Mister October has gone nose-to-nose with his own December this March, and it has been a frigid encounter. At the very least, it has not been a banner spring for the care and feeding of Reggie Jackson's ego. First, he has slowly, inexorably digested the notion that he is not entirely welcome with the California Angels. Since the Angels are Jackson's team, this is not a good sign. On May 18 he will be 40, and while the Angels will pay Reggie $975,000 this season, they have not agreed to sign him to a contract for half that much in 1987. They let him know that he can say a proper goodby to baseball in '87 only if they like his '86. As the man says, sentiment doesn't pay the light bill.
And then came this: It was a late afternoon private-plane flight from Mesa to a Hopi Indian reservation in northern Arizona, an area so secluded that it is surrounded by still another reservation, this one Navajo. To get there, Jackson had left the Angels' game against the Cubs in the seventh inning, forsaking dinner and a decent night's sleep. He had landed on a desolate runway that would have been several hundred feet too short for his own jet, piled into a Chevy Impala and driven another 30 minutes across desert rock and past rudimentary stone shacks to warn a few dozen Hopi kids to stay away from drugs and alcohol. Because a good many Hopi boys are alcoholics by the time they reach their mid-teens, Reggie had some talking to do, and he did it well. "It's like my father used to say, 'If Grandma can't make it, then don't you touch it,' " he told them.
That done, he opened the floor up to questions and, finally, one of the Hopi parents raised a hand.
"Yessir," said Reggie.
"Some of the children," said the man, "would like to know who you are."
Yes, Virginia, there are still places left in the world that don't get Reggievision.
This is the kind of stuff that can give a guy a mid-life crisis.
"Man, I'm almost 40 years old!" Jackson said on that plane flight. "I can't deal the cards the way I used to when I was 30. I was a power broker in baseball then, but I'm not anymore. I have to take what I'm dealt."
The first hand was played in an off-season New York Times article in which Jackson was quoted as saying he felt unwanted. "No matter what," he said then, "I'll get kicked on the way out. They traded Willie Mays, didn't they? They traded Babe Ruth."
And though they haven't traded Reggie Jackson, he thinks they want to. Jackson said that Angels general manager Mike Port called in October (now there's an irony) and said, "We don't want you on our team." Not only that, Jackson told the Los Angeles Times, but Jackie Autry, the wife of Angels owner Gene Autry and a woman whose power grows yearly, also suggested he retire. Her husband later denied that, but when you ask Jackson who's fibbing, all he says is, "Ask Jackie."
As spring approached, there was a question whether the Angels were willing to sign baseball's No. 8 alltime home run hitter (he can pass Jimmie Foxx and Mickey Mantle with seven homers). The Angels believed Jackson's four-year contract had expired, when, in fact, he had enough at bats last season to earn an option to play in '86 for that $975,000. According to Jackson, Port asked him to become a free agent this season, but he refused. "Free agent? Not at my age. Not with a million dollars in my hand," Reggie said. When the Angels realized there was no way out, they signed him for this year, but not beyond it.
It is a rather unwieldy issue. Take Gene Autry's side. He has been in this thorny saddle before. Rod Carew overstayed his welcome by a year and was trying for two when the Angels refused to re-sign him for 1986. Tommy John stayed until he was traded to Oakland at age 42. "I'm through giving some of these 40-year-old players another year at their option," Autry said. "Let's see what he does this year first."
Now step into Reggie's size 10s. He led the Angels in home runs (27) and tied Brian Downing for the team lead in RBIs (85) last year. What if you were the owner? Wouldn't you sign your home run and RBI leader, a player who draws fans to the park the way an industrial accident draws lawyers?
Furthermore, wouldn't you keep Jackson in the outfield? Playing mostly right-field in '85, he hit .252 with his 27 dingers, and the Angels finished a game out of first in their division. Two years before, as a DH, he hit. 194 and the Angels finished 29 out. Like any self-respecting player, Reggie would rather have a mongoose in his sleeping bag than play as a DH. "I want to play right," he says. "Hell, yes, I want to play right. I've had more success in right. But sometimes, when you're 40, you have to sit back and swallow things you don't want to swallow."
