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AN Interviews Reggie Jackson

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A special thanks to Athletics Nation, Tyler, and especially to Nico, who gave me this wonderful opportunity.  It is not every day that you get a chance to chat with a Hall-of-Famer, let alone one that you idolized growing up.  I am eternally grateful and humbled.

The most difficult part about interviewing Reggie Jackson was knowing that I couldn't tell him.

I couldn't tell him how I thought it was fitting that he made his big-league debut the same year I was born- a year before the A's moved to Oakland.

I couldn't tell him that when I was just three years old I would ignore my problems with pronouncing the letter "r" and urged him to "Hit the ball, Weggie!"

I couldn't tell him that one of my favorite home runs ever was one he delivered- in a game that didn't even count in the standings.

I couldn't tell him that I wrote my first very book report on him.

I couldn't tell him how my family hurt for him after his ALCS-clinching steal of home- and subsequent hamstring tear- cost him a chance to play in the 1972 World Series.

I couldn't tell him that for about two years I would celebrate every Wiffle Ball homerun in Mom's backyard the way he did in Game 7 of the 1973 World Series.

I couldn't tell him that the only autograph I have is from when he signed for a petrified 7-year old, on my birthday no less, in 1974.

I couldn't tell him that on April 2, 1976, at the age of nine, I cried myself to sleep, after learning that Charlie Finley had traded him to Baltimore.

I couldn't tell him that the night he hit three homeruns on three pitches on one glorious October in 1977- that even though he did it with the Yankees- I was happy for him.

I couldn't tell him that growing up I read his autobiography a million times, memorized the backs of his baseball cards, recited every record.

I couldn't tell him about the time in June 1980 when hundreds of gloved-youngsters readied themselves for another homerun...and he didn't disappoint.

I couldn't tell him about Christmas Day in 1986 when the headlines shouted that Reggie was back.  Home.

I couldn't tell him that on Opening Night 1987, even his biggest detractor- my father- was shouting "Reggie!  Reggie!  Reggie!" after he deposited a baseball into the left-field seats.

I couldn't tell him that I got chills listening- at work, naturally- to Bill King call his last at-bat at the Oakland Coliseum.

I couldn't tell him how immensely proud I was to watch his Hall-of-Fame induction on TV in 1993- while holding my eight-month old son.  Full circle.

I couldn't tell him that when I decided to write a book about five generations worth of A's fans, the only player that had a chapter dedicated to him was Reggie.

I couldn't tell him that for the cover of that same book, I chose a photo from 1971, with a 25-year old Reggie Jackson holding a four-year old in his muscular arms, and that four-year old is me.

I couldn't tell him that in my short time writing for this wonderful site that is Athletics Nation, I have already penned not one, but two posts about him.

I couldn't tell him that every May 18 I tell myself, "Hey, today's Reggie's birthday."

I couldn't tell him that for all those years while he called Oakland home, he was like a member of the family.  And since his middle name was Martinez (my mother's maiden name), some of us took that sentiment literally. 

My oldest sister, Tonianne: "I told people he was our cousin on Grandpa Abel's side. I was convinced of it, too."

My sister, Rose: "I told people he was our uncle.  I really thought he was related to us. I think we called him "Uncle Reggie" until he went to the Yankees!" 

I couldn't tell him these things, but maybe now he knows.

For those of you who were too young to appreciate the talents of Reginald Martinez Jackson, I turn to my brother John.  It is something I quote often because it sums up Reggie perfectly:

"The biggest disappointment and most devastating event of my young life was the day Reggie was traded. I was in shock for a few weeks, maybe longer. Reggie was the face, the force, the tenacity, the voice and the heart and soul of the Oakland A's. His presence on the field or in the clubhouse, in uniform or on crutches, at the plate or on the bases, made the opposition quake in their boots. He was a strikeout king, a homerun king and king of the baseball world in his time. Reggie had power, speed and a great arm but he also used his head and got into the heads of opposing players. He would do whatever it took to win. He was a fighter. He fought the opposing players, his teammates, his managers and his owners.  He fought because Reggie was above all a winner, a fierce competitor, who would shine the brightest on baseball's biggest stage. But he wasn't just "Mr. October". He was Mr. April, May, June, July etc. as well. He made those around him better like many great players do and pushed the more talented players to an even higher level. He was my hero, your hero, one of Finley's Heroes and I'm sure the hero of many others. He made the A's the A's and when he was traded, for all the talent that still existed, the Oakland A's, Finley's A's, Reggie's A's, our A's, would never be the same."

