Commentary

Jackson at a loss without The Boss

Reggie and George: For the first time in decades, you have one without the other

Updated: July 17, 2010, 10:25 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- Theirs was the quintessential love-hate relationship, baseball's very own Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, or at times more like Cain and Abel. They couldn't live without one another and at times they couldn't live with one another.

So when, earlier this week, one of them died, the other one felt as if a little bit of himself had gone, too.

"There are players and owners through history who are tied together in this sport," Reggie Jackson said Saturday. "I'm proud to be tied to him. And that'll never change."

"Him," of course, is George Steinbrenner, who probably would never have become The Boss without Reggie, just as Reggie never would have become Mr. October without The Boss.

They loved one another and at times hated one another, but ever since the November afternoon when a shipbuilder from Cleveland took an All-Star outfielder to lunch at the 21 Club and formed a bond that would last for the next 34 years, you really can't mention one without at least thinking of the other.

From that day forward, as Bill Madden wrote in the best line of his recent Steinbrenner biography, "Both knew what they wanted, and that was each other."

Reggie Jackson
AP Photo/Frank Franklin II"I'd really rather not be here," an emotional Reggie Jackson said Saturday.

The fact that the Steinbrenner-Jackson alliance became a tumultuous triangle with the addition of Billy Martin, and a fearsome foursome once Thurman Munson entered the mix, only made the era of the Bronx Zoo Yankees that much more memorable, and the Boss-Reggie bond that much more durable.

As Ron Guidry said on the field before Saturday's Old-Timers' Day festivities in the Bronx, "We were the best soap opera in the country."

Like every soap opera, this one had heroes and villains, love affairs and divorces, and two characters who endure through decades of triumph and turmoil and never seem to grow old.

The reality that one of them had, in fact, grown old and died seemed to affect the other in ways he had never expressed publicly before.

Reggie Jackson, now 64, so often the picture of self-possessed -- and self-absorbed -- cool, was now about to dissolve in a puddle in the Yankee Stadium interview room.

"I'd really rather not be here today," he said, his voice cracking and his eyes reddening. "I'd rather pass."

He would rather, he told me afterward, be in Tampa, where the Steinbrenner family was laying The Boss to rest in a private ceremony to which even Mr. October was not invited. "It's blood only," he said, his pain at the exclusion obvious and inconsolable.

Because for all the pomp and bluster and "magnitude of me" pomposity that Jackson is capable of, it is clear that he owes much of that to The Boss, a man with whom he shared a curious and complicated father-son, big brother-little brother, boss and employee relationship.

As Jackson said, with uncharacteristic modesty, "He took a .260 lifetime hitter with 2,500 strikeouts and put me in the position to have big moments."

There was more to it than that, of course, but clearly, without Steinbrenner bringing Jackson to New York, the three World Series homers on three consecutive pitches happen somewhere else, and without Jackson hitting those three homers, maybe Steinbrenner never becomes more than a Midwestern millionaire who tried to make it in the big city.

They didn't just want each other, it turns out they needed each other. And now that one of them is gone, the other seems just a bit lost and out of sorts.

"When I heard about it Tuesday, I think I was a little bit caught off guard," Jackson said. "I had just spoken to him on his birthday [nine days earlier] and we had a wonderful conversation. Certainly I knew the health wasn't the same. I knew the strength wasn't there. But still, it seemed to hit me from out of nowhere."

While everyone who had ever played for Steinbrenner, it seemed, was making the rounds of the sports interview shows, Jackson went uncharacteristically silent -- "pensive," he called it -- refusing all interviews and issuing a statement through his office.

"I wasn't ready to talk about it," he said. "I don't think I could have held it together very well."

He did not want to come east for Old-Timers' Day, and according to him, was called by "people in the organization who thought I should be here."

General manager Brian Cashman portrayed the conversation somewhat differently. "It's in his contract, so he's gotta be here. I mean, he's a Hall of Fame Yankee, he's a piece of our history and this is Old-Timers' Day. He has to be here."

So he was here, putting on the old uniform -- No. 44, in case you've forgotten -- going out and taking his bow before the cheering crowd, and then coming back to the Yankees clubhouse, still red-eyed and sweaty.

"The kind of relationship we had was like the one Bill Russell had with Red Auerbach," Jackson said. "Or Bart Starr and Vince Lombardi."

Or even Babe Ruth and Col. Jacob Ruppert?

Certainly, they meant as much to each other's reputations, and to each other, as any of those icons did.

Now, one of the two men who couldn't live with each other or without each other will have to figure out a way how.

"It'll be tough," Reggie Jackson said, and for once you got the feeling he meant every word that he said.

Wallace Matthews is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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