TAMPA, Fla. — Reggie Jackson, still built like a brick outhouse at 72, took short, purposeful steps behind the batting cage at the New York Yankees’ Legends Field and marched toward the Phillies dugout. He stopped at the top of the steps and greeted an old friend, Phillies bench coach Rob Thompson, who used to work for the Bombers.
Then, Mr. October, once baseball’s most charismatic slugger, turned slightly and stuck out his hand.
Bryce Harper, currently baseball’s most charismatic slugger, shook it.
All they needed was a torch to pass.
In his day, No. 44 was as much a superstar by word as by deed, prolific by both measures. He notoriously declared himself “the straw the stirs the drink” when he joined the star-studded Yankees roster in 1977. Then, he stirred the drink in a manner unlike anyone before, or since.
Harper has made no such claims. Jackson told him to keep it that way.
But Jackson also encouraged Harper to be his bigger-than-life self.
“We need stars. We need stars,” Jackson said before Wednesday night’s game. “We need stars to draw attention. To play well. To lead the pack.”
This might sound odd, coming from a special adviser to the team that employs Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge and plays in a league with Anaheim’s Mike Trout.
Jackson seems to have more in common with Harper than with most current stars — traits Harper says he admired in Jackson, whose career Harper has reviewed on film.
“I was a big fan of Reggie growing up,” Harper said. “His passion. His enthusiasm for the game.”
Not only do they have similar passion, they have similar stats. Jackson hit .270 with 217 home runs and a .875 OPS in his first seven full seasons with the Oakland Athletics. Harper hits .279 and has 184 homers with a .900 OPS — excellent numbers, but not the best.
Jackson doesn’t care. He believes Harper is the answer. Harper can’t believe it.
“Definitely humbling,” Harper said after the game. “Reggie Jackson knows who I am? Pretty cool.”
So, why is Harper the game’s best hope? There are no stars? Really?
“We don’t have any,” Jackson said, then reconsidered. “We’ve got Judge. OK, we’ve got a couple.”
The game’s got stars, but, frankly, those stars lack charisma. Stanton’s most interesting moment came in 2012, when he told people to stop calling him Mike, one of his middle names, and to call him Giancarlo, his actual first name.
Judge doesn’t flip his bat or flip his hair or carry himself with that natural insouciance that Jackson and Harper share.
Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred last year complained of Trout’s reluctance to market the game.
And neither Stanton nor Judge nor Trout has slugged the closer.
Now, that takes chutzpah. Jackson says baseball needs chutzpah. Maybe not that much chutzpah, but more than it has right now.
Jackson realizes that the game might have more-accomplished players than Harper, but those Paul Goldschmidt jerseys aren’t flying off shelves.
Nobody’s marketing a Trout Bar.
Millville, N.J.'s Mike Trout is a generational talent, but Cheltenham, Pa.'s Reggie Jackson sold the “Reggie” bar for five years.
“I want [Harper] to be great. I don’t want him to be great against us. But I want him to be great," Jackson said. “Because it’s good for baseball. Good for baseball.”
Jackson was good for baseball, warts and all. His 563 home runs were sixth all-time when he retired after the 1987 season. In the 1977 World Series, he hit three home runs in three swings when the Yankees clinched Game 6 against the Dodgers, and that was Jackson’s fourth of five rings; he’d won three in his first eight full seasons, with the A’s.
He remembers when baseball was king, and when he was king of baseball. For most of his 21-year career, whether he was in Oakland, Baltimore, Anaheim, or the Bronx, football and basketball operated in baseball’s venerated shadow. Now, LeBron and Tom Brady obliterate Mike Trout & Co.
“Look at all the attention in football right now. All the attention on the NBA,” Jackson said. Football free agency effectively began Monday, and basketball has been the talk of the sporting world, and Reggie was sick of hearing about Odell Beckham, Antonio Brown, Russell Westbrook, and the Beard. “We don’t have the stars. We don’t have the stars.”
Certainly, baseball has superb players, but Jackson’s point wasn’t that baseball needs talent; rather, it needs elan. Style.
Harper brings elan. He brings style. And he brings it to the fourth-largest media market in the country.
Now, said Jackson, all Harper has to do is hit home runs and smile.
“I was wishing him luck,” Jackson said. “I told him to stay humble. To have a great year. Don’t get in any arguments. Be above all that stuff. Go on and play and do your thing and be a great player. That’s what we need. We need him to be great.”
If he’s great, maybe one day stores will be selling “Bryce” bars.