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COMMENTARY : Mantle, Man and Hero, Measured by Memory

August 20, 1995|MIKE LUPICA | NEWSDAY

There is always someone coming along eventually, bigger than the rest of the field, or faster, or stronger, beating records that were supposed to stand forever. It happened with Babe Ruth's home runs, and it happened with Ty Cobb's hits. Soon it will happen with Lou Gehrig's streak of games. The records always fall. But there are athletes who come along who are more than numbers. These are the special few measured by memory, and imagination. Mickey Mantle was one of those. It will be a while before someone beats Mantle there.

It was always more than records with him. It was never just the home runs from both sides of the plate, and the name, and the looks and the Okie background. It was always context with Mantle, and setting. He played on the greatest baseball team of all time. He replaced Joe DiMaggio in center field at Yankee Stadium. That was Mantle's stage. So were the 1950s. The '50s were not a perfect time and Mantle was never the perfect sports hero. But that is the way people choose to remember it. And they are allowed.

Mantle, who died last week of cancer and real hard living at the age of 63, will be remembered as being the best baseball star of a much better time.

I asked him one time last year, right before Oldtimers Day, about the power he still has over people, and Mantle said, "I never really understood it. And as much as people have tried to explain it to me, I'm not sure I ever will."

It was announced that Mantle was entering the Betty Ford Center in January of 1994. He had been an alcoholic for over 40 years, the champion of 4 a.m. the way he had been a baseball champion. Now it all had caught up with him. He was having blackouts and memory loss, and Mantle, who looked invincible when he came to New York out of Oklahoma in 1951, was afraid he was going to die. And the truth is that he was.

In the end, drinking worked on Mantle the way it works on everyone. So did cancer. Diseases like these do not care how many home runs you hit left-handed and right-handed. Alcoholism and cancer play no favorites any more than HIV does. Mantle found out the way Magic Johnson did.

So Mantle was a flawed, sick man, even through all the years in the '50s and '60s when he was the most famous ballplayer in the world. It does not change that Mantle always resembled some star out of movies or books or comic books. And it does not change that he was a recurring character in our lives, one who managed to get bigger after he stopped playing ball.

"This country loves great big action heroes," Chuck Daly, the old basketball coach, said one night this season, trying to explain the appeal of Shaquille O'Neal. "Shaq's like Schwarzenegger, one of those guys from the movies." And so was Mantle.

There was a time, because of the power and speed and ability to hit the ball out of sight from both sides of the plate, that people thought Mantle could become the greatest ballplayer who ever lived. It never happened. Was Mantle at his best better than Willie Mays at his best? Better than DiMaggio? That always will be up for debate. And that debate always will be the essence of sports.

But what never can be argued about Mantle, and argued best by kids who grew up watching him hit home runs that even tried to clear imagination, was that there was magic to him. Magic to his name. Magic to his presence in the batter's box. Magic in the way ballparks such as the Stadium always seemed to organize around him. You either have this in sports and entertainment or you do not. Mantle, even when his body had broken down and he was a shell of what he had been when he was in his 20s, always had it. Even at the end, when Mantle limped around the bases.

And the frailty of Mantle at the end of his career, before the end of his life became a litany of his frailties as a man, was part of his appeal. It was part of what drew us to him. No one on the outside knew how drunk he could get, night after night. Only the sportswriters knew how surly he could be. Over time, we just saw someone who had come into baseball looking like a giant slowly fall apart. That is what we knew about Mantle, as well as we knew batting averages and the tape-measure distance of his home runs. There was magic to him but something tragic and wounded as well.

He joked that if he had known he was going to live this long, he would have taken better care of himself. But Mantle also said, "No one can ever say I didn't play hurt."

Tony Kubek, who loved Mantle as a friend and as a player, once told me, "There were games he played that no one else would have played." You've got to play hurt, it is practically an anthem in sports. Mantle did it from the time he tore up his knee in the second game of the 1951 World Series, when he was 19.

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