch what I do today." That he had planned something. ... I was upset that he was taking me out of the game. I wondered what he was doing. I knew Billy was a sucker puncher, so I took my glasses off. I was trying be alert. I was ready in case he would try to throw a punch. I think he was more putting on a show than anything else. ... He said to me, "I should show you what I'm gonna do," and I said, "Well, all the alcohol you've been drinking must be going to your brain." ... Finally Fran Healy came in to the clubhouse from the outfield and said "Reggie, get dressed and changed and go home. Because no matter what you do, whether he hits you first or you grab him, you're gonna be wrong. So get dressed and go home. Get dressed and go home." ... [It was the] smartest thing I was ever told to do and luckily one of the smarter things I did.”

Is there a connection between the infamous June 18 incident and the allegations Jackson made against Martin? Maybe, but clearly Reggie still has issues with Billy. Its too bad that Billy isn’t alive to answer those questions.

Rest assured Reggie, who is currently a ‘special ambassador’ for the Yankees, will forever be a New York Yankee in his heart.

“I'm enormously appreciative of it. The fans there have welcomed me, the Steinbrenner family has been special. During George's last ten years, I made sure that our relationship was special and I will always treat it like Red Auerbach and Bill Russell, Tom Landry and Roger Staubach, Bill Walsh and Joe Montana, [Michael] Jordan and [Phil] Jackson, and I will consider myself as "George Steinbrenner and Reggie Jackson," I'll be very proud of that relationship forever.”

In 1976, while playing in Baltimore, Jackson had said, "If I played in New York, they'd name a candy bar after me."

The Yankees' 1978 home opener featured a new product called the "Reggie!" bar by the Standard Brands company. Reggie! bars were handed to fans as they walked into Yankee Stadium that day. Jackson hit a home run, and when he returned to right field the next inning, fans began throwing the Reggie bars on the field in celebration.

Costas asked Reggie how Mr. October, who hit 563 home runs during his Hall of Fame career, felt about baseball players using performance enhancement drugs. PED’s weren’t a part of baseball for the most part during Jackson’s career.

“I think baseball fans recognize the players that hit their 550 or 500 home runs, or maybe 6-700 without PEDs, and I do think that the true fan separates the seven or eight that were accused or proven that they took PEDs. ... I went "Wow" when I saw [Mark] McGwire and [Sammy] Sosa in the Home Run Derbies, and [Jose] Canseco of course. But I knew why. The sad part of that additionally too is when you see the great players like Prince Fielder and great players like [Albert] Pujols, it makes you unfairly question [them].”

Reggie remains one of professional sports most polarizing figures. He was Tim Tebow before Tim Tebow, with the talent to back it up.

Ask the average baseball fan who won the World Series MVP in a given year and chances are they couldn’t tell you, with the exception of Jackson in ‘77.

Reggie Jackson transcends not only baseball, but sports. He is the rarest of all professional athletes – a star who managed to parlay his on-field success into a lifelong legacy off the field.

Mr. October, forever young in the hearts and minds of anyone who looks back at the 1970’s.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited and used in this Insider Report: Wikipedia

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