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On the last day of baseball's regular season, the first Sunday in October, Reggie Jackson was running wind sprints in the Comiskey Park outfield before the game. He ran in that easy yet almost muscle-bound manner that is particular to him, in which his shoulders roll from side to side like the prow of a tugboat cutting through tall waves. The few Oakland Athletics who ran with him paused, at one point, and waited for the national anthem--or rather its equivalent, "God Bless America." They stood along the right-field line with their hats off. The few White Sox running sprints paused along the left-field line. Reggie, however, tried to get one last sprint in, and he got hung up; the song started as he began the run back, from behind second base toward the right-field line, so that he had to pause in short right field, turn, and quickly take his helmet off. It was a perfect, almost final Reggie Jackson statement before what everyone presumed would be his last game. He stood out, away from the other players, drawing attention to himself in a conspicuous but not quite bald manner. It could have been more obvious; after all, he could have stopped out behind second base, in the center of the field, and waited for the song to begin. His mistake appeared spontaneous, but everyone knew it was a bit contrived. To the end, the hot dog and the professional within Reggie Jackson were at war; their constant and ever-apparent struggle is what has made him such a controversial and at the same time such a popular player. Reggie always found a way to separate himself from the rest, but usually he did so in a manner that made him appear the consummate professional.

Reggie Jackson was one of the last of the great stars of my childhood. I believe he is the last position player left who played in 1967, the year before I began collecting baseball cards. A few pitchers from that era are still around--Don Sutton, Joe Niekro, and Steve Carlton among them--but Reggie is the last hitter. Players who started in 1969--such as Jerry Reuss and Darrell Evans--don't really count; I watched them come up out of the minors to find positions in the majors. Puppies like Mike Schmidt and George Brett, meanwhile, don't even begin to compete. Reggie, meanwhile, was already a player when I came to the game, and he launched my first onslaught on Roger Maris's home-run record.

Maris had hit 61 only eight years before Reggie's first and only real run at the record. The nearness is amazing to me now, because in 1969 Maris's asterisk-ridden 61 home runs in a season seemed one of those records that had been on the books forever. Every few years, nowadays, someone gets off to a good start and that old war-horse, "on a pace," returns to charm a new generation of baseball fans. This year, for instance, the Cincinnati Reds' Eric Davis and the Oakland Athletics' rookie Mark McGwire got off to good starts and were on a pace to beat Maris's mark. They didn't, of course, disappointing a number of new Eric Davis and Mark McGwire fans, but neither did Reggie, in 1969. He remained a favorite of mine, however, throughout his career.

He was a thin young stud, back then, on a team of thin, young, hungry players, and as he matured so did the players around him until the 70s Oakland A's were fully formed and won three straight championships. (My first big sports bet: taking the A's in the 1972 World Series against the Reds. Reggie was injured in the play-offs and missed the series, but Gene Tenace's homers carried the day, and I cleaned up.) Through these seasons he never equaled his 1969 home-run count of 47, but he won his first and, surprisingly, only MVP Award in 1973, when he drove in 117 runs and batted .293.

He hit a monstrous home run at Tiger Stadium in the 1971 All-Star Game, attracting attention for standing at home plate and watching it strike a bank of lights at the top of the right-field stands, back when such small slips in decorum were enough to draw the ire of older, more established players. Later, he left the A's and joined my beloved Baltimore Orioles as he played out his option as one of the first free agents in 1976. In 1977, of course, he joined the New York Yankees, who had just been swept in the series by the Reds, and Reggie Jackson--who had always said that if he played in New York they'd name a candy bar after him--had his candy, his money, and was set to establish himself as "Mr. October."

In the 1977 series, he hit five homers--three in one game--and batted .450 as the Yankees rolled over the Los Angeles Dodgers. The three homers are still what Reggie is best remembered for, although he had his best season in 1980--41 homers and his only .300 batting average. He lost the MVP balloting that year to George Brett, however, who had hit .390.

Reggie finished with 563 homers, sixth on the all-time list, but he made his name not only as a talented player but as an outspoken and sometimes boastful man, the self-proclaimed "straw that stirs the drink" in New York. Whatever he did, he did in his own inimitable way; New York was the place best suited to him. I know one fan who claims to have seen Reggie on one of his Yankee Stadium birthdays, when he held a flask on his hip and took nips between pitches, toasting the fans in the right-field seats. Such shenanigans aside, he was one of the best players of what I would call my generation. In a Wrigley Field bleacher argument last summer, I argued that I would pick Reggie first in a draft of players from the 70s and 80s if I were starting a team (after being discouraged from taking a pitcher first, such as Jim Palmer or Steve Carlton). George Brett and Mike Schmidt come close, but they rose to the majors after I became aware of the game, and neither played on as many winning teams as Reggie did. For me, he was the last of the titans.

Where else were we sitting for Reggie's last game but in the right-field bleachers? It was a beautiful October afternoon--not a cloud in the sky--and we sat in the sun at the very edge of the shade as it fell from the grandstand. We were in shirtsleeves and we were quite warm. Toward the end of batting practice, Reggie took his time in the cage, and from afar we saw that trademark swing, all shoulders and waist, now that he is older and no longer drives so hard with his legs. He hit only two catchable homers, however: one directly into the right-field seats, to our right (we were closer to the line), and one off the upper-deck facade, which dropped straight down into one fan's hands. Two more landed in the upper deck, which the Andy Frains were keeping closed off, as the crowd was sparse.

