In 1968, his final year in baseball, an enveloping warmth greeted Mickey Mantle in all the ballparks he visited. As he hobbled to the plate on legs whose resemblance to tree trunks belied a notorious fragility, fans rose to their feet as though choreographed. I remember the singular absence of cheers or chants on those occasions. Just the sound of thousands of pairs of hands clapping. It gave me chills.
The Yankees were uncharacteristically toothless in those days, which did nothing to diminish a lusty hostility toward the pinstripes that prevailed across the land. Nevertheless, during almost every away game that season, fans stood for the aging Mantle, as if royalty were making an entrance. It was an unusual demonstration of admiration and affection for an opponent, even in stadiums where visiting players dared not make eye contact with those in the stands.
Probably no player did more to deny pennants to the other American League teams than Mantle did in his prime. Yet, as he circled the league that last year, it was as if the home fans were acknowledging that at least they had been beaten by a worthy foe. Mantle's play - that sweeping, annihilating swing that buckled the knees of infielders, and his headlong flight around the bases like a runaway locomotive - ultimately transcended partisanship. No matter whom you rooted for, it had been breathtaking to see Mantle in action. Like Halley's comet, after it was gone, you felt gratitude for having been around to see it.
That's how I felt watching and listening to professional baseball in faraway Maine. I loved the Yankees in those days, loved them despite their steep fall from majesty, perhaps because of it. Their demise gave them an appealing tragic dimension, just as Mantle's mighty but unreliable body imbued him with nobility. (We didn't know then that alcohol likely had as much to do with his career ending at age 36 as the debilitating injuries.)
For me, Cal Ripken's valedictory tour this season has recalled Mantle's long-ago farewell. Like Mantle, Ripken, at the end, has been the sole star attraction on a team that is a caricature of its formerly fearsome self. And, as with Mantle, it has been said that Ripken's departure severs a last link to a time when sports were more innocent, more honorable.
This last sentiment, of course, is as much nonsense now as it was then. There's hardly a more dubious idea than the notion of the good old days. Those much lamented days, after all, produced the Black Sox scandal, whites-only sports leagues, point shaving, fixed fights and performance-enhancing drugs. More than 30 years ago, former Yankee pitcher Jim Bouton's book Ball Four pulled the curtain on the juvenile hijinks of baseball players in general and Mantle, who had retired by then, in particular. As Bouton showed, ballplayers were far from the paragons of virtue suggested by much of the sportswriting of the time. They were more often boorish, misogynist and pickled.
In today's adulation of Ripken, we see similar self-deception. If he is lauded as the ballplayer who best represents working-class stiffs, it's only because we willingly forget that this particular blue-collar laborer is paid $38,000 every time he shows up at the job site.
But fan worship is only partially about the athletes themselves; it is at least as much about us, what we want and need from them. I well remember that as I listened on the radio to the ovations Mantle received in that final year, I often felt tears welling in my eyes. The embrace of Mantle struck me as not only a salute to him, but an affirmation of my own devotion to him over the young years of my life.
Baltimore has experienced something like that validation as Ripken was feted everywhere he went. No matter how assertively Martin O'Malley insists Baltimore is "The Greatest City in America," no one really believes it, even, I suspect, O'Malley himself. But here is Ripken, our native son, receiving recognition and blandishment from one coast to another and even beyond. The hosannas are directed toward him, but who in Baltimore doesn't feel the warmth of his reflected glory?
Certainly, there are other figures who afford civic pride to Baltimore: Anne Tyler, Ben Carson, Barry Levinson, to name a few. But compared to a national sports figure like Ripken, these accomplished individuals are merely niche attractions.
Sports is our most comprehensible and least ambiguous forum for judging success. A batter who regularly hits home runs, we know he's a premier power hitter. A defensive lineman who routinely drives quarterbacks into the turf, we don't need to be told he's tough. With sports, everything is in front of you. There are no shades of gray, no need for intermediaries (or, very often, color commentators).