“I was reminded that when we lose and I strike out, a billion people in China don't care.” — Reggie Jackson
NEW YORK—There was a time when he viewed strikeouts as the cost of doing business, part of the price he had to pay for being who he was, an unapologetic slugger. After all, the drinks don't stir themselves. So if a few strikeouts found their way onto the back of his baseball card, it wasn't going to bother Reggie Jackson.
By the end of his 21 major-league seasons, Mr. October was also Mr. Strikeout. As if he needed any more incentive for his critics to label him as selfish, Jackson offered 2,597 more reasons to believe he wasn't much of a team player. It has been more than 24 years since Jackson last played, but his major-league strikeout record remains untouchable.
It's a remarkable number—2,597—that to this day makes Jackson shake his head.
“"I really didn't care as a player,"” said Jackson, who figured he would be in the clear so long as the home runs kept on coming. “"It wasn't important to me. It should have been.”"
It's that last part that sticks. He said it with a whiff of regret, though he shouldn't have.
In so many ways, Jackson seemed to be ahead of his time, a brash self-promoter in an era that squashed such behavior. It's fun to imagine the madness if it were possible to go back to the 70s, shove Reggie into a DeLorean, and set the destination for this October. Think Logan Morrison is outspoken? Imagine what Jackson, at his bombastic best, could have done with Twitter. How long before he would have #MagnitudeOfMe trending worldwide?
More to the point, how much differently would Jackson's Hall of Fame career be viewed if he played in this era, now that strikeouts no longer carry the same stigma? As he points out, high-strikeout players now enjoy a “free pass,” one he certainly did not receive.
“"Mark Reynolds, he never would have played in my era, just wouldn't have played, or Rob Deer,"” Jackson said. “"They took the bats from those guys, they didn't let them play after awhile they struck out so much. I know they made a big thing out of (Dave) Kingman, I know they made a big thing out of me.”"
Just recently at Yankee Stadium, a video reel of Jackson's career in the Bronx played on the big screen, accompanied by a sampling of Frank Sinatra's “"My Way."” The montage did not show that other iconic Jackson image, his body twisted like a pretzel, wound up tight after a violent swing and miss. Ultimately, there wasn't much reason for Jackson to change his ways.
But over the years, his own view on strikeouts shifted. He wishes he could have cut down.
"“In hindsight, now that I do a lot of instruction, a lot of helping, a lot of assisting as part of the staff, I don't want players who strike 125, 135 times,"” Jackson said. “"You should strike out less than that because you're better than that. I was better than a guy who struck 130, 140 times. If I would have struck out less, I would have had more of everything: more runs scored, more home runs, more RBI, more hits, more chances to help the team. That's what you play for.”"
Of course—bizarre as it sounds—Jackson might be underselling himself.
It's true that when Jackson cut down on his strikeouts, he enjoyed his most productive seasons at the plate. From 1972 until 1982, Jackson never struck out in more than 25 percent of his plate appearances. He posted impressive TAv totals in that span: .328, .342, .335 and .311 in his final four years with the A's, .314 in his lone season with the Orioles, and .322, .305, .318, .346, and .280 during his run with the Yankees.
Though his name is frequently linked with modern-day comparable such as Reynolds, Jackson didn't strike out as much. For instance, Reynolds has struck out in at least 30 percent of his plate appearances in all five of his big-league seasons. Jackson did it just twice in his entire 21-year career, though strikeouts are up league-wide compared to when he played.
Even in Jackson's highest strikeout seasons—years in which he fanned in more than 25 percent of his plate appearances—Jackson did enough damage to remain mostly productive.
"“As I started understanding the game at the end of my career, you wanted to strike out less,”" said Jackson, who nonetheless endured his worst strikeout years at the beginning and end of his career.
* 135 PAs
Looking back, Jackson believes that his propensity to swing and miss was mostly the function of adopting a certain mentality. Making more contact and taking fewer strikeouts, he decided, was largely a matter of desire. He simply did not have that desire as a player.
“"As I was going through it, it wasn't as important,"” Jackson said. “"My view has changed.”"
Maybe it shouldn't have.
Marc Carig is in his third season as the New York Yankees' beat writer for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J. He previously covered the Baltimore Orioles for the Washington Post. A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, Carig once believed Dennis Eckersley to be the greatest closer of all time, though seeing Mariano Rivera every day has forced him to reconsider.