Commentary

Teixeira's challenge: Yankee legends

Originally Published: March 25, 2009
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- The place is now called George M. Steinbrenner Field. Its former name -- Legends Field -- is decidedly more appropriate, for more than any other team in professional sports, the New York Yankees like to keep their ghosts breathing.

One by one, you see them. Reggie Jackson is sweating after a vigorous workout. He last took a swing at a major league pitch nearly 22 years ago, on Oct. 4, 1987, at old Comiskey Park -- an eighth-inning single to center off a second-year kid named Bobby Thigpen. He is drenched now because even though he'll be 63 years old on May 18, it is crucial that he maintain the legend's presence. Swagger can't be flabby.

[+] EnlargeMark Teixeira
AP Photo/Kathy WillensIt happens every winter. A high-priced free agent pulls on the pinstripes and poses at an introductory press conference at Yankee Stadium.

Graig Nettles walks through, slightly hunched, a plate of food in hand. In the hallway between the clubhouse and the coaches' room, Harlan Chamberlain, dad of Joba, salutes Nettles from his motorized wheelchair. Rich Gossage, newly minted Hall of Famer, is there, too, the Fu Manchu less blond, more silvery, just as menacing. Yogi Berra, himself 84 on May 12, zooms past in a golf cart to see Mariano Rivera's first bullpen session of the spring, and girls whose parents never saw Berra play squeal, "Yogi Berra? Is that really him?"

Still, it is Jackson who remains the most relevant. In a universe where the Yankees seem to trot out another contender to his throne every December by signing a free agent who thinks he can conquer the big town as Jackson once did, Reggie is still The One, the standard of the big-money outsider who became part of the New York family simply by delivering on the promise.

Fittingly, while Jackson stands in the hallway cooling down, a white towel around his neck, Mark Teixeira strolls past.

Teixeira is the latest to try to climb the baseball equivalent of Mount Everest: playing in New York as the top-dollar free agent and coming through on the other side. Until the past couple of weeks, he had been able to blend in, a $180 million complementary player. But as collateral damage of Alex Rodriguez's injury, he blends no more. With Rodriguez -- and the bizarre, unrelenting dramas that seem to always accompany him -- gone at least until near the All-Star break, Teixeira is the power bat in the Yankees' lineup. He is the one who will have to create the murmurs in the stands at the new Stadium when it is his turn with two on and one out. He is now the one everyone in New York is waiting for.

In the wake of Rodriguez's surgery earlier this month, manager Joe Girardi said he told Teixeira and the rest of the Yankees the same thing Joe Torre once told Jason Giambi. Just be yourself. Don't make too many promises. Play your game. Teixeira stands strong, listens closely to the rhetoric about how New York can devour a guy; and his body language adopts the position that says, "Bring it on."

Seven years ago, in the spring of 2002, Giambi took the same stance, with the same unrelenting smile amid the same crushing expectations. Teixeira even wears Giambi's old number: 25. He is handsome and confident. He looks people in the eye when he speaks and he does so with clear and square-jawed enthusiasm. ("Hi. Mark Teixeira … damned glad to meet you.")

He says everything correctly: that he doesn't play for money and that others equate high salary with higher expectations far more than he does; that winning is more important than statistics; and that the tradition, and not the money, is what ultimately attracted him to New York. The boom-and-bust nature of New York titillated him.

Reggie Jackson
AP Photo/ Marty LederhandlerNo one has measured up since 1976, when it was Reggie's turn to try to conquer the city.

"I always expect to put up big numbers and carry my team," he says, and he has the muscular résumé to back it up. He is 29 years old, 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, in his prime. After breaking in with Texas in 2003, he has never hit higher than .308, never lower than .281. He has played 904 games over six years in the big leagues, and his average season -- .290 average, 36 home runs, 121 RBIs, .378 on-base percentage -- suggests the kind of patient, meaty consistency the Yankees covet, the kind they thought they were getting when Giambi signed a seven-year, $120 million contract two weeks before Christmas in 2001.

Yet, as he speaks, the impulse exists to doubt that he has any idea about exactly what he's gotten himself into, that youth is indeed going to be wasted on the young.

