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Reggie Jackson is in top form, and soon he will be at liberty to cash in on his excellent season

Reggie Jackson, having ingested a robust midmorning repast of steak and eggs, was departing the coffee shop of the Leamington Hotel in Minneapolis one day last week when he encountered his Oriole teammate, the waggish Tommy Harper. For reasons of his own, it amuses Harper to inquire into Jackson's well-being. "Buck," he began, employing the sobriquet Jackson inherited from his hero, Willie Mays, "How ya doin'?"

"Me?" Jackson answered solemnly. "I'm strugglin'."

Harper took a deep breath and, with a graceful sweep of his hand, drew the attention of passersby to Jackson. "There he is, friends. A free agent. A TV commentator. Drives fancy cars. Big real-estate operator in Arizona. Got a car dealership in California. Big salary, which is gonna get much, much bigger. Known and loved by everybody. Got all the girls in the world...and he is strugglin'."

This declamation was received with guffaws all around, some of the loudest of them emanating from Jackson himself. How ludicrous it was that someone so firmly ensconced in the catbird seat should describe himself as strugglin'. If Jackson is strugglin', so are AT&T. Woodward and Bernstein and the peanut industry in Georgia, because, among other things, he is the most coveted of baseball's newest species, the really free agent. In a few short months Jackson will enter the marketplace to sell his services to one of as many as 13 teams that will be eager to come up with some very long green.

During spring training Jackson was traded from Oakland to Baltimore. At first, he peevishly refused to report, saying he had no wish to play baseball anywhere but on the West Coast, a region that best accommodates his freewheeling manner. He would reconsider, he said, only if the Orioles were to tender him a sufficiently lucrative multiyear contract. In time, Baltimore coaxed him out of retirement by raising his $140,000 salary by a considerable sum. But Jackson did not sign a contract with the Orioles then, and he has not signed one yet. Instead he is in the process of playing out the option year of his old contract with the A's. As a result of last winter's Andy Messersmith free-agent case, which effectively outlawed baseball's reserve system and freed players to shop around when their contracts expire, Jackson will be at liberty after this season to seek employment elsewhere. An agreement reached between the baseball owners and the Major League Players Association earlier this month set up the procedures for the drafting and signing of free agents (see box on page 17). Under those rules, Jackson may choose to move to any one of a dozen teams, or he could decide to stay with the Orioles.

There are currently 30 players in Jackson's category, including six stars from his old team (Joe Rudi, Sal Bando, Bert Campaneris, Gene Tenace, Rollie Fingers and Don Baylor), and a present teammate, the estimable second baseman, Bobby Grich. Of this number, some still may come to terms with their current employers. But those who have the greatest market value—and this certainly includes Jackson—are likely to wait and see how much the competing owners are willing to pay them.

It is a situation unprecedented in baseball. For the best players on the auction block the future looks golden, and no future glitters more than Jackson's. Of all the liberated players, he has the greatest star quality. He is a left-handed batter who hits home runs, and everyone can use some of those. He is also a colorful and engaging personality who has demonstrated this year that he can put people in the stands. He is a big reason why the Orioles have drawn 67,900 more fans this season than last, while the A's have attracted 300,000 fewer. Despite his holdout of nearly a month and his faltering start at the plate, Jackson is having an outstanding season. He ranks among the American League leaders in homers (22) and runs batted in (78), and because he appears to be just now hitting his stride, he could end up leading the league in both departments. He is truly in the midst of a historic salary drive, one that could lead him to a multiseason, seven-figure contract. No one appreciates his enviable status more than Jackson. Reggie may be Tommy Harper's foil, but he's nobody's fool.

"I'll soon be an overpaid athlete," he says. "I'll probably get a million more than I should, but I didn't make the rules. I'm just taking advantage of them."

Jackson's holdout this spring was admittedly a gamble. By starting late, on May 2, he was risking a poor season that would make him much less attractive to bidders this fall. But in virtually every way, the gamble has paid off. Had Charles Finley not traded Jackson, the A's would have invoked the rule that allows them to cut an unsigned player's wages by 20%. The Orioles not only restored the 20%, but they also agreed to pay Jackson more than he was making in Oakland, though neither he nor they will say how much more. He was batting only .242 at the All-Star break, but since then has hit well over .300, with 13 home runs and 39 RBIs. His appealing statistics, his prime age, 30, and his ability to create excitement make him the most attractive of all the liberated chattels. Still, Jackson insists he paid a price for his gamble.

"I lost about 20 days' pay," he says. "I was pressing at the plate, and I didn't really start hitting until June. My teammates were saying things about me that I didn't particularly like. I had an uneasy feeling every time I walked into the clubhouse. I felt like a stranger, as if I was playing on the road all season. The fans in Baltimore were booing me. I hit a grand slam one day, and they booed me my next time at bat. They booed me for striking out against Nolan Ryan. Heck, Ryan strikes everybody out. Look, suppose I had never gotten untracked. Suppose I were hitting about .190 now. That holdout could've cost me a cool million."

