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.

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