Sunday, March 6, 2011

Blast From the Past -OR- Rings True Today Too

Brushing the dust off of a column I wrote in August of 1995 after Mickey Mantle Died.

Ode to Mantle: baseball should be a child's game at heart

In the end it was hard to be Mickey Mantle. That seems strange to me because for many summer days and evenings long ago, I was Mickey and it seemed easy. I'm not a kid anymore but certain things haven't changed. Mickey Mantle is still the awesomely powerful Yankee; Ernie Banks is still ready to play two and Nellie Fox is still the epitome of a second baseman.

If you saw them play, it didn't matter what path their lives took after baseball. That one thing defined their lives. They played in an era that didn't pay ten lifetime's wages in a single season. They were merchandised as heavily, but that income didn't benefit them! They were being paid what, at the time, seemed a fair exchange rate for playing a game they'd learned as kids. They didn't sign their first contract thinking about anything past getting a shot at "playing" for another year. Retirement? For them it meant becoming just another working stiff.

The game we know today would have been monumentally different if players like Mickey Mantle hadn't battled back from injury, played in pain and endured it, out of
a genuine love for what they did and the fear of life without the only thing that made sense to them. In today's market Mickey Mantle could have left baseball and led the destructive lifestyle he did, without the monetary worries that drove his life after baseball.

A marginally talented utility player today is all but guaranteed a quality of life that didn't exist for any player in the game that Mantle played. It is fruitless to compare then and now, either in the caliber of play or the post-career lives of the players.

Money has changed everything that we once knew and believed in, with the possible exception of our memory of the players of the games we loved. When it changed
has been widely debated, but in my mind it passed the point of redemption in 1985 when, then Los Angeles Rams hold-out running back, Eric Dickerson held a press
conference to ask the question, "Who's gonna take care of Eric Dickerson for the rest of his life?" as his "reason" for not honoring the contract he previously signed and refusing to play football unless his question was answered to HIS satisfaction.

Prior to that the emphasis had been about the worth of a player in relation to their present and future value to the game. Suddenly, potential had to be quantified
and paid in advance with a golden parachute clause that would make work after play unnecessary. A lifetime's earnings before a single game had been played was now the
prevailing rate and overriding consideration. Kids who used to play for fun -—imitating their heroes, dreaming of a chance to come to the turning point of a game with a chance to win it all--- to be that hero— Kids are now comparing signing bonuses and salaries instead of statistics. The dream isn't to get to the bottom of the ninth with the game on the line, it's to get to the bottom line. I think the current problems facing players and owners trying to "save" their respective games are largely due to the fact that the games they think they are trying to save no longer exist. I also think there is a direct correlation between the way our games changed and the way our lives changed. The spillover brought us the new sports of suing for damages, the instant riches lotteries and golden parachutes.

We still wanted to be like the sports heroes but it wasn't their athletic abilities we admired. Perhaps pinning the downfall of modern civilization on one running back is unfair, perhaps it was only that he put. into words something previously unspoken, but that is how it is etched into, my mind. How else can I explain my current sports fantasy of living through 90 seconds in the ring with Mike Tyson?

They can say whatever they like about the various organs of Mickey Mantle's life-battered body, but they can't question his heart. It was the heart of a child; spherical with stitches. The players in the current crop of professional athletes who still understand the qualities of greatness are few and far between. The rewards of their profession are not part of their uniforms. They seem to understand that their salaries come ultimately from the fans and regardless of ownership and contract, the fans have limits to what they will support.

It might be a shame that Mickey's life wasn't as blessed as Ryne Sandberg's, but the reverse might be equally true. I have enjoyed watching the various retrospectives
on Mr. Mantle's life, I had the opportunity to watch him play and did at every opportunity. He is now playing right field on the ultimate dream team, no bad knees, the speed and promise of his rookie year and once again doing what he was born to do; play the game. His death brought us a reminder of what was, but is no more. If the braintrusts who are arguing over the future of baseball were paying attention, they will begin by embracing the essence of what Mickey Mantle was first, last and always; a grown up kid playing a game that he loved.


zachary klein said...

just finished "mickey mantle and the end of america's youth. realy good reading.

zachary klein said...

bad spelling: should read 'really.'

Cletis L. Stump said...

#7 Mickey Mantle, mystical, mythical, magical. Nuff said.