By Jason Keidel
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Whenever we debate the duality of the modern athlete, it morphs into little more than one generation bemoaning the next. “These kids today…” and such. And while I don’t buy the idea that one wave of kids is better than the next, I’m thrilled I wasn’t raised in this synthesized world of social networks, where privacy has gone the way of the jheri curl.
There was a time before Facebook, cell phones and iPads, before the furnace froze in Hell’s Kitchen, before Disney turned Manhattan into an embellished tourist trap. And there was a time when being a kid still held some mystery, when our idea of utopia was a ball or a bat and sidewalk chalk.
For me, it started in the late 1970s. And Reggie Jackson was the emblem of that era. Reggie is the reason I am a Yankees fan. Indeed, the gusts from his prodigious swing reach a few million kids in the five boroughs and beyond.
Before Twitter, before celebrity bowel movements had sponsors, we had a chance to project our fantasies on athletes. All we knew is we wanted to be like the man on that screen, from Swann to Stallworth to Staubach in football, to Brett, Schmidt and Reggie in baseball. We weren’t into abstract notions like “True Yankees” – a most malleable designation for those we deem worthy of eternal pinstripes. I guess hitting three homers off three pitches from three pitchers in one World Series game doesn’t count. It’s among my first memories, and for a boy about to turn eight, that was all I needed.
Anyone over 40 who was raised in NYC remembers those candy bars bearing Jackson’s visage: corkscrewing himself into the dirt after another oversized swing, which caught wind or launched a ball over the fence. The playgrounds I roamed were freckled with the empty, orange wrappers while we played stickball, trying to be Reggie.
We always brag about how it takes a special character, a stubborn if not mean mien to win in New York, to bask under Broadway’s glow without burning in its glare. Reggie Jackson, as much as any athlete in my lifetime, was built for big deeds under brown leaves. You can’t teach it.
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Only later did I learn of Jackson’s legendary disdain for signing balls and programs, lunging from kids when they lurched his way for autographs. And too many people have been personally shunned by Jackson for it to be a myth.
And thus there’s the other side of Jackson, the inner voice that whispers irresistibly to him, imploring to remove the filter from his lips. Reggie Jackson suffers from the malady that befalls much of his brethren. He confuses stardom with wisdom. Too many stars from every era think that they’re imbued with biblical virtue. It isn’t limited to athletes and actors, but they are the most visible faces of this foot-and-mouth.
But Reggie has a special talent with his venom. He couldn’t just go after Blyleven and Niekro. He had to attack The Kid, just as he had to attack Thurman Munson back in the day. There were 20 other Yankees he could have blasted, but he went right after the captain, the most beloved Yankee of the ‘70s. Yet there’s that spellbinding picture or Reggie crying into his cap in right field as the Yankees mourned Munson in ’79. You’ll have to decide if those tears were authentic.
And Reggie stepped deep in it this time, rambling to Sports Illustrated, many barbs gilded with a caveat. “He’s a dear friend, but…” was how Reggie started, then proceeded to rip A-Rod and Andy Pettitte for their use of PEDs, telling us that the stats are not only tainted, but if each were elected to the Hall of Fame there would be a microscopic welcoming committee, with fellow inductees sitting out in protest. As always, Reggie Jackson has convinced himself that he not only speaks for the masses, but also that they elected him spokesman.
Why mention Gary Carter? That’s really the only one that bugs me. Nothing Reggie says is accidental, so he knows he just disrespected an authentic New York hero the very year he died. Carter wasn’t linked to steroids, and Jackson seems to be the only one on Earth who is vocally opposed to Carter’s induction.
God forbid you make a mistake while Mr. October presides. Perhaps Reggie forgets that with his 563 home runs came 2,597 strikeouts, most ever by baseball player. In a rare flash of modesty over his fielding, Reggie said the only way he would ever win a Gold Glove is with a can of spray paint.
And far better players than he didn’t land on teams with the kind of pitching the Athletics and Yankees had from 1972 through ’78. Reggie got much help from his friends while he limped back to the dugout, whiffing for the 100th time that season, a feat he reached a whopping 18 times. Yet he still anoints himself the grand arbiter of right and wrong on a widening range of topics.
Many people – pundits, fans, players, etc. – are shocked that Reggie attacked so many Yankees while his paycheck is covered in pinstripes, provoking his seemingly eternal employer to wrap an indefinite gag order around his mouth. That isn’t so surprising, because Jackson’s venom is often local.
The fact that he betrayed so many trusts, friendships, bonds that took decades to build, speaks to the transitory and transparent nature of Jackson’s allegiance. Reggie Jackson sees the flaws in everyone but himself, which is his fatal flaw.
Feel free to email me: Keidel.Jason@gmail.com
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