Remember Mantle as hero, but as human being, too

THE BALTIMORE SUN

He was bigger than life. But he was only human.

Mickey Mantle should be remembered as the blond-haired, thickly muscled Oklahoman who became one of baseball's all-time greats.

He also should be remembered as the gaunt, frail figure whose alcoholism was at least partly responsible for the liver cancer that left him dead at the age of 63.

One image cannot endure without the other.

To savor Mantle simply as a sports hero is to ignore his life of excess.

But to dwell on his shortcomings is to ignore his mythic place in American sports history.

No one is perfect, not even The Mick. He wanted that known at the end, wanted to deflate his own legend, to make his regrets clear.

"Don't be like me," he said at a news conference July 11. "God gave me a body and the ability to play baseball. I had everything and I just . . . "

Mantle didn't need to complete the thought. What happened to him diminishes nothing. It merely points out, once again, that we shouldn't expect more from our athletic gods than we expect of ourselves.

Willie, Mickey and the Duke -- remember? The best center fielders of their time. The biggest sports celebrities in New York. The Hall of Famers who were celebrated in song decades after they retired.

Mantle is gone. Snider has pleaded guilty to federal tax charges. And Mays, an executive with the San Francisco Giants, is more a surly curmudgeon than an ambassador for the game.

Human beings -- they have their faults, you know? Still, the desperate search for heroes continues. Cal Ripken is the latest athlete on a pedestal. Heaven knows, it's a dangerous place to be.

You can admire Ripken's work ethic, his inner strength, his hometown sensibilities. But when he's depicted as a symbol of all that is good in baseball -- and by extension, America -- it gets a little much. No. 8 is a baseball player, for heaven's sake, not Abraham Lincoln.

Indeed, No. 7 once commanded the same aura of infallibility. It's difficult to portray Mantle as a symbol of a more innocent era, but he wasn't the Darryl Strawberry of his day, either. Drinking was part of the clubhouse culture then. It wasn't reported. It wasn't considered a problem.

The lack of scrutiny made it that much easier to become a legend. And Mantle was the embodiment of the American dream, a boy who grew up dirt-poor in Commerce, Okla., to become the center fielder for the world's most famous sports franchise, in one of the biggest cities on Earth.

No one could run as fast, at least not at the start of his career. And no one could hit home runs as far -- twice Mantle reached the facade of the third deck at Yankee Stadium, the closest anyone has ever come to hitting a fair ball out of that park.

As good as he was -- 536 home runs, the 1956 Triple Crown, three MVP awards, a record 18 World Series homers -- the suspicion was that he could have been better. If only he had stayed healthy. If only he had applied himself with the same intensity as his Yankees predecessor, Joe DiMaggio.

"From the first time he saw Mantle, [Yankees manager Casey] Stengel believed here was a kid who could run as fast as Cobb and hit as hard as Ruth, that this was going to be the greatest ballplayer of all time," said Robert W. Creamer, who ghost-wrote Mantle's 1964 book, "The Quality of Courage."

"Stengel wanted to mold him into that great player. And Mantle resisted it. Not openly. Not defiantly. He just didn't want to do all those things. He wanted to enjoy life and hit home runs and have fun and not work too hard. He was a tremendous competitor, loved to win, but he wasn't obsessed with perfection as some athletes are."

Was that a sin? Heck, no, it was part of Mantle's charm. He had that sense of vulnerability, that down-home drawl, that easygoing smile. The Mick enjoyed life, all right. Only later did it become evident that he got carried away too often.

Still, as a player, he displayed tremendous courage, playing with hangovers, yes, but also playing with intense pain in his legs. That was the Mantle his former teammates remember. Only later did he become a genuinely tragic figure.

Entering the Betty Ford Clinic, revealing his past to Sports Illustrated, holding his final, chilling news conference the day of the All-Star Game in Dallas -- through it all, no one could call his life a waste. Not with the joy it created. Not even with the way it ended.

"The hope in this is that Mickey left behind a legacy," said Dr. Goran Klintmalm, medical director of transplant services at Baylor University Hospital. "Mickey and his team have already made an enormous impact by increasing the awareness of organ donation. This may be Mickey's ultimate home run."

Mantle would like that.

Don't remember the myth.

Remember the man.

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