Indeed, it was the first Sunday of scab football, and too many of our fellow Chicago sports fans were home watching the Pooh Bears (thanx, a tip of the hat, and connubial kudos to the Reader's Susan Belair). Some fans, however, had brought their hand-held televisions with them and watched the Bears even as they watched the White Sox. With pockets of fans all around us occasionally reciting the score and talking of the Bears, it felt as if the prophecy of E.B. White's humorous essay, "The Decline of Sport," had become too true. In this piece, written, I believe, in the 40s, White foresees a future in which fans go to games, while listening to others on radios, viewing others on stadium televisions, and looking above for skywriters to spell out additional scores. "The effect of this vast cyclorama of sport," White writes, "was to divide the spectator's attention, oversubtlize his appreciation, and deaden his passion. As the fourth supersonic decade was ushered in, the picture changed and sport began to wane."

So we did our best to ignore the Pooh Bear reports and concentrated on the game. Reggie, right away, gave us something to watch. He delivered Tony LaRussa's lineup to the home-plate umpire, and he was greeted by cheers. Everyone knew this would be his last game--although Reggie, in a rare instance where professionalism won out over hot-dogism, refused to accept any end-of-the-career accolades this year--and everyone wanted one thing, a homer. In the first inning, batting cleanup, he came to the plate after a two-out double by Jose Canseco. Reggie doubled to center off Floyd Bannister, and the A's had the first run.

The Sox played well in the second half of the season, and Bannister was their best pitcher. He settled down and waited for the Sox to get to the Athletics' 20-game winner, Dave Stewart, who was in the process of losing the Cy Young Award that day--not out of his poor performance, although he did pitch poorly, but because the Boston Red Sox' Roger Clemens was winning his 20th game that afternoon, and he has, on the whole, pitched much better than Stewart. The Sox, anyway, took the lead in the third, when Ron Hassey homered, and padded the lead with two more in the fifth.

Around this time, a remarkable thing happened that turned my attitude around concerning our sports-crazy age. The man in front of me turned his Watchman to the game between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Detroit Tigers. These two teams had gone at it all month, with the Jays seemingly seizing the American League East crown by beating the Tigers three out of four games the weekend before in Toronto. Now the Tigers had taken two in a row from the Jays in Detroit, and they sent Frank Tanana against the Jays' Jimmy Key in the last game of the season. The Jays had to win to force a play-off. The fan in front of me was a quiet, large man, and he was watching two games at once, but contrary to the White essay his passion was not dead but heightened. Wearing a pair of headphones for the television, he kept score not only of the White Sox game but also of the Jays-Tigers game. He said little all afternoon except, "Herndon--homer," when the Tigers' Larry Herndon homered off Key to give them a 1-0 lead. Through the afternoon, we periodically peeked over this man's shoulder to inspect the progress of the most important game of the year.

Reggie walked off Bannister in the fourth, getting the benefit of some close calls. Bannister left the game after five with the lead and a win in his back pocket. Bill Long came on to hold it. Reggie was the second man he faced in the sixth. He would be certain to bat again, but the tension rose in the stands with every new appearance. He hit one hard off Long, and for a second everyone thought he or she was seeing what we had all come to see--Reggie's last homer. Kenny Williams, however, brought it down on the center-field warning track.

The Sox were getting good production from the catchers. Carlton Fisk replaced Hassey and homered in the bottom of the sixth to give the Sox a 5-1 lead. Long, however, surrendered a homer in the seventh and gave way to Bobby Thigpen in the eighth. Thigpen, who had enjoyed his second straight remarkable September, was throwing hard, seeking the save. He struck out the first two men he faced. Reggie came to the plate, with two out in the eighth, in what was almost certainly his last at bat. The fans cheered. He stood back from the plate, removed his helmet, and tipped it--first down the third-base line, then behind home plate, then down the first-base line--before getting in to face Thigpen.

The encounter was almost too cliched: Reggie against the hard-throwing phenom. Reggie, however, gave us a dose of steady, professional reality. He slapped a single into center. He had gone out with a two-for-three day, a first-inning RBI, and one loud fly to deep center field. Not what we wanted, certainly, but quite respectable.

The game ended with the White Sox winning, 5-2, and we hurried across the street to McCuddy's. Beneath Babe Ruth's giant gift bat, addressed "To 'Ma' McCuddy," hanging over the bar, we watched the end of the Jays-Tigers game. Key was pitching better than Tanana--allowing only three hits to Tanana's six--except for the home run. Tanana made it stand up with intelligent, corner-nibbling pitching. The patrons were roaring as the Tigers won the game, 1-0, Tanana going the distance. Reggie's last game, and now his last season--his career in general, it seemed--was already history, dimly remembered. On to the play-offs and the series beyond, on to hockey and college and pro basketball, on to the hot-stove league and spring training in the distance. But we will watch no scab football.

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