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MICK'S DEATH STIRS MEMORIES OF A FRIEND AND A MISSED CALL

* A YANKEE GOES HOME: When I was in grade school, my best friend was obsessed with Mickey Mantle. He had a Mantle uniform, hat, posters, gloves. And that was in the '50s, long before baseball discovered marketing.

Looking back, I think he saw in Mantle the strapping, athletic father he'd always wanted. And he gave Mantle all the reverence a dutiful son can give.Years later, my friend died tragically in a canyon auto accident. And last week - 25 years later - Mantle himself tragically died of cancer.

In a year when baseball is ill, when it suffers from indulgent behavior and bad choices, Mantle suffered for the same reasons. Even in death, he personified the game. He was "The Mick." And he was magical. He wore lucky No. 7. He hit from both sides of the plate (every schoolboy's dream). He had both power and speed. And his aw-shucks Oklahoma style was the very style of the sport - a game meant for the wide-open, easy evenings of rural America. What's more, he played for the Yankees, a team that may be the closest brush our nation has had to royalty.

Several years ago I was doing a story on baseball memorabilia, and I set up an interview with Mantle. A wild day on deadline and an emergency drew me away from the phone. When I finally got back, he'd already called and gone his way.

I'd planned to ask him about many of the things I've mentioned here: the magic quality of his career, the way he'd served as a father figure for so many young boys. And I'd planned to tell him about my boyhood friend.

Today, I feel the loss of never having spoken with him; just as the game of baseball feels the loss of the man who embodied the sport.

The truth is, Mickey Mantle was never bigger than the game. He couldn't be. Mickey Mantle was the game.

* OF WAGS AND WITS: Thursday morning at a local bookseller's breakfast, I had the chance to meet William Wait. Wait is often described as "the Mormon Will Rogers," which is a lie, of course.

I'm the Mormon Will Rogers. Still, Wait's 17 tapes do offer a big double-helping of humor and insight.

If you don't know who he is, William Wait is the guy who says, "A lot of people here don't seem to recognize me. You people should get out to the temple more often."

He's the retired soul who trudges out to check for mail five or six times a day. "Sometimes I even go check it after I've already gotten the mail," he says. "At my age, I like to think there's always hope."

I extended my hand to him as someone said, "Bill, this is Jerry Johnston. Be careful, he's the press."

He took my hand and squinted. "You're depressed, you say."

"Yes, that too," I said.

It was a great opening for him to pitch his latest humor release, "As I See It," but he passed on the chance. I admire the restraint, for as he later told the booksellers: "Keep those tapes dusted and face up, folks. I need the money - I never know when Medicare will end. Besides, I have nothing but royalties to thank for both of my suits."

* QUOTE OF THE DAY: This one comes from my friend Joyce Whitten. She coined it as a motto for her life:

Things turn out best when you make the best of how things turn out.