Thursday, October 21, 2010

I also always wanted to be The Mick, too ...

Yesterday, we discussed John Irving. Today's it's Mickey Mantle. I know that's a widely divergent swing in topics ... from America's finest contemporary author (I think so, anyway) to one of America's most flawed heroes ever.

To anyone who grew up as part of my generation (I came of age, baseball-wise, in 1961, watching Mantle and Maris try to break Babe Ruth's home run record), and loved the grand old game, Mickey Mantle was the man to be. And I say this as a lifelong Red Sox fan.

First, it must be noted, the Red Sox stunk when I was a kid. In 1965, which is the year I turned 12, they lost 100 games. They hadn't done much better in previous seasons, either. I can always remember my friend Dickie Mariano saying "how come OUR teams always stink?"

Dickie was also a Bruins fan. And they were horrible in the early-to-mid 60s too. He wasn't much of a basketball fan, I guess, and kind of forgot about the Celtics in the 60s. They made up for what the Red Sox and Bruins lacked.

Also, when the Red Sox finally got good, the Yankees turned terrible. So as a kid, I never really got the full flavor of this rabid, irrational Boston-New York hatefest. I may not like the Yankees very much today, but that's generally because of what they've done to the Red Sox in my lifetime ... and because, for the longest time, their owner (George Steinbrenner) worked diligently to MAKE himself the type of guy you could hate comfortably.

(Though it should be noted that The Boss refused to allow his groundskeepers to turn the lights off in The Stadium after the Red Sox clinched the pennant in 2004. "Let them celebrate," he told his crew. Just wondering, sometimes, whether Larry Lucchino would have been as magnanimous.)

Anyway, without all that silly hatred to cloud my judgment in the 1960s, I was really kind of ambivalent about the whole Yankee thing. Yeah, the won all the time. But truth be told, that doesn't bother me. Even back then, I understood that winning that much was something special ... something to be celebrated. Sure, you wanted to see if anyone could knock them off ... but that didn't mean you had to hate them.

And I didn't. I rooted for my Red Sox, of course. The first Major League game I ever went to was in 1962, and the Yankees tattooed the left-field wall ... and the Red Sox. I still remember the score. It was 10-6 ... the last four runs coming via home runs by Jim Pagliaroni (a three-run net job) and Bob Tillman (over everything, as Ned Martin used to say).

Mickey hit one out (I've always wanted to use that line in this manner, ever since Billy Crystal used it in "City Slickers."). The first ball I ever saw hit off the "Green Monster," up close and personal, came courtesy of Elston Howard. Oddly, the only thing I don't remember was who pitched. I want to say Ike Delock for the Red Sox ... but I have no clue about the Yankees. I didn't go to the park to see pitching. I went to see Yankees hit home runs ... and to root for the Red Sox anyway.

I was too young to appreciate Ted Williams (though meeting him in 1976 remains one of the singular thrills of my life. Really). But thankfully, I'm not to young to have witnessed Mickey Mantle in action for several good years of his career ... before his skills really started to erode.

Why am I writing about Mickey Mantle (you can't just say "Mantle;" there's far more romance in saying the whole name ... Mickey Mantle)? Because I just got through reading a biography of him by Jane Leavy, a former writer for the Washington Post, who paints a picture of everyone's All-American that can only be described as a dichotomy. We remember The Mick (an acceptable alternative to saying the entire name) as being a somewhat stoic hero ... the man who played through pain and injuries that would put the rest of us in wheelchairs.

Something was always hurting on him. And we all knew it. He was the walking prototype when it came to playing with pain. If you sat next to The Mick in the lockerroom, and saw the trainers wrapping him up like a mummy every day just so he could step onto the field, your pulled whatever, or your bruised whatever, just didn't measure up. You put on your spikes and got out there.

And that part of it was absolutely true. Nobody could ever accuse The Mick of not being a gamer. It wasn't a show.

It's also good to know, via this book (and others), that The Mick was -- very often -- a genuine mensch. He was a good guy ... and a great teammate. Perhaps some of that stemmed from the absolutely awful treatment he got from Joe DiMaggio when he was on his way up and the Clipper was in his last years. Fans of Joltin' Joe, by the way, won't like this book. There isn't one good word, anywhere, about him. In fact, had Paul Simon had been privy to some of the information in this book, he may have changed the words in "Mrs. Robinson."

