World Series: When Reggie met Chase

110409-reggie_chaseNEW YORK—When people think of Reggie Jackson’s baseball career, inevitably the three-homer performance in Game 6 of the 1977 is the first moment that comes to mind. Three pitches have not just defined a man’s professional career, but also his life.

Reggie Jackson and Babe Ruth are the only players to hit three home runs in a World Series game, and Jackson was the only player to hit five homers in a single World Series.

Until now.

Chase Utley, playing for the team Jackson followed as a kid while growing up in Wyncote, Montgomery County, tied the all-time record for homers in a series when he belted a pair in Game 5 at Citizens Bank Park. For Utley, it was the second multi-homer game of the series, which also ties a record set by Willie Mays Aikens who had a pair of two-homer games in the 1980 series against the Phillies.

But aside from the home runs and the clutch performances in the World Series, there really isn’t much that Jackson and Utley have in common. Oh sure, both players are known for their streakiness and strikeouts. After all, not only has Utley homered in five straight regular-season games during his career, but he also struck out five straight times in the 2007 NLDS, including four times in one game on 13 pitches.

Jackson, of course, struck out more times than any player in the history of the game. The thing about that is Jackson’s strikeouts were just as epic as his home runs. Nope, Jackson did not get cheated.

“I was known for postseason, not what I did in the regular season and I had great years,” Jackson said. “But you play to win. Our club, our organization is just hell-bent, from our ownership to our general manager. They’ve built it to win here. The conversations that we have are about winning a championship.”

Utley hasn’t been cheated either. Though Jackson pointed out that the ballparks in Philadelphia and New York are “small,” Utley hasn’t hit any squeakers. The homers Utley hit in Game 5 were gone by the time he made contact. In fact, Utley uncharacteristically pulled a bit a Reggie on his first-inning homer on Monday night when he flipped his bat aside and watched it sail toward the right-field fence ever-so briefly.

Jackson, of course, was famous for posturing on his homers. His style was the antithesis of Utley’s but as far as that goes, Jackson is a huge fan of the Phillies’ second baseman. In fact, Jackson greeted Utley when the Phillies came out on the field for batting practice before Game 6 on Wednesday to congratulate him on tying the record.

As far as the comparison between the two World Series home run kings go, that’s about all they have in common. Jackson demanded attention on and off the field. Utley gets the attention because of what he does on the field. He’s not interesting in having it any other way.

“We’re different type of players,” Jackson said. “But he hit 30 home runs, [and] that’s a lot of home runs. I don’t want to compare he and I. He’s a great hitter. But it’s not about style—it’s about winning. That’s what is important.”

Said manager Charlie Manuel about Utley: “Actually he don’t like for you to say a whole lot of things about him. But he’s one of the most prepared, one of the most dedicated, he has the most desire and passion to play the game that I’ve ever been around.”

After the brief conversation with Utley, Jackson walked away even more impressed, especially when Mr. October was told that the record only matters if the Phillies win the World Series.

Otherwise, who cares?

reggie_1977“He’s old school,” Jackson said about Utley. “When you talk to Chase Utley and hear what he focuses on, he really doesn’t care to talk about it much. They’re down 3-2 and that’s where he’s at, and I admire that. I admire that professionalism.”

The notion that Utley could become the first World Series MVP to come from a losing team since Bobby Richardson got the award when the Yankees lost to the Pirates in seven games, has been quite popular. Certainly Utley has to be a candidate on the strength of belting five homers in the first five games, but Jackson got the sense that the All-Star second baseman wouldn’t want the award if the Phillies did not win the World Series.

“You have to win the World Series,” Jackson said. “I don’t want the MVP award if I don’t win. I don’t care—I’d want to win [the award], but you play to win. What was it that Herman Edwards said, ‘You play to win the game.’

“It’s all really about winning. You’d rather hit three home runs and win the World Series then hit seven and not. You have to win, the rest of it doesn’t matter much.”

Utley is trying to make it all matter. Plus, he could have two more games to break Reggie’s record… if he does it, will Utley get a candy bar named after him, too?

