Reggie Jackson remains benchmark for all NY free agents

TAMPA — The reactions are always the same, and they are always amusing. When Reggie Jackson mixes with the fans, the first thing they say is this: “I always thought he was bigger than that.”

Well, he was. Larger than life is larger than life. It’s hard fix a size for that. In his prime he was 6-feet tall, he weighed 195 pounds, and if he made contact with one of your fastballs the way he was capable of, that sucker wasn’t going to come down for a while.

There were 563 of those pitches that flew over distant walls across 21 seasons. Just five of those seasons were spent with the Yankees, which sometimes seems impossible given the impression he left on the franchise.

But know this about Reggie Jackson:

Every time we ask ourselves about an athlete — it doesn’t matter the sport: football, basketball, hockey, whatever — and wonder if he would be able to perform his wondrous feats in New York City, what we’re really asking is this:

Does he have a little Reggie in him?

He wasn’t the first to show up here with a big dossier and a big contract. Babe Ruth had crafted the prologue of his career in Boston. Y.A. Tittle earned his way into the Hall of Fame as a 49er, and merely added a few extra cherries on top with the Giants. Pearl Monroe and Jerry Lucas had been big stars in Baltimore and Cincinnati, laid most of the groundwork for their own Hall of Fame careers there before joining the Knicks and helping them win the 1973 title that serves as a forever bookend to 1970.

They beat Reggie here. In some ways, they offered pathways he could pursue.

But Reggie had his own idea of how to do things. As much as any athlete ever, he understood the power of New York. He predicted if he ever played here, they’d name a candy bar after him — and they did (sure, it was barely edible, but how many candy bars have been named after you?). He said he wasn’t coming to New York to be a star, he brought his star with him.

He said a lot of other stuff, too. He found himself trapped on the back page for years. He could always win his battles with George Steinbrenner, but the ones with Billy Martin and Thurman Munson were harder because Martin had already won a bunch of World Series as a Yankees player and Munson had won an MVP as a Yankee.

Reggie held his ground anyway. There never has been an athlete around here who ever endured the daily spotlight the way he did in 1977, or the daily furor. Some of it was self-inflicted. Some of it was a less-than evolved time that wasn’t comfortable with an African-American freely offering opinions.

He wanted out a couple of times. Anyone who ever wonders who was right in the bitter Martin-Jackson feud need only remember that Martin benched Jackson in Game 5 of the 1977 ALCS, what could have been one final humiliation.

Instead, Jackson came off the bench to rally the Yankees. Ten days later, he hit three home runs against the Dodgers in as epic a display of brass and style as we’ve ever seen.

Do you have a little Reggie in you Gerrit Cole? Kevin Durant? Artemi Panarin?

Reggie still shows up every spring, still offers advice to Yankees who seek it, still offers opinions to team bosses. Sometimes they listen. Sometimes they don’t. Reggie doesn’t mind. Don’t ask him a question if you don’t want an opinion.

“Fifty-three years I’ve been in and around the big leagues,” he said the other day, a big smile on his face. “I’ve seen a few things.”

Vac’s Whacks

Would it really have killed James Dolan to suspend his grudge with Marv Albert for one night and invite him to the 1970 Knicks celebration March 21? Marv will forever be the franchise soundtrack for multiple generations of fans. God forbid there be an good will spread at the Garden that night.

Have to be honest: I don’t find myself missing Jimmy McGill all that much.

Can you even imagine the kind of deep-seeded emotional turmoil Chris Kreider’s injury would’ve brought Rangers fans if not for that one-year respite from dark clouds and stormy weather in 1994?

Rutgers basketball fans are taking a submersion course these past few weeks about just how cruel life on the NCAA Tournament bubble can be. Fearless prediction: the Scarlet Knights upset Maryland at the RAC this week and punch their ticket.

Whack Back at Vac

Joe Rende: I never get tired of reading about The Babe. What an incredible life he led. Thanks for some new material to talk about the next time his name comes up in conversation.

Vac: There’s a reason so many books have been written about George Herman Ruth: He lived enough for about a dozen normal lives.

Mike Draught: “Elite athletes” do not good baseball players make. Strength and conditioning come in a distant second to flexibility. Oh, and it helps to recognize a curveball.

Vac: I bet Giancarlo Stanton would give anything if the only thing people were talking about in regards to him was his difficulty hitting breaking stuff.

@favortj: “… the Knicks, generally, are as tone-deaf an operation as we’ve ever seen in New York sports. Or we can believe the company line: It took a while to get the right date.” I’ll be with the cynics.

@MikeVacc: That’s where the biggest crowds are!

Richard Siegelman: Yoenis Cespedes (who’s never hit more than 35 home runs) has as much chance of hitting 40 as Giancarlo Stanton has of hitting “80.”

Vac: Someone needs to convince me he’ll play in as many as 40 games first.

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