For more than three decades now, the Yankees have featured this same old movie starring a series of different leading men; Teixeira is merely the latest. They show up, don the uniform at the news conference, and fit the cap. But none of them -- not Giambi, not Dave Winfield, and thus far not Rodriguez -- wound up with the girl, save for Reggie.

When Giambi arrived, Jackson gave him "The Talk." How to make it in New York . What to do and how to do it. How to be the biggest guy in the biggest place. All too eager to please, Giambi listened attentively.

When Rodriguez arrived in 2004 in a winter trade with Texas, he dined with Jackson in Tampa numerous times, often at Roy's, the famous Hawaiian fusion chain, where Rodriguez received many different versions of "The Talk."

Reggie says he hasn't yet had "The Talk" with Teixeira, and Teixeira seems positively sure he doesn't need it. Maybe he comes to New York with the world to gain and leaves the city bigger than when he arrived.

"A big difference isn't just what I did in '77," Jackson says one evening in Tampa. "The difference is I didn't have to come to New York to prove I could be a champion. I had already won three World Series before I ever got there. The new guys coming in, they haven't."

Winfield played great all-around baseball for the Yankees. He was the first Yankee with five straight seasons of 100 or more RBIs since Joe DiMaggio; he hit .350 in the 1981 LDS against Milwaukee; and he took them to the World Series that year, his first with the club. Reggie was there, too. The Yankees went up 2-0 in the series, but then Nettles and Jackson got hurt. New York lost four straight to the Dodgers, and the only thing anyone remembers about that Series is that Winfield went 1-for-22 and never lived it down. The Yankees didn't make the playoffs again until 1995, and didn't win another division title until 1996.

[+] EnlargeMark Teixeira
AP Photo/Kathy WillensIf Teixeira can follow through on his potential, he'll join a very select group of Yankee legends.

Rickey Henderson put up big numbers as a Yankee, too, but those teams never made the playoffs; and though Henderson played for both New York teams, the city never adopted him as one of its own.

Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield both performed admirably, while Giambi was well-liked and reached the World Series in his second year as a Yankee. But none of them ever met the expectations or captured the imagination of the city in the way once forecast for them.

Statistically, Rodriguez has been nothing short of spectacular as a Yankee. He is, right now, easily the greatest third baseman in the team's history. Yet the support he receives from his teammates seems, if nothing else, self-preserving; they need his production, so they need him to be happy. And they don't need the headaches that would result from true candor regarding their feelings toward him. Last week, one player, laughing in ridicule, commented this way on Rodriguez's painful photo spread in Details: "The Post ran a picture of Alex kissing himself in the mirror. He's actually kissing himself. No joke. What the [expletive] is up with that guy?"

He is in Year 6 in New York, has not reached the World Series and, despite two MVP trophies, is dangerously close to becoming a statistically brilliant sideshow.

Each new face has been expected to live up to the Reggie ideal, but each case has been a setup doomed to fail. They arrive almost on a lucrative dare, pushed by their macho and competitive instincts as well as by a union that reminds them accepting the biggest deal on the market raises the salary level for every other player. Of course, the biggest reason they come is to prove they are man enough to hack it.

And therein lies the difference: Reggie came to New York for the most authentic of reasons. Jackson craved New York, wanted it to become a part of him. He left for free agency following the 1981 season; but for the most part, he has been back ever since the day he retired. Wanting to absorb all of New York was real for him.

When Winfield left, he never really returned. Given the opportunity to enter the Hall of Fame as a Yankee, he chose the satisfaction of rejecting Steinbrenner to enter the Hall as a San Diego Padre.

Giambi couldn't wait to return to California -- he's back with the A's now. And it is still unclear if Rodriguez chose New York because it's in his bones or because it satisfies his latest narcissistic impulses.

For more than three decades and counting, only Jackson came, saw and delivered.

Maybe Teixeira will be the one who finally gives him some company. It's about time, for Reggie has been sitting at a table for one since before the kid was born.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine. He is the author of "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball," and "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.