The NLCS: Chase Utley no Mr. October

Utley_errorLOS ANGELES—There’s no logical way to explain why some players thrive in the postseason and others just have the worst time ever. Chalk it up to simply being one of those baseball things that are indefinable.

As Charlie says, “Funny game.”

But one thing that is never a mystery is that legacies of ballplayers are defined by how well they perform in October. Sure, there are some players like Ted Williams and Ernie Banks who are given a pass for a dearth of playoff exposure, but those guys are rare. After all, there’s a reason why Derek Jeter is viewed as an all-time great despite a shortcoming or two.

And of course no one ever talks about the fact that Reggie Jackson struck out more times than anyone in baseball history and batted .300 just one time in 21 seasons. Reggie Jackson was Mr. October because he hit 10 home runs and won the World Series five times.

When it comes down to it, the performance after the season ends is what matters most, yet there are some pretty great players who struggle beneath the bright lights and others that can’t help but perform well in when the games matter most.

“It’s one of those things, I guess,” said Phillies’ hitting coach Milt Thompson, who holds the club postseason record for most RBIs in a game with five in a game in which he needed a homer to complete the cycle. “Some guys like the lights.”

Others don’t do well with them at all. For this group of Phillies it seems as if Ryan Howard is becoming quite Jacksonian. In Friday’s Game 2 of the NLCS, Howard continued his October assault by reaching base for the 15th straight postseason game. More notable, the Phillies’ slugger has at least one RBI in every game of the 2009 playoffs thanks to a fourth-inning homer against former Phillie Vicente Padilla in the 2-1 defeat.

But don’t just pin Howard’s hot playoff hitting to this season. His streak of big hits goes back to last October, too. In fact, Howard is hitting .382 (21-for-55) with six doubles, four home runs and 17 RBIs in his last 14 playoff games and he has reached base safely in his last 15.

In 23 postseason games Howard has five homers and 19 RBIs. The RBIs are already a franchise record for the postseason.

October has not been too kind to Chase Utley, though. Sure, he hit a pair of homers in the World Series last year and batted .429 against the Rockies in the NLDS, but so far he’s 1-for-8 against the Dodgers in the NLCS and has a .241 lifetime average in 23 playoff games with 23 strikeouts. Take away the 2009 NLDS and Utley is hitting just .203 in the playoffs and fails to put the ball in play more than 40 percent of the time.

Then there is the fielding. In the two biggest games of the season (so far), Utley has committed costly errors. The one in Game 1 caused pitcher Cole Hamels to throw a bit of a fit, while the one in Game 2 proved to be one of the biggest reasons why the Phillies lost to the Dodgers. Actually, Utley has three errors in his playoff career, which is a rate twice as high as his regular-season total of errors.

The errors in the field are what everyone is talking about now, but there’s more to Utley’s playoff woes. There was also the debacle of Game 1 of the 2007 NLDS in which he struck out four times on 13 pitches.

Still, even when Utley is playing well he consistently works to improve his game. Chancs are he dials up the effort even highr when things go poorly.

“I’m never really satisfied on the way I play,” Utley said. “I always feel like I can play better, so this season is no different.”

Nope, not at all. It’s no different in that Utley is finding trouble in the playoffs…

Again.

No more fun of any kind

When Steve Garvey smacked a clutch home run in the 1984 NLCS to help the Padres force another epic choke job by the historically laughable Chicago Cubs, he circled the bases with one fist in the air. It was a simple gesture for the biggest hit of a series that ultimately sent the Padres to their first ever World Series.

Kirby Puckett famously circled the bases with a fist in the air after hitting a 12th-inning homer in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series. Puckett’s homer helped the Twins stave off elimination and force a Game 7 against the Braves that might be the greatest game ever played.

What about Kirk Gibson’s histrionics after launching a walk-off piece off Dennis Eckersley in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series? It was as if Gibson were limping around the bases and pretending to start a phantom lawnmower all at the same time.

And of Reggie Cadillac-ed every home run he ever hit – whether in the World Series or the regular season. Reggie also had that distinctive home run trot in which he usually adjusted his wire-framed glasses with a push of his index finger to settle the frames back onto the bridge of his nose.

