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`THE MICK’ IS REMEMBERED AS LARGER-THAN-LIFE LEGEND

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The Mick was like a demigod, so strong, so vulnerable, a million-dollar body flawed by dime-store knees.

When he emerged from the dugout late in the summer of '63, pinch-hitting in the bottom of the ninth after a two-month layoff, we roared in Yankee Stadium with happy, sappy smiles, moist eyes and shivers down the spine.He had been out since June, when he mangled his foot in a wire fence chasing a ball in Baltimore, and now the Orioles were in town, one out away from a double-header sweep with a 10-9 lead.

A slight limp was still evident in his slow, stiff stride, but the closer he got to the plate, the louder we cheered. The setting sun gleamed golden off the stadium's towering white facade. "I used to call it `fakade,"' The Mick grinned earlier that season, poking fun at his pronunciation after one of his most monstrous homers slammed into it and nearly cleared it for the first time.

Seven years had passed since his Triple Crown season, two since he hit 54 homers in the dramatic chase with Roger Maris for Babe Ruth's record. The boos that accompanied his early years, when he inherited Joe DiMaggio's place in center, had long vanished.

Like his predecessor, he had become larger than life, a bull-necked, blond American icon with an Oklahoma country boy's shy charm and an alliterative name that everyone knew. Mickey Mantle. The Mick. No. 7.

The Mick flexed his thick back muscles at the plate, dug in on the right side against George Brunet and took a mighty cut at a fastball. But he didn't get all of it, and the ball soared in a high arc to left field, a crummy pop-up, he thought, as he flipped away his bat in disgust and jogged with his head down toward first.

As he neared the base, resigned to return to the bench, he heard the crowd's clamor and looked up just in time to see the ball float over the fence, a game-tying homer carried by a breeze that blows only for those ballplayers blessed with greatness and good fortune, the ones who take a rare moment and turn it into legend.

What The Mick did next imprinted the feat indelibly in the memory of everyone in the stadium: He flashed that self-effacing smile, raised his hands, palms up, and shrugged his shoulders in a gesture that showed even he didn't know how the ball went out.

Years later, he would recall that moment as one of the greatest of his career, right up there with his grand slam off Russ Meyer in the 1953 World Series and his homer off Barney Schultz in the bottom of the ninth in the '64 Series.

Yankee Stadium never shook with thunderous applause and roars for the Mick more than it did on that day in August 1963, and they can be heard still in the silence upon his passing.

Kids called him The Mick as if he were an older brother they idolized; adults did it as if he were their closest friend. Mantle projected warmth and an easiness that even Yankee haters couldn't help but like.

Don Mattingly had it right when he called Mickey Mantle a man of "mythic" stature. Mythic men, for all their strength and success, struggle and are touched by tragedy. In that, Mantle became and remained an extraordinarily potent figure in American culture.

"I know people who just worshiped the ground that he walked on," said Ken Burns, director of the "Baseball" documentary series that included a segment titled "Mr. Mantle."

"His life, his example, in some ways his failure to live up to his potential, were all part of his particular mystique. That failure to live up to the potential had, as its more sympathetic side, a vulnerability. One could identify with it.

The Mick could hit balls as far and run as fast as anyone who ever played baseball. He brought to the game all the promise of becoming the best there ever was, and you can look up some of his statistics, like 536 homers, 1,677 runs and 1,509 RBIs in 2,401 games, and count up the 12 World Series teams he played for, and argue convincingly that he was better than Willie Mays, better than Duke Snider, better than anyone in his era.

Freak injuries and illnesses marked the Mantle legend, along with his fear of dying young like his father and grandfather. Everyone knew he played in pain, saw him jog back and forth from the outfield with a hitch as if every step hurt, and heard tales of the yards of tape that trainers wrapped around his legs before games.

But he hated to talk about any of that, didn't want to acknowledge it or use it for an excuse, and his stoicism made him all the more re-spect-ed.

Beyond his natural talent on the field, his humor and geniality with teammates helped make the chemistry on the Yankees work, even if he and Whitey Ford and Billy Martin brewed it up at 100-proof parties that became as legendary as his homers.

The Mick could drink all night and play all day, a quality many admired back in the '50s and '60s, and he infuriated manager Casey Stengel by cheerfully ignoring any advice to work harder.

For a generation of fans in the post-DiMaggio era, the Mick came to embody the ultimate ballplayer. And away from the field, his name filtered through the American scene until he became known and loved in every corner of the country. It was a love that grew even until the time of his death.

"I can't call him a hero, because he really never lived up to his potential and never did anything beyond baseball in terms of accomplishments," Burns said. "Heroes have to be something else. Jackie Robinson is a hero.

"But you think about the young kid in the batter's circle with his grin. He means something to us."

It was enough for the Mick, and his legion of fans, that he simply could play baseball as well as anyone in the game, that he had fun doing it, and that he hit home runs that we watched with our jaws open.