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REGGIE JACKSON : Mr. October Taking His Last Swings

September 05, 1987|RICHARD JUSTICE | The Washington Post

OAKLAND — It's a few minutes past 9 on one of those resplendent Bay Area mornings when Reggie Jackson turns his custom-built 1955 Chevrolet into the parking lot at the Oakland Coliseum. The car is a classic piece of Americana, from the leather seats to the chrome wheels to the immaculate maroon paint job, and the fans awaiting Jackson's arrival treat it as such.

"Love the car, Reggie," one man tells this country's most famous sports figure (according to a recent survey by Benton and Bowles Advertising).

The Oakland Athletics and New York Yankees won't play for another four hours, but as Jackson steps from his car there are fans waiting with pens, trading cards, autograph books and various other memorabilia of his 20 years in the major leagues.

Jackson, dressed in pressed jeans, Pumas and a white knit shirt, obliges, signing a few autographs, posing for a picture and making about 20 seconds of small talk before disappearing into a hallway that leads down a staircase near the Athletics' clubhouse.

He has made this walk about 800 times in the last 20 years, first as a player with the A's for eight years, then as a visiting player with the Orioles, Yankees and Angels. Now, back with the Athletics for his last season as a full-time player, it has taken on added significance.

A year ago, he began making plans for this season, for one last rainbow tour. He had wanted to do it for the California Angels, the team he signed with in 1982, but the Angels, citing money and age, didn't offer him a contract.

So he returned to the Athletics, the team for which he began his Hall of Fame career. He wanted the final season "to do things right" because he knew that baseball would want to say a special goodbye to its sixth-leading all-time home run leader (563 and counting) and maybe its greatest clutch performer.

Some of it has gone as planned. In his last game at Fenway Park, public-address announcer Sherm Feller introduced him as "Mr. October," and the stadium organist played "Auld Lang Syne."

In Detroit, Sparky Anderson sent in a right-handed pitcher "because Reggie is a friend, and he deserved a chance to hit one in his last at-bat here."

Lately, it hasn't gone so smoothly. Jackson has a sore left hamstring and wasn't able to take batting practice in three games at Yankee Stadium this week. It's also likely that he won't be able to play this weekend at Memorial Stadium when he meets the Orioles for what probably will be the last time.

When the Athletics gambled on him last winter, they weren't sure what they were getting. Certainly, box-office appeal was a factor, but the Athletics also mentioned leadership, a particularly important quality for a young team.

Jackson appears to have taken that responsibility seriously. When he sensed his teammates getting discouraged after a long road trip three weeks ago, he called a team meeting, and, even with his batting average in the low .200s, it's clear he's revered by his teammates. In fact, when he began talking about retiring at the all-star break, a group of players got together and decided they had to convince him to stay on.

Manager Tony La Russa did the same thing in a separate conversation with Jackson, but it's with the players that he has almost a mystical hold.

"One factor is that, no matter what we go through, he has already gone through it," reliever Jay Howell said. "If he doesn't panic, why should we panic? The other thing is expectations. He kind of demands more from you than maybe you think is there. He doesn't even say that much, but if you're around him every day, you know. Then, there are his work habits. No one on this team has better work habits than Reggie, and that has an impact. The man is 41 years old and look at the condition he's in. He's still solid as a rock. I love playing with the man."

A year ago, Jackson said he wanted one more season "to go around and do my thing, say my goodbyes. I want to do it right."

Which he is, taking each day slowly, appearing to drink in every moment.

"Hey, it's time," he said, "and I'm having a good time. I'd like to help the ballclub win some games down the stretch because we've got a chance to win. That's the only thing I'd like to change right now. I'd like to be able to light the fire a little bit. I think I can do it if I keep my nose to the grindstone and bear down."

He smiles and his eyes twinkle.

"I think good things just might happen," he said.

He has 15 homers in his farewell summer, and with 563, has a chance to catch fifth-place Harmon Killebrew (573) on the all-time list. But a lot of baseball people say all of that -- the 563 home runs and 2,592 strikeouts and 1,698 RBI -- is secondary to something else. What Jackson should be known for, they say, is winning.

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