The thing about the book, though, is that it pulls no punches when it comes to documenting The Mick's dark side. And if you're like me, and you looked in awe at Mickey Mantle, a lot of this stuff is unsettling. I finished the book two days ago, and when I closed it, I thought to myself that I'm glad I was 57 when I read it ... and not 17, 27 or even 37. What the years take away in some aspects they give you in wisdom and depth of understanding. You can better appreciate the downside of all that fame and adulation ... and the lengths that some people feel the need to go to either escape from it or cope with it.

The purpose here isn't to recount the book (though it's a great read, and it offers insights that you might not get in your average sports book). It is to explore, perhaps, why Mickey Mantle had the hold on all of us that he did in the first place.

First, there's the name. Mickey Mantle. Has there ever been a more symmetrically perfect name? No, there hasn't. Mickey Mantle had hero written all over it before he ever made the Big Leagues. It's a name meant for heros. It sounds otherworldy. And I kind of think, deep down, that if Babe Ruth's record was going to be broken in 1961, many of The Babe's holdouts would have preferred that someone named Mickey Mantle do it over someone with the much more pedestrian title of Roger Maris (though to me, in 1961, that name sent shivers down my spine too).

Now, I will admit ... having grown up in the era of cartoons, Mickey Mantle sounded too much like Mickey Mouse, and maybe that's why I developed such an attachment to the name too. Similarly, Who can think of Yogi Berra without thinking of Yogi Bear?

So Mickey Mantle rolled off the tongue. And it sounded almost Shakespearean when Yankees PA announcer Bob Sheppard said it too.

Mickey Mantle had a name even Jack Armstrong could have envied. And when you combin the name with the skill set, he couldn't miss. And the truth is, baseball exploded as a television spectator sport in the 1950s and 60s when the Yankees were perennially in the World Series. Every fall, with a few exceptions thrown in there, there were the New York Yankees playing in the Fall Classic, on TV, in the afternoons, with Mickey Mantle as the star of the show.

Back in the early '60s, my aunt and uncle lived down the street and around the corner from my school. My uncle's mother, Mary Ignatowicz, was a baseball fan, and I knew that if I ran from Sacred Heart School in Lynn to Perley Street, and knocked on the door like some kind of latchkey kid (now before anyone gets huffy over that remark, I was anything but a latchkey kid), Mrs. Iggy would let me in, pour me a glass of milk, get me some cookies, and we'd sit and watch the World Series.

And it was always the Yankees against somebody ... the Cincinnati Reds, San Francisco Giants, the Dodgers, the St. Louis Cardinal. By the time I got old enough not to care as much about the game (seventh and eighth grades), the Yankees were long past their prime and the Red Sox hadn't ascended to theirs.

So we grew up with Mickey Mantle on TV almost as much as The Beaver and Wally. And every time you looked up, there was Mickey Mantle hitting a walkoff homer off Barney Schultz of the Cardinals. The Mick somehow managed to take Sandy Koufax deep in Game 4 of the '63 series ... the one that the Dodgers swept.

Everybody wanted to be Mickey Mantle. If you played home run derby in your back yard, you fought over who would be The Mick. I'm a big fan of the Terry Cashman song, "Talkin' Baseball," and I know exactly what he meant when he talked about his friend who "Swore he was the Oklahoma kid." So did everyone else.

Jane Leavy's catch line in the book, called "The Last Boy" is that Mickey Mantle was the last boy in the last decade (the fifties) ruled by boys. Reading it, you get the sense of how thoroughly Mickey Mantle -- and the Yankees of that era -- owned New York (and we're talking about the days when the Dodgers and Giants still played there). You got a good sense of how empowering that had to be ... and how willing those who existed along the outer perimeter of these legends' worlds enabled them in their pursuits of liquor and other debauchery, lest they lose what little access they had (or thought they had).

Aside from being a biography of The Mick, "The Last Boy" is as good a lesson as there is on the double-edged sword of fame and adulation ... that when the crowds disperse, the lights dim, and it's just you and the mirror, it can often be an awfully scary, sobering, and intimidating moment.

Funny thing, reading the book doesn't make me wish to live those days over again so I can reverse my hero worship. Not at all. It was what it was. I was a boy. How did I know? And, really, would it have made a difference back then anyway?

When you're 12, you don't know from anything about sociology. All I know -- and knew -- is that when Mickey Mantle came to bat in the most dramatic moments of my childhood (when it came to watching sports, at least), Mickey Mantle did something heroic. He was to baseball what John Lennon was to the Beatles. As far as I was concerned, he put it on the map.

