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IT WAS EASY to believe in Mickey Mantle. The economy was booming and everyone was buying those big American cars. We had the automatic dishwasher and the Corvette Sting Ray and Tide to get the dirt out. We had Elvis and rock and roll and color television on the way.

We had it all. So it stood to reason that we'd also have the Mick. Because Mantle wasn't just a great baseball player or the successor to Joe DiMaggio. Yes, he was strong and fast and handsome and he played for the richest and best team of them all, the New York Yankees. But he was also the quintessential American success story back when we believed in American success stories. He was what our parents told us we could become if we worked hard enough and dreamed big enough.The death of Mantle Sunday marked another painful realization for Americans that heroes aren't always heroes, and America isn't everything it thought it was. And it reminded us how quickly time passes and our childhood heroes grow old and die.

And that sometimes our heroes don't fade away gracefully.

I was no different from most American kids growing up in the '50s and '60s. I lived and died with the Yankees. I read the boxscores every day, poring over the Yankees stats. I watched them on Saturdays on CBS and covertly listened to the World Series on a transistor radio during school. I wore a Yankee baseball cap to bed and slept with my mitt under my pillow. I taped a Sport magazine photo of Mantle on the ceiling above my bed so I could wake up and go to sleep with the Mick on my mind. I watched, enthralled, during the summer of '61 when Mantle and Maris were mounting their assult on the Babe's home run record.

Mantle wasn't a hero just because he represented the best of baseball. It's because he represented our best dreams. The dirt-poor son of an Oklahoma miner, he rose to become a star in New York. And because we knew every year that the Mick was going to the World Series and the Yankees would win it all, we also knew the Russians weren't going to beat us to the moon. And we knew if there was a nuclear war, we'd win. And that we'd win all our wars and be the best and most prosperous nation in the world.

Because Mick and America were the same thing - the best there was.

But with the death of Mantle, we were reminded how long ago that was. And how naive we were. And that sometimes dreams get sidetracked and maybe, just maybe, the American dream isn't what it once was.

The decline of Mantle actually came quite gradually, like the decline of America's global dominance. As he played on into the '60s, sometimes embarrassing himself, I hoped silently that somehow the bum knee would get better and Mantle would return to his prime. I learned he wasn't perfect when Jim Bouton's "Ball Four" came out in 1971 and characterized Mantle as a heavy drinker and late-night carouser. I later learned from reporters who had interviewed Mantle of his surliness at card shows and golf exhibitions and during interviews. Then came last spring's Sports Illustrated story detailing Mantle's ruinous alcohol addiction.

For all the memories of Mantle crushing the ball in the bottom of the ninth with men on base, my lasting impression will be of him standing before the cameras after liver surgery, sickly and old, the baseball cap too big for his head, his health ruined by a lifetime of alcohol.

"Talk about a role model," he said self-mockingly. "This is a role model."

In reality, Mantle was never the hero we wanted him to be. Despite enormous talent, he never quite lived up to billing. Other players - Henry Aaron and Willie Mays, primarily - played better and accomplished more.

So now, 40 years after the Mick was in his prime, we live in an era in which Charles Barkley admonishes kids not to make him a role model. A more cynical and less forgiving era.

Perhaps Barkley is right. Mantle hit 536 career home runs and won three MVP trophies, but in the end he admitted he was never a role model. He was just a guy with a lot of talent wasting away. "Don't be like me," he said.

Oddly enough, Mantle's greatest accomplishment won't be his three MVP trophies or the World Series rings or the triple crown. It won't be his tape-measure home runs. It will be in reminding us at the end of his life that there's more to being a role model than simply being a star. And that even though you may be bigger than life, nobody's bigger than death.