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Mickey Mantle, an aging wreck of a man dying of cancer, has been accused - he's even accused himself - of wasting his life with alcohol.

It's not so, not completely so. He led, from what we know, a careless and often self-destructive life. But it was a life rich with accomplishment in his chosen work and rich with rewards for people who watched.It's a life now saddened by medical predictions that lung cancer - discovered after he'd received a liver transplant - will kill him within a year. But it's not been a wasted life, however much Mantle himself, his family and those who care about him would wish he could live some of it over again.

He was a storybook American sports hero, an aw-shucks Oklahoma country boy whose skills had been drilled into him by his father, arriving in the big leagues - with the Yankees - in 1951 when he was only 19.

In his playing years from 1951 to 1968, in years when he and the Yankees came to define major league baseball, Mantle was voted the American League's most valuable player three times. He led the league in home runs four years. He played in 12 World Series, and his total of 18 World Series home runs during the Yankee years is still the record.

For much of that time, as he's since recalled, Mantle caroused with Yankee pals, out drinking 'til all hours, drinking to celebrate or commiserate, drinking for no reason, in and out of season, a pattern of self-indulgence that worsened after he retired from baseball prior to the 1969 season.

It was a pattern of alcoholism that damaged his family and steadily damaged his health, to the point he needed the liver transplant to save his life two months ago.

That's when hurtful things were printed and broadcast - that Mantle deserved neither public pity nor the transplant, that he'd been deliberately self-destructive and that such expensive care shouldn't be wasted on such a wasted life.

That's a harsh and hurtful judgment from media which in recent years have created an art form in fawning appreciations and obituaries for gay men who've been afflicted and died of AIDS, victims of their own self-destructive behavior as certainly as Mantle was drinking himself to death.

Rarely - and properly so - have serious complaints been heard that expensive research, care and treatment to benefit AIDS patients should be denied, that they are undeserving because of their self-destructive lifestyles.

But the same suggestions have been made repeatedly during Mantle's illness and his dying, that he wasted his own life and he's undeserving.

And there's this much more about Mantle: He's blamed no one but himself for his failing health and fatal illness. He's not blamed uncaring doctors or Congress or any president or a hostile society.