Reggie Jackson currently works as a special advisor to the New York Yankees.  His Hall-of-Fame plaque has him wearing a cap not with the familiar A, apostrophe, s, but with the letters "NY".  A lot of A's fans- long-time followers in particular- resent Reggie's association with the Evil Empire, but they might do well to know the full story

"I got left out in the cold," Jackson says. "I was deserted. I was living in Oakland and wanted to be a Hall of Famer in the community. A black hero. A person of color. But I had no roots. The Yankees, they all made me feel welcome. Joe DiMaggio treated me well. It was an honor."

I will say this: there is plenty of love for Oakland in Reggie's giant heart.

Today Reggie is also involved with the Stand Up 2 Cancer foundation, which is really an amazing and unique program.  It is where my interview with Oakland's first true superstar begins.  I hope you enjoy it.

***

67M: Reggie, thanks for taking some time out this morning.  This is truly an honor.

The Stand Up to Cancer founding really hits home for me. My oldest sister and one of my aunts are breast cancer survivors. Tell us about your and Major League Baseball's involvement in this particular program.

RJ: Well, I'm the same way you are, Don.  My sister had cancer- breast cancer- and tumors and things of that nature...pretty frightening, so it's as close to home to me as it is to you with your sister.  Major League Baseball and MasterCard- just a great team, tremendous awareness- everyone knows who they are, and when they get engaged in something that brings so much attention to it, it makes it special, it's as good as it can be is what I like to say.

The Stand Up 2 Cancer organization is fabulous because of the people that are supporting it, and their idea of raising money is pretty easy to figure out.  The money goes to some of the best funds, the best scientists around the world that are collectively looking for a cancer cure, with all the different types of cancer that there are, from bone cancer, to liver...everything.  They've gotten involved with the prostate cancer group and the breast cancer group...it's just wonderful.

There'll be an opportunity to donate a million tonight (Monday) by MasterCard with a program they have called Hit it Here.  There'll be a couple of signs, one in left field and one in right field, very reachable, very easy to get to.  They have been hit before; I know Ryan Howard or David Ortiz (did it in the past).  And all the money- one-hundred percent of it- goes to the cure, goes right to the foundation.

To learn more about it, go to StandUp2Cancer.org, make a donation, create more awareness.  I am thrilled to be a part of it.  We're two great partners- two community partners I call them- Major League Baseball and MasterCard are putting together an opportunity to raise two million dollars.  In the Home Run Derby tonight they have a chance to raise a million, and tomorrow during the game if someone hits one.  So hopefully there will be a lot of homeruns between tonight and tomorrow night.

67M:  Let's hope so.  I understand that there was also a 5K run yesterday, is that correct?

RJ: Yes, there was a 5K run that prostate cancer supported.  Mike Milken has been raising money for that for fifteen years. I think this is their sixteenth year.  He's been great with it, I've known him for a long time, great man, and he's chasing a cure for prostate cancer.  That was yesterday morning, bright and early, with ten-thousand people there at least.  So that was exciting as well, with the money being raised collectively going to prostate cancer and all the different cancers.

67M: I know you're short on time, Reggie.  Any chance we can talk a little baseball?

RJ: Sure, we can talk baseball.

67M: We'll start with your A's teams, obviously.  For my money, I say the '74 A's were the best of the three championship clubs.  It was a team that was so confident and seemed to shrug off any sort of adversity, of which there was plenty. Your thoughts?