Angels manager Gene Mauch says Reggie won't play right this year. Mauch has managed 24 years in the majors without winning a pennant (a record), and he may not have many chances left. The Angels say they're trying to develop some younger players. The young upstart who will take Reggie's place in right is one George Hendrick, age 36. Hendrick batted .215 in 1985.
"I'm being treated like I hit .200 last year," Jackson told the Philadelphia Daily News in mid-March.
That was the last time he was outwardly hostile toward management. Since then he has turned diplomat, eschewing his usual line of janitor-strength quotes, trying instead to kiss and make up with the Autrys. "He's a bull and I'm a bull," Jackson said of the old cowboy. "There's no point in saying, 'Screw you.' 'Yeah, screw you, too.' It's not worth wrecking a friendship."
Jackson's sudden emotional swing, from bitter to quietly determined, made one wonder exactly who was really dealing all along. Had the Angels actually tried to push him out, or had they merely told him he wouldn't play rightfield, as Port explained? Mauch had an observation: "There will always be controversy surrounding Reggie Jackson. Always has. Always will be. And if there isn't, he'll make sure to start some up."
Jackson has his options in this spring of his discontent. He could ask to be traded elsewhere, and elsewhere could mean a lot of places. The Yankees have been mentioned—"George Steinbrenner is a Reggie fan," Jackson says. "He sent me a silver plate from Cartier when I hit my 500th home run"—as have the Milwaukee Brewers. And Al Rosen, G.M. of the Giants, has said he would love to have Jackson in San Francisco, but Rosen was surely jesting. With the Giants, Reggie would have to play rightfield in Candle-stick Park. The man has led American League outfielders in errors five times. Jackson and the winds at Candlestick would go together like a roomful of butane and a Bic lighter. As Reggie himself has said, "The only way I'm going to get a Gold Glove is with a can of spray paint."
In any case, Jackson seems fighting fit. His waist size is down, from 35 to 32, and how many 39-year-olds can say that? ("I heard Jacqueline Bisset is 40," he says. "Maybe I can meet her now.") Jackson does 1,200 sit-ups every other day. He started training four days after the '85 season and reported to camp "in the best shape I've ever seen him since he's been an Angel," says Mauch. Hitting around .300 this spring, the Jax is one lean, mean, option-hungry machine.
This is a test of his "manhood," he says. "All they're doing is filling my tank with fuel. And I need fuel to burn."
But why not coast to a stop? His outside income is "three or four times" what he earns each year in baseball, according to his agent, Gary Walker, who says, "The man is a conglomerate." So why doesn't he play the percentages? Why not make 1986 his sentimental journey and not risk slip-sliding away next year?
"Because I still dig it," he says. "Man, I dig being 40 and a great physical specimen. I dig being out there. And I don't want it to end yet.
"But I can see the end. Yes, I can see it. I'll play this year and try to play next. But no more. I'll play and if August comes around and I'm going like a dog, then it's time to wrap it up. That's why I'm working so hard on this," he says, lifting up his shirt and pounding his stomach. "I've got life in me. There's life in these arms. There's life in these legs. I don't think anybody is looking at me and saying, 'Look at him. He's 39 and he looks like a dog. He's let himself go.' I think they're saying, 'Hey, he's 39 and he looks strong. He looks quick.'
"You know, I find myself staring at my cleats, or my hose. These are the same hose I've always worn. Or my jerseys. I've always got the extra, extra large with the cuffs taken out. And I know when I'm done, they'll hang them up and nobody will ever wear them again. It's a sense of completeness."
But will Jackson be able to tell when his completeness is complete? Will Jackson be able to say to himself, "Jax, you not only are not the straw that stirs the drink, you aren't even vaguely acquainted with the cocktail waitress." Says Jackson, "I'll know. And if I don't, I've got friends who'll tell me."
Says Walker, "Reggie Jackson wouldn't humiliate himself for $475,000. He makes more than that on one real estate deal."
Late that night, after the plane had landed in Phoenix, Jackson lugged his tired body, taxed mind and tattered ego back to the hotel. The night watchman ran up to shake his hand.
"Hey, Reg!" he said. "Good luck this season, man!"
Jackson waited until he was gone, then said, "Well, we know one thing for sure. He's not Hopi."
The Autrys felt saddled with an aging superstar again.
With Reggie signed, Port has a star aboard, whether he and Mauch much like it or not.
Jackson can still jack some deep to rightfield when he's into the swing of things.