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Scott Ostler

He Was a Hotdog Who Gave Baseball a Special Flavor

November 26, 1986|SCOTT OSTLER

Reggie Jackson had to go, everyone knew that.

When the Angels fired him Monday afternoon, no presses stopped, no regular programming was interrupted for a special bulletin, the earth didn't rumble and shake.

He was a lame-duck Angel from the beginning of spring training, so the news wasn't news.

Gene Mauch probably shed no tear of farewell, and I'm willing to bet heavily that Mike Port didn't even blink. The other Angels probably took the news in stride. It's not as if they were losing somebody vital, like Wally Joyner or Mike Witt.

But I'm going to miss the big palooka.

When Reggie was around, something was always happening. Managers were being second-guessed, fans were being knocked cold in bars, records were being broken, an opposing team's management was being accused of racism, reporters' notebooks were being filled with good stuff.

More than once I went to the ballpark, vowing not to write about Reggie that day, and more than once I wound up talking myself out of my promise.

Baseball, on the field and behind the scenes, can get real boring during a long season. Reggie battled boredom like a disease. I think even his teammates appreciated that. Baseball gets boring for the players, too.

In mid-season, when Reggie abandoned his Mauch-approved banjo swing and went back to his old Texas chain-saw style, he made national headlines for days. The Angels were in a pennant race at the time, and a lot of people said Jackson's outburst would be a fatal distraction to the team's concentration.

Not a chance. All he did was liven up the clubhouse, a much-needed service. The Angels, after all, are a blend of old, conservative players and young, conservative players. I think most of Reggie's teammates, whether or not they approved of his crusades and tirades, enjoyed the side show.

There will be a lot more room with Reggie gone. He took up a lot of space in the clubhouse, for one thing. He had two lockers instead of one. They were always jammed to the ceiling with boxes and crates, bats and shoes and dumbbells, assorted goodies and novelties. Stopping at his locker was like walking into an old general store.

Reggie's ego took up a lot of space, too. If I tell you I once visited a certain baseball player's condo, and the dominant decoration in the living room was a large poster of that player posing next to one of his vintage automobiles, can you guess who that player is?

A lot of people consider Reggie a hotdog. A lot of people consider him the hotdog.

Last season, he arranged for a kid who had been horribly burned to put on an Angel uniform and go out onto the field before a game, with Reggie. Some of Reggie's critics considered this an example of typical Jackson grandstanding. Maybe it was. I'm sure the kid resented the hell out of it.

Another time, when a famous former big leaguer, rumored to be down on his luck, was visiting the Angel clubhouse before a game, Reggie pulled the guy aside.

"How you doing?" Reggie quietly asked the man, a former teammate. "Are you OK? Can you use a little money?"

Maybe it was hotdogging when, way back in spring training, Reggie buddied up with Wally Joyner, and vice versa. Reggie loved talking to the kid, giving him bits of advice and counsel. "On ground balls, don't run to the bag," Reggie told Wally. "Run through the bag. It looks better."

It also results in more base hits, improved team spirit and morale and silly stuff like that. How many rookies, no matter how confident, wish they had a big-brother teammate to offer occasional advice or insight into this new world? Not that Wally benefited at all from it.

As fond as Jackson is of his own talents, no other Angel was as lavish with ongoing praise of kids like Joyner and Gary Pettis.

Reggie is surely a hotdog. Nobody sulks or swaggers better. A lot of baseball players treat what they do as a job. Reggie considers it a real-life drama, life and death, laughs and tears every day.

He was great with the press, when he wasn't occasionally being rude or abusive. When he got on a roll, you sent out for more tape and batteries. Sometimes he got sort of carried away with his own phrase making and ran off some fun monologues. They didn't always make sense, but they did have a certain style, like beatnik poetry.

Reggie was the top dog, top banana, big cheese, main man, head honcho, leader of the pack, numero uno, major domo, big bopper, master blaster . . .

But in the final analysis, he was getting old and he didn't hit enough home runs anymore, so he's gone.

Late in the season, angry at the ballclub for a thousand reasons, Reggie talked about how the Angels, over the years, have lacked a distinctive character or identity or tradition.

"Like the Dodgers, Celtics, Cowboys, Raiders," he said. "The Dodgers, for instance, have a lot of ex-Dodgers around, doing things for them. Here, we had Carew. He's gone, and I'm going in the same direction.

"Some teams have an identity. Lester Hayes is a Raider . Jim Otto, he has the look of a Raider. Ben Davidson, Gene Upshaw, those were Raiders . What's an Angel?"

Who knows, maybe someday someone will point at a picture of Reggie and say " That's one."

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