Acutally, what it does is make me wish I was even older than I am (perish the thought) so I could have experienced more -- even if vicariously -- what is must have been like to virtually own Manhattan. I only got the tail end of it.

When it comes to The Mick, I can compartmentalize. Yes, he may have been a cad ... and a sexist ... and a lush ... and all the rest. But damn, Mickey Mantle is one of the guys who made being a kid in the 1960s a whole lot of fun.

And at the end of the day, that carries a lot of weight with me.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

I always wanted to be John Irving ...

I always wanted to write just like John Irving. From the time I read "A Prayer for Owen Meany," I figured THAT'S the way to write a book.

Actually, Irving has written perhaps the two most "perfect" books I've ever laid eyes upon: "The Cider House Rules" and "Owen Meany." For him, I'd imagine, duplicating such perfection can be daunting ... sort of like asking The Beatles to top the three-year period where they produced "Rubber Soul," "Revolver" and "Sgt. Pepper."

You can try ... but how many times can you be perfect? That's why there have only been a handful or so perfect games in Major League baseball over my lifetime. Even when you're very good, you invariably fall short of the mark. It doesn't mean you've lost your stuff. Indeed, Irving has come through since "Owen Meany" with some fine writing. But the harmonic convergence of a good plot, some heart-tugging language, and some serious (in my case) geographical nostalgia put these two books right at the top for me.

To wit: He had me in "Owen Meany" when he started talking about Hampton Beach, N.H.

But the problem with wanting to write like John Irving is that you can't. Nobody can. This isn't to say nobody has the talent to write a Victorian novel in the 21st century (which is essentially what most of Irving's writing is). It's just that nobody can do it quite like he does, because ... well ... he's John Irving and we're not.

Last night, Irving -- at the behest of an advanced creative writing class at Boston University -- read a passage from the book he is now writing (and as usual, the plot is very UN-mainstream) and then answered questions afterward. For someone who has so thoroughly enjoyed Irving's writing over the last quarter of a century (God, am I that old that I can toss that remark off so casually??), it was a rare treat to sit in that lecture hall and listen to a real master.

I've always heard that it's difficult for geniuses to talk about their genius. John Lennon and Paul McCartney reveal(ed) their innermost feelings about their music in much the same way a hostile witness testifies in a murder case. And with pretty much the same expressions on their faces. In their eyes (and I daresay in most eyes) the muse is best left unspoken.

But Irving was pretty candid about some of the thought processes that went into some of his books -- most notably "The World According to Garp." He said he was angry when he wrote that book ... and it's main thrust is about sexual prejudices.

Having read the book once or twice (I think I've read all his books multiple times), it's an issue that I sense was "blowing in the wind," but I could never quite nail it down. But, he said, "Garp's mother is killed by a man who hates women; and Garp is killed by a women who hates men."

True enough. And when you add the whole aspect of Roberta, the transgender ex-pro football player, that point is reinforced even more (I still cannot see John Lithgow as anyone else BUT Roberta, unfortunately).

But there were other nuggets. He says that Johnny Wheelright in "Owen Meany" is "probably gay." He doesn't know. He thinks he is. In the book, he refers to Johnny as "a non-practicing homosexual" because that's the term his mother always used for such confirmed bachelors.

However, after broaching that subject, he offered this: I'm convinced that John Wheelright is the type of person whose feet were planted firmly in the closet ... and would remain there all his life. He just couldn't say it."

All of which brings up an interesting point that I wish someone had asked him (I got there too late to write down any of the thousand million questions I had): Is there symbolism, then, that the one time Johnny got sexually aroused -- while playing with his cousin, Hester -- it was in a closet?

His homosexuality -- even in its latent, "nonpracticing" form -- is one very plausible explanation, perhaps, as to why Johnny never got over Owen's death.

Irving said he lives by Herman Melville's creed of "woe to him who seeks to please and not to appall." And I say bravo for that! Irving's books wouldn't be nearly as interesting were it not for some awfully quirky characters who get themselves into insane predicaments. And there, too, Irving has it all planned out.

"What I do, basically, is create characters who are pretty likeable, but who get themselves into situations I'd never, ever want to be in myself," he said. "And then, I think of everything bad that can possibly happen to them."