Who would have ever thought a guy adjusting his glasses could ever be so cool?

Nevertheless, when we were kids we loved all of these shows. Sure, Reggie was a player fans loved to hate – mostly because he was a Yankee – and Garvey seemed to grate on folks, too. But who didn’t like watching ballplayers rise to the occasion? Who didn’t like a show?

Better yet, who doesn’t like to watch people have fun? Baseball is supposed to be fun, right?

So when Jose Reyes ran the bases with one finger raised following his game-winning, three-run blast off Ryan Madson last night at Shea Stadium, the hand wringing was inevitable. You just knew it was coming. A showboat like Reyes running the bases like he was excited about hitting a homer in a key spot…

For shame!

Reyes is a showboat whose antics irk even his teammates, some blathered. He’s unprofessional, others said. Perhaps he should be plunked with a pitch the next time he comes to the plate for “showing up” the Phillies.

Yeah, he was showing up the Phillies by trying to hit a home run. Maybe he should have struck out, gently replaced his bat and helmet in their proper receptacles, poured himself a cool drink from the corporately licensed barrel and found a comfortable seat in the dugout.

After all, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley never do anything showy when they hit home runs. They are the models of professional decorum when they circle the bases…

Come off it!

Then again, the self-righteous blatherings from us media types are part of the show, too. We’re all actors in the same game only they jocks like to pretend they are just modest athletes trying to make a living, and the press likes to pretend it is above it all and is merely a conduit to the fans.

Insert sarcastic comment here.

Look, Reyes’ act is clownish and a little embarrassing with the array of dance steps, ridiculous handshakes and other juvenile sideshows. But really, who cares? He’s a baseball player getting paid a lot of money to play a game. If Reyes had an important job maybe the jitterbug routine would be offensive, but he doesn’t. Baseball players are entertainers.

Most people get this. In fact, no one in Philadelphia seems to mind when Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins pull off their tributes to Reggie whenever they really get a hold of one. Heck, even Utley’s speedy dash around the bases is a type of showboating. After all, sometimes no style is, indeed, style. Truth be told, I’m surprised Rollins doesn’t ratchet up the theatrics to an Ozzie Smith-level of hotdogging with the flips and other stuff.

Better yet, maybe Rollins could do a series of cartwheels around the bases after a home run. Why not? I’ve seen it before. After a particularly meaningful home run in a wiffle ball game at the ol’ backyard diamond on Wilson Drive, my friend John performed a cartwheel as he reached each base. The cool thing about this “trot” was that even as a high schooler (as John was at the time) he was still quite a bit bigger than Jimmy Rollins. So to see a young man like John able to pull off these acrobatics was a sight to behold.

Sure, it was a bit over the top, but it was a really big home run. Still, if Rollins doesn’t want to do the cartwheels, maybe we can settle for an interpretive dance or something.

Still, the old-school baseball establishment will continue to look down on fun of any kind because it is “disrespectful” to the game and “shows up” the opposition. Never mind that these are the same people that are descendents of baseball’s other traditions such as an industry-wide ban on players of specific races… don’t get these same folks started up on Sabremetrics.

Yeah, baseball has (and had) bigger problems than whether or not Jose Reyes enjoys hitting home runs. Heaven forbid if someone enjoys their job.

Looking to go back in time

Reggie BarIf it were possible to go back in time and retroactively edit my favorite childhood baseball player, I would.

But alas, time travel is meant just for Michael J. Fox.

As a kid in the 1970s and ‘80s I was a victim of geography. With no Internet or the proliferation of cable TV, I was stuck in my tiny little realm. That meant when we lived in Washington, D.C. we closely followed the Orioles and even attended a handful of games at Memorial Stadium every season.

But when we moved to Lancaster, Pa., though technically closer to the city limits of Baltimore, we followed the Phillies. Though Lancaster with Harrisburg and York comprises the 41st largest media market in the country, it falls under the umbrella of Philadelphia sports fandom. In fact, it’s not uncommon for traveling Lancastrians to tell strangers that their hometown is “near Philly” despite the fact that Philadelphians believe Lancaster to be in the middle of nowhere, or worse, the other side of the earth.

