Reggie Jackson still tormenting Dodgers with his bat
When the leaves turn to gold at World Series time, so does Reggie Jackson, the controversial outfielder who wears No. 44 for the New York Yankees, drives a Rolls-Royce, and owns a string of vintage autos.
The Los Angeles Dodgers, who continue the 1981 fall classic against New York on Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium, wish they had never seen him. He torments their pitchers and cuts down on owner Peter O'Malley's income, for the simple reason that most fans won't leave their seats for the concession stands with Jackson at the plate.
Going into this year's Series, Reggie had hit nine home runs in World Series play - all but one of them against L.A. - and he has since added to that total. After sitting out the first three games because of a leg injury, Reggie returned in encounter No. 4 to reach base five consecutive times with two singles, two walks, and a home run.
However, Jackson has often had trouble playing baseball's sun field (right field in most parks) over the years, and it was his two-base error while weaving under a fly ball that kept L.A. in the game. The ball hit him in the chest while Davey Lopes reached second base. Ronald McDonald gets rave notices for stuff that isn't half that funny.
Three-time Cy Young Award winner Jim Palmer, the color-analyst for ABC-TV during the Series, thinks the Dodgers over the years have pitched Jackson all wrong.
''First let me explain that the good hitters are going to get their fair share of hits, home runs, and RBIs no matter how hard you work against them,'' Palmer told me just prior to Game 4. ''By the same token the good pitchers are going to get out of most jams regularly by forcing hitters to ground into double plays or strike out.
''You don't let hitters the caliber of Jackson dig in at the plate and get comfortable against you. You deny him the chance to swing from the hips by making him protect the strike zone. The way you do this is to start Reggie off with low curve balls on the outside corner of the plate; making it very clear to him that you're not going to let him sit there and wait for your fastball.
''Now instead of thinking home run, he's just thinking hit and you come inside on him with breaking stuff and maybe get him out. Jackson really isn't a pull hitter, but when teams like the Dodgers persist in pitching him up and away , he's going to jump on that delivery and drive it somewhere. And with his strength some of those hits are going to be out of the ballpark.''
The Jackson personality is difficult to get down on paper because Reggie is really more than one person. Several times I've interviewed him when he couldn't have been more cooperative; when he would expand on questions and offer an insight on his thinking that you didn't expect to get.
But I've also encountered him when he's been like a jungle lion with a thorn in its paw; when his eyes seemed to burn through you like two laser beams. At such times you might as well walk away.
The amazing thing about players like Jackson, who doesn't even need to be identified any more when someone mentions the nickname Mr. October, is how they always seem able to elevate their game in clutch situations. Ted Williams had it as a hitter; Ben Hogan as a golfer; Bobby Fischer as a chess champion; and Jimmy Brown as the toughest fullback of his generation.
Even though the ability to rise to the occasion is hard to define, Reggie once had this to say to me about it:
''Getting the big hit or making the big play in the clutch is not a talent everyone has, and it is also a talent that can't be used unless you have enough great players around you to create that kind of atmosphere. Often I've been a hero only because my teammates gave me the chance.
''Baseball is a long season and although everybody gets tired, I think the pitchers probably get physically drained the most. Late in the season, I always feel like I've got a physical edge on the pitcher, especially in the late innings when his fastball has lost some of its zip. That's probably the main reason I've been able to pull so many good pitchers for home runs.''
Jackson did not have his usual eye-compelling statistics during the first half of this season. In fact, at the time of baseball's 50-day strike, Reggie was hitting .199 with only six homers and 24 RBIs. But after the strike Reggie reverted to form, led the Yankees in homers and RBIs, and raised his batting average 38 points.
Whether you think Jackson is headed for the Hall of Fame or whether you think there isn't enough mustard in New York to cover this 35-year-old hot dog, there's no doubting his ability to crush a baseball. In the clutch. With men on base. At World Series time. Especially at World Series time!