Jackson can afford to toss such extravagant figures about, because he is expected to charge a lot more than a cool million for his services. But he has no idea what the going rate will be. (One well-informed agent estimates that rock bottom for Jackson will be a five-year contract worth $1.5 million.) "Oh, you daydream about these things," says Reggie. "This will be the first time an every-day player has gone on the open market. The only others have been Catfish and Messersmith, and they're both pitchers. I don't think they're fair examples of what will happen."

Anyhow, Jackson insists, money will not be the principal consideration when it comes time to find a new job. What is most important is finding a team and a place that will fit his "life-style." This may sound a bit cynical to those who regard modern ballplayers as venal, but Jackson has filthy lucre well down on his list of preferences. "Suppose that one team offers me $1.7 million and another team $2 million." he says, "and that the higher offer comes from a team in Georgia and the lower offer from a team in my own backyard in the San Francisco Bay Area. Me, I'm gonna want to play in my backyard. A couple of hundred thousand dollars isn't gonna make that much difference when you're talking about those figures. You couldn't spend it in a lifetime anyway.

"When I talk about life-style, I mean I want to go to a place with a liberal attitude. I don't like sectarian living—I think that's the word. I don't necessarily mean segregated living, I mean certain people living among themselves: Jews here, Poles there, blacks over there. I'm not interested in playing in any town that has that. I know I'm not crazy about playing in the South, and the Midwest would be impractical for me because all of my business interests are either on the West Coast or in the East. I've got a lot of friends in California, and that means a great deal to me. There are five teams there to choose from, although I guess you'd have to rule out Oakland because Charlie Finley doesn't seem to want me.

"But there are other considerations. I'm not sure I'd fit in with teams like the Mets or the Dodgers that emphasize organization over individual personality. They may not even want someone like me. But I could see myself with a team like the Phillies, because with all their stars—the Schmidts, the Luzinskis—there wouldn't be so much pressure on me. And I'd like to be on a contender and a team that draws well. I've never been on a team that drew well. I like living near the ocean. I like getting involved in a community, doing youth work. I've taken so much out of this game that it weighs on my mind. I'd like to give a little back to the town where I play. I want to settle down, raise a family, be part of things."

When the time comes to make a choice, Jackson will huddle with his close friend and business associate, Gary Walker, who also acts as his agent. Walker, a real-estate developer who lives near Phoenix, will not fly, so chances are that the bidders will have to come to him. Jackson wants Walker to get the facts and the "feeling" of the offers. "I trust him to do what's best for me financially, emotionally, psychologically, theologically," Reggie says. "He has a tremendous way of looking inside of me and seeing what's-right for me." When Walker makes his recommendation, Jackson will visit the chosen city, if it happens to be one with which he is unfamiliar. The final decision, he says, will be his alone.

In the meantime, he will explore the possibility of signing with the Orioles, although not many people in Baltimore hold out much hope for his staying there. On a stroll through the lobby of the Leamington last Thursday, Harper, the genial tormentor, pointed out to Jackson that there were photographs of all the Oriole stars except Reggie on the wall behind the registration desk. "That's probably because they know I'm just passing through," said Jackson.

Indeed, Baltimore seems an imperfect setting for the vaunted Jackson life-style. He is more subdued there than he was in the Bay Area, possibly because his mother and sisters also live in the town. To hear him tell it, his evenings are largely spent with his family, dandling nieces and nephews on his knees and eating home-cooked meals. "I was extremely visible in Oakland," Jackson says. "Everybody knew me. I patronized the same stores, service stations, restaurants. People knew where I was every hour." In June a fire caused about $70,000 in damage to the condominium Jackson owns in Oakland. Among the items lost were World Series mementos and much of Jackson's wardrobe. "It kicked hell out of me mentally for about three weeks," he says, and it underlined the sense of estrangement he feels in Baltimore.

"This is a very conservative town," says Oriole Catcher Dave Duncan, once Jackson's teammate in Oakland. "Anytime you're traded, there's an adjustment you have to make. Baltimore's a particularly tough adjustment, because it just isn't the type of town Reggie's used to."

Still, Jackson has little quarrel with the Oriole management, particularly after having worked for the parsimonious and quarrelsome Finley, a man with whom he was almost perpetually at odds. "The management here will do almost anything for you," he says, almost with surprise. "Now I find it hard to believe the things we had to deal with under Finley. But he's the most strong-willed person I've ever known. Even if he loses everybody—Rudi, Fingers, all of them—he'll probably still land on his feet."

Jackson will assuredly land on his. Aside from an occasional lapse—he lost a fly ball in the lights at Minnesota last Wednesday—he is playing some of the best ball of his career. And though he may be a transient, he is also winning over the Oriole fans and players. "If we'd had him all season," says Manager Earl Weaver, "there's no question we'd be five games closer to first place."

Jackson enjoys such talk. He is equally entertained by the ever-increasing number of conflicting reports about where he is destined to play next season. When he was advised in Minnesota last week that two of the newer rumors had him on his way to the Giants and the Mets, he merely shrugged and, quoting David Harum, said, "All I know is what I read in the papers." Then he smiled confidently. "But I guess you'd have to say I've got a little leverage."

Enough, he might have added, so that his strugglin' days are behind him.