STILL REGGIE, AFTER ALL THESE YEARS
Rob Neyer mentioned the other day just how much ink has been spilled on the Bronx Zoo Yankees, and it’s true. It’s funny that nobody has made a Movie-of-the-week about that team (I’m thinking about the 1977-78 version, featuring George, Billy, Reggie and Thurman). Maybe it won’t happen until the principal players are dead. Still, when I was recently reading Ed Linn’s “Steinbrenner’s Yankees,” I wondered: who would serve as a good narrator? Who could play the Cameron Crowe roll in “Almost Famous?”
Who would work? Chambliss, Willie Randolph? Maybe Fran Healy, the seldom-used back up catcher, and one of Jackson’s few allies on the team, would make a good fit. The narrator would have to be a minor character, someone on the fringes.
How about Ray Negron?
Let’s turn to June 18, 1977, one of the most controversial days in Yankee history. The Yankees were playing the Game of the Week in Boston and getting creamed, when Billy Martin replaced Reggie Jackson in the middle of an inning with Paul Blair. Martin thought Jackson had loafed after a ball. When Reggie returned to the dugout, all hell broke loose.
According to Linn:
The TV Camera in center field had caught it all, and a mobile camera at the end of the dugout had come wheeling in to catch a close-up of the wrestling match. Before the camera could be activated, Ray Negron, who runs the Betamax (closed-circuit camera) for the Yankees, had thrown himself in front of it and was screaming at the cameraman. Negron is a former Yankee bat boy and Pittsburgh Pirate farmhand. He had been hired by Billy Martin at the beginning of spring training, but he had also become so friendly with Reggie Jackson-they shared the same locker area, and they both spoke Spanish—that Reggie had asked him to move into his apartment and become his general factotum. Negron was the one man on the club who had reason to like and be grateful to both Billy and Reggie, and what was happening was so painful to him that he found himself throwing a towel over the mobile camera and threatening to break the radar gun over the cameraman’s head. The mobile cameraman recalled afterwards that it was Martin who had shouted to Negron to cover the camera. It was exactly the opposite. The first thing Martin did when Yogi let him up was to pull the still-hysterical Negron away from the cameraman and shove him down on the bench.
It’s a thought, no?
Negron went on to work as an advisor and substance-abuse counselor for the Rangers and Indians. Interestingly, he was hired by Robbie Alomar a few days ago to work as the second baseman’s personal assistant, a job he previously held when Alomar was with Cleveland.
Back to Reggie. After disaster was averted in the dugout that day in Boston, 1977, Martin almost lost his job. Gabe Paul, who was not a Martin fan, prevented George from canning Billy the Kid, cause it would look like Jackson was running the team if the manager was fired right then and there. Negron made sure Reggie left the locker room before Martin arrived.
Later that night, two reporters came up to Reggie’s room to talk—Paul Montgomery of the New York Times, and Phil Pepe of the Daily News.
Here is Linn’s account of Reggie in rare form:
As the interview began, Reggie was sitting on the floor, bare-chested except for a gold cross and two gold medallions. A blonde was in the shower, a local girlfriend. Mike Torrez was sitting in a chair alongside Reggie with a bottle of white wine “If I go too far,” he hold Torrez before he began, “stop me.”
His memory during the interview was that he hadn’t said anything when he came back to the dugout, but had merely held his arms open in that “What did I do wrong?” gesture. “The man took a position today to show me up on national television. Everyone could see that.”
At one point he became so upset that he retreated to the edge of the bed and began to read the Bible. He was a born-again Christian, he told them, and quite often went to the Bible for solace.
Once he had himself back under control, he resumed his position on the floor and went right back to the company line. “I don’t know anything about managing, but I’ll take the heat for whatever the manger says.”
And then he began to come apart. “If the press keeps messing with me,” he sobbed, “I’ll hit thirty homers and maybe ninety ribbys and hit .270. If they leave me alone, I’ll have forty homers, one hundred and twenty ribbys, and I’ll be hitting .300.”
For the record, the press didn’t leave Reggie alone—he didn’t give them a chance to—and he ended up hitting .286, with 32 homers and 110 RBI.
His eyes filled up, and began speaking with rising emotion about the way he was being treated on the ballclub. “I’m just a black man to them who doesn’t know how to be subservient. I’m a black buck with an IQ of 160, and making $700,00 a year. They’ve never had anyone like me on their team before.” Except for Steinbrenner. “I love that man, he treats me like I’m somebody.”
His voice broke, and he came rising up on his haunches. “The rest of them treat me like I’m dirt.” There were tears running down his cheeks now. “I’m a Christian,” he screamed, “and they’re fucking with me because I’m a nigger, and they don’t like niggers on this team. The Yankee pinstripes are Ruth and Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle. I’ve got an IQ of 160, they can’t mess with me…” He was a man so clearly out of control, a man in such terrible torment, that Mike Torrez stood up and told the writers, “I think you’d better leave.”
Jackson’s rocky relationship with Steinbrenner and the Yankees was only getting started in June of 1977, but all these years later, Reggie is still around, and just like George, he needs to sound off every once in awhile just to show us that he can. Reggie still needs to know that he matters, that he is important. He found a sympathetic ear in Jack Curry of the New York Times:
“I think, first of all, I’d like to have a meaningful title that would be of value to me and the minority community and separate me in the organization instead of just being a springtime coach,” Jackson said. “I want something of value, whether it’s baseball ops or something where I work for Brian Cashman or Mark Newman, or I’m a special envoy. Anything.”
“Not for me, but for my community and family because I’m more than an adviser to the managing general partner,” Jackson said. “If I was the only one, I’d feel as though I’d have more credibility.”
Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Don Mattingly and Clyde King are also special advisers to Steinbrenner.
Jackson added that he wanted credibility as a “baseball-content person,” and “not as a trophy; not as just fluff.”
…”I don’t really call myself a coach,” Jackson said. “I’m a teacher, a mentor, I’m anything. I’m a big brother, at times, a father, at times, and a messenger, at times. There’s no job too menial and, hopefully, they think I’m capable of handling the big jobs.”
…”If I remain as I am now for the rest of my days, I’ll be grateful,” Jackson said. “I got a place to hang my hat. I got a locker that says `Reggie’ or `Mr. October.’ I appreciate that. I got a plaque in center field. I know who puts the plaques in center field. So I’m on the team. I’m part of his family. For me, I need family, I need friends. I need loved ones. I need to be cared about, which probably makes me pretty damn human.”
This is a man who just wants a little love. Is that so wrong?