Well, yes. That's what creates conflict and drama. He said he'd never want to be Wilbur Larch, the doctor in Cider House Rules, who -- childless -- nevertheless forges a paternal bond for Homer Wells. The conflict between them arises over abortion.

Wilbur is a ob/gyn who works at an orphanage, and he sees how scarred these orphans are from a lifetime of knowing that they weren't wanted, and he feels that rather than put innocent children through that kind of colossal rejection, it would be better for all concerned if they were aborted.

Homer, an orphan (and this, here, is Irving talking last night) knows that the only thing his mother EVER gave him was life ... and, seeing the situation from the other side, isn't as eager to see the procedure as a way out.

If ONLY John Lennon were as poignantly up front about some of HIS music. I mean, I was hanging on every word.

Much of Irving's discussion last night involved the writing of novels themselves. In other interviews, he's said that writing a book is like building a house. Last night, he shared some of his blueprints.

For example, he said, he writes the ending first. He always knows where his stories want to end up. And then, he says, he works backwards to a beginning. He also said he never wants the voice of the book -- in whatever form it takes -- to sound the same as it does at the end. For a lot of reasons, he said. All his books involve the passage of time, which means that his characters mature into adulthood (and sometimes into senior citizen-hood) as they progress. They grow, both chronologically and emotionally, and he has to tailor his characters -- and their dialogues -- accordingly.

He also meticulously outlines his plots ahead of time so that by the time he's ready to write, all he has to worry about is the writing.

Someone asked him if he was ever surprised at how things turn out in his books. No, he said. He didn't like surprises. In fact, he said, he could almost tell you the chapter -- and sometimes be able to pinpoint it even closer than that -- in which momentous things happen to his characters.

He always writes the last lines of his novels right away ... and, he said, they've never changed. His beginnings? They always change. In fact, he said, he has trouble writing beginnings. But never endings.

Also, he writes all his books -- at least in the initial draft -- in longhand, because it forces him to go slow. He doesn't want to write quickly -- a luxury, he says, that being self-supporting with his writing affords him.

"My last seven novels were better put together than my first five," he said, "because by then I was self-supporting, and had more time to write them. You can't do your best work when you only have an hour or two per day to write them."

He also said -- perhaps to the dismay of many budding authors in the crowd -- that he constantly rewrites ("I love to rewrite"), thus adding more labor, and time, to the process. Since few people I know have that kind time, hearing that was a rather depressing and daunting thing.

Irving is a man who -- in his writing and in person -- doesn't mind poking you with the sharp end of the stick. For example, he said he got all over a journalist ("wouldn't be the first time a journalist has pissed me off") because, in a reference to Melville's "Moby-Dick," he forgot the hyphen.

"Do you know how important the hyphen is?" he asked. "Without the hyphen, Moby's just one of a family of Dicks. There's Mrs. Dick. And maybe Robert Dick."

Needless to say, he had his fans in hysterics.

Now, I have to confess here that, as one who did not see all the greatness in "Moby-Dick," I didn't know there was a hyphen. And I'm guessing that not a lot of people do either. It's liberally written both ways. And, in fact, there's dispute as to whether there ever was hyphen in the first place (a cursory Google search just now reveals this).

But as a standup routine, especially for one who is no Robin Williams, it wasn't bad.

(Parenthetically, the only thing we ever did, as kids, when we had to read it, was add an apostrophe to "Moby," making his Dick possessive.).

But take heart, people. One of the last things Irving said was that his way of writing was his way, and he'd never be so presumptuous as to say it was the only way. It works for him. That doesn't mean it works for everybody.

But it makes sense. Especially if you're like me, and -- because of what I do for a living -- you think in short bursts and get it all out there in 700 words or less. You do need to know where you're going ... and how you intend to get there. Otherwise, you're just Bullwinkle J. Moose yelling, "go, go, go! But watch where you're going."

I've always wanted to be John Irving. Sort of like Being John Malkovich.

And it's always bothered me that I cannot. I creates writers blocks in me that have always prevented me from achieving one of my lifelong goals: to complete a novel. I've started more than I can count. I always run into a wall. And one of the reasons I've always run into a wall is because -- to bastardize a modern-day question -- I always start asking, "WWJID."

Perhaps a better question would be, "WWMCD."*

*(What would my CHARACTER do?)

This doesn't mean I don't take the advice as it's given. Obviously, his success points to the validity of his methods. But -- as someone said to me yesterday -- perhaps it's time to stop trying to be John Irving and start being Steve.

OK. Maybe it is.