RJ: I would say that the best team was probably the '73 team.  We were a little more productive offensively.  When we got to '74, as you mentioned, the confidence level was there, understanding what every player's role was.  We all knew what our contribution needed to be and we were all in our prime.  We were really a great ball club and we complimented each other as you said.  We had a bunch of good players, a few great players, and that made us a great team because we knew how to go about playing the game.

Reggie 1975

A familiar scene in the 70's: Reggie and Rollie celebrate clinching the West in 1975.

67M: Joe Rudi said recently that the dissension on the Mustache Gang teams was slightly overblown, by the simple fact that you won all the time.  Agreed?

RJ: Well, I don't think there was dissension.  I do think that there was some family feuds from time to time is what I can tell you.  I don't think they overrode the team aspect.  We had a cantankerous owner and we had some guys that had some pretty strong personalities, but I don't think there was any bitterness in that clubhouse. Were there people that rubbed each other the wrong way?  Yes.  Was there strong dislike?  No.  Because we came together as a team when it was necessary.

67M: There have been two perfect games this year.  You played in two yourself, Catfish Hunter's in 1968, and Mike Witt's in 1984.  What's that like for a fielder?  Is there a point late in the game where you're like, "Man, don't hit it to me"?

RJ: I don't think you ever say, ‘don't hit it to me.'  You're alert and you try to be aware of what's going on.  You want to be on top of your game so that you don't make a mistake, but I don't think players say ‘don't hit it to me'.

67M:  You have a new book out, called "Sixty Feet, Six Inches", co-written with Bob Gibson.  What's it about?

RJ: It's a perspective of the game of baseball from a hitter's point-of-view and the perspective of the game of baseball from a pitcher's point-of-view on a Hall-of-Fame level.  I was honored to be involved with the book because Bob Gibson asked me to do it.  So it was an honor for me because he was one of my idols.

67M: I look forward to reading that.  Do you think anyone would cross Bob Gibson's mound?

RJ: I don't know.  I never really paid much attention to that.  I don't think Bob Gibson would have paid much attention to it either.  When he was on the field, the mound was his.  When he was off the field the mound belonged to the other pitcher.  I really think that was overblown with the young pitcher in Oakland and Alex Rodriguez.

67M: You played 20 seasons in the bigs.  How has the game changed in regards to style of game, clubhouse chemistry, injuries and strength/conditioning, etc.?

RJ: Strength and conditioning certainly is huge.  I think diet, and the way players prepare with the trainers right there on the field, the stretching and all that is different.  Certainly the money is different.  I think the game has changed for the better, in most aspects.  I think the fact that there are so many more teams in the game thins out the talent.

67M: You drew so much attention when you were at the plate, from a fan's standpoint. You were a rare performer in that regard.  Who did you enjoy watching hit?  Who do you enjoy now?

RJ: I enjoyed Mays, Aaron, Billy Williams.  McCovey.  Pete Rose.  Pujols, nowadays.  I enjoy watching Jeter. I enjoy watching Alex Rodriguez, Evan Longoria, players like that.

67M: Reggie, they say you always remember your first.  So how about some final words on Oakland and on the A's organization?

RJ: I've always loved the A's.  I enjoyed my time there.  I enjoyed playing there.  I enjoyed getting my start there.  I enjoyed learning from Charlie Finley and Dick Williams.  I saw Rollie Fingers yesterday and enjoyed having the ability to play with him on the same team.  I enjoyed the leadership of Sal Bando, the greatness of Vida Blue, the steadiness of Catfish Hunter and Kenny Holtzman, the wonderful character and personality and the great player that Joe Rudi was, so I have all fond memories there.  I'm from Oakland.  I hope they keep their franchise there.  The fans are special, the place is special, and it's a place I enjoy calling home.

67M: Thank you again, Reggie.

RJ: Thank you.

Please take a moment to check out Stand Up 2 Cancer's website.  Like so many other programs and foundations, it is a wonderful thing they are doing.