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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.
It's one of the magical monikers of sports. "Mr. October."
It came about thirty-one years ago, during the sixth game of the World Series between the Yankees and the Dodgers. Yankee super-slugger Reggie Jackson clobbered three home runs and when his teammate Thurmon Munson was being interviewed after the game about the pressures of post-season play, he said "Hey, why don't you ask the guy who knows much more about coming through in the post-season than I do. Go ask Mister October over there," as he pointed toward Reggie.
It's one of those terms that says it all in poetic, brief perfection. October is World Series time. It's clutch time. Yes, you've obviously got to put together a season of wins to get to October play but when your nickname is Mr. October it means that you are a champion who can focus under extreme pressure. It means you may be an average performer but you're far above average when it counts.
Well, I've been thinking about that and there's a thread of logic that's missing. Yes, Jackson's batting average over his 27 World Series games was higher than his overall career average. Yes, if you strolled Monument Park at the far end of Yankee Stadium any time over the past several years, you would have read on the Reggie Jackson plaque the words "A prolific hitter who thrived in pressure situations." The truth is Reggie Jackson should have been called Mr. Anytime or Mr. Dependable. No, not as easy on the ears as Mr. October, but more accurate. He was no run-of-the-mill baseball hacker who ran hot come October. Yes, he was special come World Series time, twice Most Valuable Player in five of the World Series for which he won rings. But he was an All-Star fourteen times, indicating his year-long, consistent career-high quality. His number was retired with both the A's and the Yankees. He glided into the Hall of Fame on his first ballot, 1993.
Sure, Jackson was clutch. But I'm coming to rethink what clutch means in terms of performance.
Was Pavarotti a clutch performer because he could hit those notes and captivate an audience just at the huge performances of Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, or was he a master talent who was always great and that meant he was great when the occasion warranted a historic level of delivery as well?
In browsing the Internet for clutch performers, I came across one compiled list of the 50 greatest clutch athletes in history. Pete Rose. John Elway. Larry Bird. Joe Montana. Jimmy Connors. Michael Jordan. Mariano Rivera. Tiger Woods. You'd know all 50. All grand champions and, of course, they wouldn't have been champions had they folded in the heated moments. But doesn't "clutch" signal to you someone who sparks to greatness at just the right moment, at the big moment, even if you wouldn't consider them great most of the time?
You've heard that expression, "he's a great practice player". At every level of sports, from little kids up to the pros, we know players who can relax and find the sweet spot on their racquets in practice and hit the heck out of the ball. Then in competition they tense up and become a mere shadow of their practice session selves. But is there the opposite, the guy who mucks around in mediocrity in practice, in early season games, and then pops with magic only when it counts? According to statistics, there isn't. We called Reggie Miller "clutch" because that sweet three-pointer of his swooshed at the buzzer. You wanted the ball in Reggie's hands when it was a money shot. But Reggie Miller was an exceptional basketball player most of the time. We call Derek Jeter "Mr. November" because he hit a 2001 World Series home run after the clock ran past midnight and into November 1. But the truth is Jeter's batting average was by far his worst of his six Series the year he got that Mr. November name. And if you look at Jeter's average over his career, compared to his post-season, they're virtually equal.
Mr. October, Mr. November. They sound great. But they don't quite mean what they infer.
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.
Banner image of Reggie Jackson: National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum