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The burgundy and silver Rolls-Royce is moving north on Madison Avenue, slipping in and out of honking Harlem traffic. Only the air conditioner is blowing its cool. Music is playing in the Rolls, a woman is singing, and Reggie Jackson is sitting behind the wheel and humming along, looking and sounding like a man in total control of his world. And he is. Jackson is going where he wants to go most, to do what he does best. He is heading north to the Bronx and Yankee Stadium, to play a game of baseball.
"I'm just looking forward to getting there," Jackson says. "There's time to get your mind right, talk baseball, get pre-gamed. I want to get out to the ball park, get out there and fool around. I enjoy going to the ball park and playing baseball. Like, I like putting my 'uni' on. I like getting taped up. I like getting my hat and my glasses and my sweatband on. I like all that stuff. I like my number. I'm number 44, big number. It's neat. I like to lie around, shoot the bull, raise hell with the players. The guys. It's a game: Ball.... I'm up, I'm fired up. I'm going to the ballpark to take my aggressions out. And when it's over, it's over. I have my Bud. Ride downtown. Go to a restaurant, go to McMullen's and get myself a piece of swordfish. Eat by myself. Relax. Drive through Central Park, listening to music. I like it here. I'm comfortable here."
It wasn't always so, of course. In Jackson's first season as a Yankee, 1977, the very idea that he would ever want to go to Yankee Stadium, that he would like playing ball there, seemed absurd. The simple prospect of going to that ball park, stepping into its coldnesses, filled him with unspeakable dread.
But now it is 1980, the middle of a new summer. The times and conditions have changed, and Jackson has changed, too, in the way he perceives himself in relation to those around him. He has found peace in his time. He can now enjoy his teammates' acceptance, even warmth, which helps explain why, although he is 34, the 13th season of his career could turn out to be Jackson's best.
Given the way he works at it, there is every reason to believe that the best of Jackson as a hitter has yet to be seen. "Each at bat is a pleasure to behold," says Charley Lau, the Yankee batting instructor. "He's getting better and better with age. The preparation, the discipline, the concentration. At bat after at bat after at bat. When everything is in place, in the proper sequence, he's awesome. In a season of 450 at bats, maybe 1,200 swings, you can only count on maybe 20 perfect swings a year. When he does it, I get goose pimples."
So do the pitchers who must face Reggie these days. As the week ended, Jackson had 28 homers, 75 runs batted in and nine game-winning RBIs. He was hitting .304, and his slugging percentage of .632 led the league. And the Yankees, his Yankees, had the best record in baseball.
Jackson knows who he is, what he can do and what he must have to find happiness in Gotham. He has it aft in his mind, organized like the numbers on a stat sheet. "I need 40 or 50 homers, and I need the club to win," he says. "Right now I need 50 more RBIs, 20 more dingers. And I'll keep a nice cool pace. Nice little goin's-on. Nobody bothers me. No ruffled feathers. Playoffs come around. Need one or two dingers. World Series comes. Need two or three more. We win. All over. Go see my old lady. Lay back. Drink some Budweiser. Work on my car. Spend some money at Christmas on my family. Read the Bible. Everybody has a nice time. Work out. Train. Do my running. Get ready. Go to spring training. Start the season again."
Voila! It seems so easy now, a simple formula for contentment and calm. Indeed, life is simpler for Jackson these days, now that the tempest is behind him and has become a wind at his back, pushing him farther away from where he came. He came from Baltimore in the fall of 1976, mere weeks after the Yankees had won their first pennant in 12 years. And he came in a way that befitted the man who once said in jest that someone would name a candy bar after him if he ever played baseball in New York. He was a free agent, and he signed a five-year, $2.9 million contract that made him the highest-paid player in the game, with hoopla and fanfare and a klieg-lighted press conference. The swashbuckler had arrived—glib, rich, confident, imposing. The established Yankees resented him, of course, and at spring training he felt a perceptible chill in the clubhouse.
But that coolness was nothing compared with what came later. In spring training Jackson told a Sport magazine writer that the Yankees' star catcher, the late Thurman Munson, was jealous of him and coined a phrase that would haunt him for months. "I'm the straw that stirs the drink," Jackson said to the writer over beers at the Banana Boat in Fort Lauderdale. "It all comes back to me. Maybe I should say me and Munson, but really he doesn't enter into it.... Munson thinks he can be the straw that stirs the drink, but he can only stir it bad."
After the article was published early in the season, Fran Healy, the Yankees' backup catcher at the time, remembers Munson walking around the clubhouse holding the magazine in his hand, saying, "Can you believe this? Can you believe this?" Healy, who would become Jackson's closest friend in the tumultuous months that followed, said something about parts of the article being out of context. Healy recalls Munson's incredulous response as the funniest thing he ever heard the catcher say: "For four pages?"