Living sober, Mantle may be less the hero, more the man

April 22, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

Mickey Mantle is 62. It makes you wonder where the years went. It has him wondering, too.

Because he can't remember many of them. He can't remember because he lived them through an alcoholic haze.

Mickey Mantle, American hero, living legend, is an alcoholic. In baseball, and in most other places that Mantle traveled, he just would have said he was a drunk.

He says it from the cover of Sports Illustrated this week.

It is the sad and terrifying story of how a man who is a hero to millions looks at himself and sees a failure. We see it, too, and cringe.

Mantle writes of how he failed his kids, his fans, himself. Everybody. And how does he make up for it now that he can't hit home runs anymore?

The booze got him. He lived for it. He drank in the mornings, if he got up in time. He drank in the afternoons. He drank at night. He drank until he passed out.

I knew a baseball player who had a particularly colorful way of putting it: He was asleep as soon as his head hit the pavement.

There used to be more jokes about drinking, in what may be looked back on as the Dean Martin era. I used to tell the story of a baseball player I saw one night passed out in a hotel lobby. When the night clerk awakened him, the player produced his key, showed it to the clerk and demanded, "What room am I in?"

Today, the stories don't seem so funny, and baseball has a problem. Booze fuels the game. They are inseparable. You can't go to a game, listen to one on radio or watch one on TV without coming away with the sure impression that beer and baseball go together like home and run.

At 62, the Mick put the booze away and checked into the Betty Ford Clinic. He looked at himself and what he'd become and he cried. He cried for his life and for the son who died before him and for another son who was an alcoholic, too. He cried because he taught his sons how to drink but never taught them how to hit a curveball.

His dad used to come home every day from the mines and, no matter how worn down, play ball with little Mickey. The Mick, who could do anything any time he wanted, ignored his sons.

This was our hero.

Mantle came to our attention back in the '50s when we believed in heroes and even elected one president. Mantle was a golden boy. He could hit a ball farther and run faster than anyone in the game. And he played for the dynastic Yankees, the team of Ruth and Gehrig and DiMaggio, at a time when America was a dynasty in the making.

It's a funny thing about sports heroes, though. We expect them )) to be something more than great athletes. We also want them to be kind and wise and noble and good. And, if we find out they're not, somehow we're disappointed.

That makes little sense, of course. You might as well be disappointed when you learn Mother Teresa couldn't hit a jump shot.

Mantle wasn't noble or wise. He was a guy, though, with problems. His family had a history of Hodgkin's disease; it claimed his father and grandfather. He thought it would claim him, too. Instead, it killed one of his sons.

In the meantime, Mantle abused the great gift he had been given. The story they always put out was that bad knees cut

short the Mick's career. The truth was that he stayed out late and spent much more time in bars than in therapy.

In his boozing days, he liked to say that if he knew he was going to live this long, he would have taken better care of himself.

In fact, fame beat him down as much as the booze. There's no way to imagine being as famous as the Mick. There's no way to imagine meaning so much to so many people you've never met.

The fame meant he never had to face himself. He was the Mick. People put up with his behavior and even encouraged it. They wanted him bigger than life, and if that meant drinking more than any man should, that was OK, too.

Finally, one day the Mick figured out it wasn't.

And now?

"I like the idea of having to stay sober in public, knowing that people are watching me," Mantle writes. "Now they won't be buying me drinks. They'll expect me not to drink. For all those years I lived the life of somebody I didn't know. A cartoon character. From now on, Mickey Mantle is going to be a real person."

That doesn't sound particularly heroic. It does sound, though, like something a 62-year-old on the mend can live for.

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