THEY BURIED MICKEY Mantle this week, and that caused me, like a lot of people, to think back on other days and earlier places. Because that's what you needed to do with Mickey Mantle. Return him to a time when he was who he was and you had no idea what "mint condition" meant.
The mere mention of Mickey Mantle brings back a time when kids collected baseball cards because they liked the players, not their prices in Beckett's Weekly. A Mickey Mantle was a primo card, the primo-est, but it still went in your bike spokes on the way to baseball practice, alongside Marv Throneberry and Felipe Alou and Wally Moon, turning a three-speed Schwinn into a Harley Davidson.Can you imagine a card-collector of the '90s being made to watch, without first being sedated, a mint condition Mickey Mantle placed between bicycle spokes and going for a ride?
Mickey Mantle's days were days when autographs were free - which, if you're Duke Snider, would have been a fine tradition to continue - and arthroscopic knee surgery was as hard to imagine as the Internet. For Mickey Mantle, that meant dealing with a wrecked knee for 17 of his 18 big league seasons. More innocent times all around.
It's why his funeral this past week was a lot more fun than his liver transplant a few weeks earlier. The event that tried to give him life dealt with the present, and was greeted by the criticism that the privileged live with, particularly those with self-inflicted injuries incurred because of a lifestyle that took advantage of that privilege. The event that brought Mickey Mantle's death, on the other hand, dealt with the past and was greeted by tales of tape-measure home runs, by grown men weeping, and by Roy Clark singing, fittingly, "Yesterday, When We Were Young."
I liked the early Mickey best, of course, just as I liked the early Elvis best. I don't know about you, but the celebrity-turns-to-tragedy tune started to play thin for me a long time ago. Too many boyhood heroes have played it. Mantle's story would be sad enough if it were isolated, but it isn't. He was Babe Ruth all right, a generation later, right down to the dependency. And the Babe took the baton from Cobb.
It makes you wonder. What price celebrity? One day you're on top of the world, the next you're either in rehab or in a lifetime bad mood, or, in the case of Ali (in what may be the ultimate irony), unable to speak very well. Somebody needs to write a book for superstars on how to have a relationship with retirement. If you're Hank Aaron or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or Jim Brown or Pete Rose, or Wilt or Bill Russell, you spend the rest of your life wearing some kind of chip on your shoulder. And if you're O.J. Simpson, you just wear thin.
It's not a mandatory fate. Arnold Palmer, Gordie Howe, Julius Erving. There are three genuine sports idols who are yet to be indicted or rehabbed. And what of Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle's contemporary, who hasn't endured anything more traumatic than being fired once for winning a pennant.
But it is prevalent, and the point seems obvious: Life gives no free passes, not even to those who can run faster, slide better and punch harder; and maybe especially not to those who can run faster, slide better and punch harder. The evidence tends to show that being a candidate in The Best There Ever Was sweepstakes carries with it a curious hole card of post-career adversity. Let's hope so. Then we have an explanation for the junkyard dog mood that pervades the Senior Tour.
Not to mention an explanation for Mickey Mantle's life after pinstripes. The worst friend an ERA ever had, the first coming of Michael Jordan (Michael Jordan squared, at least), the man who replaced DiMaggio, the man whom everybody wanted to buy a drink, could do it all, except retire. Well, and say no.
The way I choose to remember Mickey Mantle is precisely as he looked on that baseball card I finally took out from my bike spokes and put in a shoe box alongside my Duke Snider and Stan Musial - and my mother threw in the trash one spring after I'd left home. A twelve-thousand dollar card! From the stories I hear, she wasn't the only mother who did that. Mickey Mantle wasn't the only one who had trouble hanging onto his youth.