Having lived in both places, the Philadelphians aren’t wrong about Lancaster… but then again, they’re stuck in Philadelphia.

Just to mix it up a bit, the Red Sox were another team we kept up with, but that was just because they were a team that was a bit exotica. The Red Sox always had good players, always were almost good (but not quite good enough) and always seemed to have a bit of soap opera quality. And since they were on the nationally broadcasted game-of-the-week often and played in that goofy little ballpark, it was difficult to ignore them.

As a result of all of this, Mike Schmidt, Larry Bowa, Steve Carlton, Pete Rose, Eddie Murray, Jim Rice, Wade Boggs and Roger Clemens qualified, at one point or another, as favorite players. Those players had the swings that I copied though my pitching motion was strictly a direct rip-off of Luis Tiant.

Trust me on this one – this skinny kid from The Lanc with a funky pitching motion was never afraid to stick it in a hitter’s ear. Hey, I own the inside part of the plate!

By the way: is there a reason why El Tiante is not in the Hall of Fame?

Anyway, of the group of ballplayers listed above I have had the chance to meet and spend moments in the company of all of them except for Boggs, which is why I want to change who my main guy was.

If I could do it all over again I’d go with Reggie.

REG-GIE! REG-GIE! REG-GIE!

Look, I know all about Reggie Jackson, the Cheltenham High grad and Wyncote native (like Ezra Pound and Benjamin Netanyahu) who came to prominence with the Oakland A’s, but turned into a superstar with the New York Yankees. I know how he had an ego as big as all of those home runs and strikeouts piled on top of each other. I also know that he was a bit of a diva who probably didn’t blend well with all of his teammates and/or the press.

Sometimes it seemed as if Reggie could drive everyone crazy. And I mean everyone… especially Billy Martin.

Nevertheless, Reggie got it. He knew it was a show and he had panache. People went to the park to see him homer or whiff and he rarely ever disappointed anyone. Better yet, he went deep and struck out with equal amounts of flair in which he took a huge, powerful cut that came from so deep within that it dropped him down to one knee.

But if he got a hold of one… look out! Not only did it sail far into the seats, but Reggie would stand at home plate and watch it along with everyone else before beginning his static yet stylish trot around the bases.

For some reason, though, the Reggie posturing fell out of favor. Oh no, I doubt the fans disprove, nor does it seem as if certain home run hitters like Barry Bonds or Ken Griffey are opposed to such subtle histrionics. However, when Ryan Howard gave a long home run the Reggie treatment in St. Louis last week, he took one on the right hip the next trip to the plate.

Reggie in furHey, if I were putting together an all-time greats team that spanned my lifetime Reggie probably wouldn’t make the cut (maybe we’d find him a spot as a late-inning pinch hitter), and clearly he was a flawed player. But the best part about Reggie is how he interacted with his audience and the messengers. Reggie was never shy about talking to the press and actually saying something interesting. He also liked to prod writers and challenge them the way a coach would a player. For instance, my old pal Howie Bryant was covering the Yankees for the Bergen County Record, Reggie used to give him a hard time about the location of his employer.

As Howie wrote in his book, Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power, and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball, Reggie used some Jedi-like, passive-aggressive tactics that led to him writing the book.

H.B. wrote on page 403 of the hardcover edition:

Reggie is never easy. He can employ numerous tactics designed to prove one thing: that he’s somebody and you’re not. During my first months covering the Yankees for The Record of Bergen County, New Jersey, he could be funny or condescending. A favorite Jackson ploy was to read my credential, notice I worked for a Jersey paper, and comment, “Hey, how come you don’t work for one of the New York papers?”

Reggie never had a problem with anything written about him as long as it was honest, good and not a cliché. Provocation and ideas were what interested Reggie, anything else was silly.

That’s why Reggie is my favorite and why I’m looking for that time machine.

***

Speaking of silly, it looks like former Phillies’ GM Lee Thomas finally completed a long-forgotten trade with the Dodgers.