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."