I Believe in Mickey Mantle
I believe in Mickey Mantle.
My earliest memories are a mixture of family, schools, pets, and a collage of Mickey Mantle – racing through outfield grass to catch a line drive, sliding into 3rd base, his huge swing follow-through, which always looked to me like a hood ornament on a 1930s Italian sports car.
Baseball was a big deal in Herkimer, New York, where I did most of my profitable growing up. I practiced Mickey’s batting stance; I practiced his hook slide in the living room. I didn’t have the face for it, so I didn’t practice the Mickey smile – that just-off-the-farm self-deprecating smiley grin that just barely exposed a couple of front teeth. But when I hit a homer, I trotted around the bases politely, with my head down, as he did.
I believed that every time Mickey came to bat, something good would happen. I was just as happy to see him beat out a bunt single as drive a home run into the upper deck. I believed that he would catch every fly ball hit within 50 yards of center field. I believed that he and I would stay young forever, that I would play with my friends and he would play with the Yankees, and that that part of our shared world would never change.
I believed in Mickey Mantle as a ballplayer. He was not my hero – heroes were firemen who rescued children from burning buildings, and soldiers who ran into enemy fire to drag a wounded buddy to safety. He was not my role model. My role models were my parents, and my uncles, and my best friend Ole’s dad, who knew more about the Adirondacks than Natty Bumpo. So when the paper had a picture of Mickey and Whitey and Billy stumbling out of Toots Shor’s, I didn’t hurry down to the local gin mill to pick up a floozy and buy a round of drinks. I just shook my head, and went back to practicing my Mickey batting stance.
In the mid-1980s, when Mickey had been retired about 15 years, my wife Jennifer noticed a newspaper ad – Mickey Mantle would be at a department store in our town in the Florida Panhandle – Penney’s or Sears – on behalf of a blue jeans company. We went, on the day, and we found Mickey in the midst of a smallish crowd of people gathered around a small platform in the middle of the room. He was wearing the most amazing blue jeans I had ever seen – not a wrinkle anywhere, as if they were not occupied by an animated being.
But there was Mickey. Grey hair, a bit of a paunch, and those jeans. I got no closer than about 20 feet. I couldn’t go any closer, because when someone asked for his photo, he turned to them and smiled that Mickey smile I remembered from 30 years before. I went home still believing in Mickey.
I still believe in Mickey Mantle – who seemed to be just another kid, like me, having the best damn time just playing baseball. And I believe that somewhere, he and I are young forever, and that our shared world where kids just play baseball for fun, will never change.
I also believe in Yogi Berra, but that’s a story for another day.
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