Wracked with sorrow and regret for all the people he’d hurt and all the promise he’d squandered, Mickey Mantle was broken and contrite when, at a press conference in June of 1995, knowing he was near death, he urged anyone who might be listening: “Don’t be like me.”
Two months later–fifteen years ago today–Mickey Mantle passed away.
I know all the stories as well as anyone else. A living-legend superstar on the baseball field, Mantle, even by his own admission, could be a legendary lout outside the ballpark. Often reckless, frequently obnoxious, the off-field Mantle was, at times, a rowdy, immature, philandering drunk–traits that hurt his career and, in the end, contributed to his untimely demise at the too-young age of 63.
I know all the stories, I know they’re all true, and I know they bespeak a narrative of hurt and disappointment. But though clouded by time and filtered through the eyes of an adolescent, the story of my brief time with Mickey Mantle was different.
It was the summer of 1970. I was 13 years old, living in North Miami Beach, having moved from New York with my family in ’69 (the year Mantle retired). I’d grown up a Yankee fan, I was still–despite the move–a Yankee fan, and I still–despite his retirement–idolized The Mick. I therefore nearly jumped out of my skin that summer morning when I read an announcement in the local paper that Mickey Mantle would be appearing at a free baseball clinic for kids at Flamingo Park on Miami Beach.
I corralled my 12 year old brother, we grabbed our mitts and our father’s Polaroid Swinger instant camera, and a short bus ride later we were there.
I’d seen Mickey Mantle in person before, but always as a fan from the stands in Yankee Stadium, always one of thousands of screaming kids trying (and failing) to get his attention. This time was different.
Anticipating a throng of screaming acolytes, and hoping, at best, to snag an autograph before the afternoon was over, I was stunned and delighted when we arrived to find that maybe–maybe!–twenty other kids had shown up (such was the sorry state of baseball fever in South Florida forty years ago), and that standing right there among those kids . . . on the same patch of earth . . . with no barricade or bodyguard . . . saying hello and shaking hands . . . asking everyone their names . . . wearing his home-team pinstripes with number 7 on the back . . . was none other than the real . . . live . . . Mickey Charles Mantle!
Sure, he’d put on a few pounds. And sure, he looked tired. But on that hot, sunny, summer afternoon in South Florida, the legendary Mickey Mantle spent an unhurried few hours laughing, smiling, signing autographs, and talking baseball with a small group of starstruck kids–and I was one of those kids! For nothing other than the cost of bus fare, I got to stand in front of Mickey Mantle, baseball bat in my hands, and have him tell me to lift my right elbow a little higher, and bend my knees a little more. I got to field a slow ground ball he tossed directly toward me. And when I said, “Thanks, Mickey,” I got to soak up the thrill of having him look right at me and say, “Sure, kid.”
When my brother and I left Flamingo Park that day, I left with hands that had shaken The Mick’s hands, a half-dozen instant pictures, and more autographed pieces of paper than I could fit in my pockets–Mickey signed anything and everything, graciously. A photo he autographed hangs on my wall to this day.
Did Mantle, before that day, have a reputation for selfish, even boorish, behavior? Definitely. And did he continue to behave selfishly and boorishly after that day? Again, definitely.
But to this fan, on that day, Mickey Mantle was everything a kid could ever want his idol to be.