—Former teammate Rick Monday
It's hard to live a completely peaceful life when you're seemingly incapable of being anything less than candid. Jackson probably could have been the Charles Barkley of baseball broadcasting if he had wanted to, because like Sir Charles, he is opinionated and unafraid, and has a knack for turning out quotes that are pithy little gems, some of them as memorable as his homers: "Hitting is better than sex." "If I was playing in New York, they'd name a candy bar after me." "Fans don't boo nobodies." He could poke fun at other players. ("He plays the outfield like he's trying to catch grenades," he once said of Claudell Washington.) And he could do it to himself. ("The only way I'm going to win a Gold Glove is with a can of spray paint.")
Few athletes have ever been as comfortable with sensitive topics. Last year in an interview with the MLB Network, he said that when he played for Martin in the late 1970s, he heard the Yankees' manager make anti-Semitic and racist remarks. He says he revealed that information not to humiliate Martin, who died in a car accident on Christmas Day in '89, but because it was time to set the record straight. "Reggie has always been a truth-teller," says his friend Dave Stewart, the former A's pitcher who is now an agent. "Even if it's uncomfortable, he's not going to sugarcoat it."
It's when Jackson is plunging into touchy issues that some of the Reggie of old emerges; the only difference is that the star no longer has as big a stage. Over a plate of seafood at an oceanside restaurant in Monterey, he casually mentions that he plans to bring up the issue of undeserving members of the Hall of Fame at the next members-only dinner in Cooperstown. He believes that the Baseball Writers Association of America, whose members vote for the Hall, have adopted too low a standard. "I didn't see Kirby Puckett as a Hall of Famer," he says. "I didn't see Gary Carter as a Hall of Famer. I didn't see Don Sutton as a Hall of Famer. I didn't see Phil Niekro as a Hall of Famer. As much as I like Jim Rice, I'm not so sure he's a Hall of Famer." What about Bert Blyleven? "No. No, no, no, no," Jackson says. "Blyleven wasn't even the dominant pitcher of his era—it was Jack Morris."
But if Jackson brings the topic up for discussion at the Hall of Fame dinner, won't some of these so-called undeserving members be in the room? Jackson is unconcerned. "I'm not trying to offend, I'm trying to speak the truth as I see it," he says. "If I thought something was wrong and didn't speak up, my friends would look at me like, Reggie, what's wrong? Are you O.K.?"
He isn't silent on the subject of steroids in baseball either. Jackson makes no secret of his displeasure that since his retirement in 1987, he has been passed on the home run list by seven players, five of whom, Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa, have been linked to performance-enhancing drugs. "I don't think the fans really count them, and I agree," he says. "I believe that Hank Aaron is the home run king, not Barry Bonds, as great a player as Bonds was." Jackson was a supporter of Bonds (who is a distant cousin) as recently as 2007, when he said, "They tried to get this guy more than anybody ... and they've got nothing on him." But he says now that the volume of evidence against Bonds is so great that he has changed his mind.
And A-Rod? "Al's a very good friend," Jackson says. "But I think there are real questions about his numbers. As much as I like him, what he admitted about his usage does cloud some of his records."
There is little need to ask whether Jackson thinks any of the PED-linked players should be inducted into the Hall. "If any of those guys get in, no Hall of Famer will attend," he says. There is only one player in that category for whom he might make an exception. "The question is going to be a guy like Andy Pettitte, who admitted that he got involved for a while, but who is so universally respected in the game. I think he'll get in, but there will be a lot of [members] who won't go." Would Reggie? Jackson takes a deep breath. "He's an awfully good friend," he says. "I've known Andy since he was 20. I'll leave it there."
Jackson doesn't like what performance-enhancing drugs have done to the record books, but he maintains that his disapproval is not out of jealousy. He doesn't think about what kind of statistics he might have compiled if he had played in the steroid era. "My career was my career," he says. "I wouldn't have changed much. The only thing I might have done differently was try to cut down on my strikeouts. [He has the most in history, 2,597.] But you know, I was going for it all. I was going for it all—the big swing, the big bombs, the big wins. I wouldn't have won as much as I did, succeeded as much as I did, if I had worried about failing."
He rarely failed in the biggest games, of course. Jackson hit .357 with a 1.212 OPS in 27 World Series games. "Pressure never bothered me," he says. "I didn't calm myself in those situations, I allowed myself to be calm. There's a difference. I had an agent, Gary Walker, who used to say to me, 'Get out of your own way. Don't get in the way of your ability.' And that's what I did. I got an e-mail from a Universal Studios executive who was at the three-home-run game against the Dodgers. He said he remembers thinking that I had a relaxed sense of calmness at the plate in that game. A relaxed sense of calmness. I like that. That's the place I was trying to find."