NEW YORK -- As soon as you walked in the door on Central Park South, a framed Yankees uniform with the "7" on the back told you where you were. And if you were lucky that lunch hour or dinner time, down past the big rectangular bar the color of baseball bats, in the last booth on the right, Mickey Mantle would be sitting with a drink.
"Whenever he was here in the last year, he loved this IBC diet root beer in a brown bottle," his restaurant partner, Bill Leiderman, was saying Wednesday. "Or a Diet Coke."
The last year, yes. But before Mickey Mantle spent 32 days in the Betty Ford Center for alcohol abuse early last year, every so often he would come into his restaurant in the morning and drink what he called the "breakfast of champions" -- a shot or two of brandy, another shot of Kahlua and cream. He drank in the afternoon, too.
"Wine spritzers," Leiderman remembered. "But we'd put the club soda in first, then top it off with wine. That way he got the taste of the wine but he wouldn't drink so many."
But whenever Leiderman or the Mick's other restaurant partner, John Lowy, were with him in other places around town, they noticed that the bartenders always poured more vodka for him than they did for just anybody else.
"This, after all, was their hero," Leiderman said. "This was Mickey Mantle."
Their hero had hit 536 homers and a record 18 World Series homers. All the people who bought him drinks and all the bartenders who made the drinks thought they were doing the Mick a favor, thanking him for all those homers, all those moments. Give him a real drink. Give him a stiff drink. Not that the people or the bartenders had to sneak it past him like a changeup.
He wanted that real drink, that stiff drink.
It wasn't only in his restaurant or around town because he wasn't in New York that often. Once every few weeks, if that. Wherever he was, at home in Dallas or in his travels being Mickey Mantle, he drank too much. He thought it was fun. He thought it was funny.
But now he's in a Dallas hospital.
About 18 months ago, one of his doctors told him that he would eventually need a new liver, that his next drink could be his last. He went to the Betty Ford Center and stopped drinking.
Yesterday, his doctors in Dallas announced that the Mick has liver cancer, that he needs a liver transplant within three weeks because the tumor can't be removed surgically.
In acknowledging his drinking problem last year, the Mick remembered how he started drinking after his father died in early middle age of Hodgkin's disease in 1952, Mantle's second season as a Yankees slugger.
And when he stopped playing after the 1968 season, he drank harder and longer. He missed his Yankees pals. When he turned 50 during the 1981 World Series, he joked about his drinking.
"If I'd known I was going to make it to 50," he said, "I'd have taken better care of myself."
His father, his grandfather and two of his uncles each had died at an early age, all from Hodgkin's disease. Doctors had told the Mick that the disease was hereditary, so he figured if he didn't have much time, he might as well have a good time.
Hodgkin's disease skipped him, but his third of four sons, Billy, named for Billy Martin, developed it and died at 36 early last year.
The Mick is 63 now. For more than a decade, he has flashed his toothy smile and used that line about wishing he had "taken better care of myself." His listeners always laughed. But they're not laughing now. Neither is he.
Neither is anybody in Mickey Mantle's restaurant where he always sat in his booth, that far booth on the right, next to the Roger Maris booth, which is next to the Billy Martin booth.
In 1961, the Mick hit 54 homers and Maris hit a record 61, but Maris died of lymph-gland cancer at 51 in 1985 and now the Mick has liver cancer while he waits for a transplant. Billy Martin, his drinking buddy in his early Yankees years and later on, died at 61 in 1989 in a Christmas Day pickup-truck accident after a few too many drinks.
"Billy and I used to kid each other," the Mick often said, "about whose liver would give out first."
Billy Martin's life style gave out before his liver did. But now the Mick's liver has given out. He needs a liver more than he ever needed a drink.