HBO's `Mantle' right on the mark by showing legend's ups and downs

ON MEDIA

July 13, 2005|By RAY FRAGER

LET'S BE honest right from the start. Before popping in the preview tape of HBO's Mantle (debut tonight at 9), I had my guard up, prepared to shrug off the documentary as just a piece of New York-centric sports mythmaking.

However, Mantle is yet another terrific program from HBO. The tale of Mickey Mantle may be a familiar one to most baseball fans - and this show doesn't provide any revelations - but the story of the Yankees great is rendered gracefully and honestly.

If the documentary's recounting of Mantle's baseball career occasionally lapses into dewy-eyed hero worship, it more than compensates with its story of his often sad life off the field and after his playing days.

Yes, among the first voices we hear are famously adoring fans Bob Costas and Billy Crystal, but we do get comedian Richard Lewis - does he ever talk about the Yankees with Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm? - discussing one of Mantle's tape-measure shots. "The ball maybe hit an alien on Mars," Lewis says, taking the hyperbole to appropriately absurd heights.

This is not a program to debate whether Mantle would have gained iconic status had he spent his career in, say, Cleveland. The fact is, he performed brilliantly for America's most famous team in its most outsized city. As the narration informs us: "Maybe no one in the history of sport fit a town, a team and a sport better than Mickey Mantle."

Interviews with family and friends set the scene of his childhood in Commerce, Okla. But more than the talk, what sticks are the images of a rusting tin shed behind what is apparently Mantle's childhood home. That's where his father taught him to be a switch-hitter, and the shed's walls look bent from the impact of thousands upon thousands of baseballs.

Soon, we're in the most well-trod territory - rapid rise through the minors, promotion to the Yankees at 19, cold shoulder from Joe DiMaggio, struggles as a rookie, return to the minors, tough love from Dad when he wants to quit, back to New York, first of many injuries in the 1951 World Series, seasons of triumph ...

And here is where the hero worship is deepest.

"If you were going to build a baseball player from scratch, you'd go, `Just forget the plan; it's him,' " Crystal says.

A riff on the alliterative perfection of Mantle's name ends with Lewis' take: "I'm just glad his name wasn't Sy Schwartzstein."

A parade of Yankees joins the chorus attesting to Mantle's talent, toughness and team spirit - Yogi Berra, Jerry Coleman, Whitey Ford, Phil Linz, Joe Pepitone, Moose Skowron, Tom Tresh.

The subject of off-field exploits is raised. Berra says to ask Ford about them. Ford says the stories have all been told and he's not going into them.

But before telling one of those stories - how Mantle and Billy Martin walked a narrow ledge high up on a hotel in a vain voyeuristic sortie - the narration appears to nail it one more time. "[Mantle was] the baseball star who never grew up. Of course, the Yankees clubhouse of that era was Neverland, with Billy Martin its Peter Pan."

All the revelry had its dark side, though. Mantle is described as "a distant father" who didn't connect with his sons until much later, when they became drinking buddies. His alcoholism was fueled by fears of an early death from Hodgkin's disease, which claimed so many members of his family, including his father.

The documentary takes an unblinking look at Mantle in retirement, which began in 1969.

"Mickey was a lost child without baseball," author Mickey Herskowitz says.

Mantle is recalled as frequently unpleasant in those days, particularly with adoring fans, many of them grown men. He didn't understand the adulation.

As part of the feet-of-clay presentation, the documentary presents outtakes from a couple of public service announcements in which Mantle uses locker-room language fans would never hear coming from his mouth.

Eventually, Mantle treated his alcoholism, but not before it had ravaged his liver. He received a transplant, but doctors discovered terminal cancer.

Finally, shortly before his death in August 1995, Mantle gave his version of the Lou Gehrig speech, his one, last, enduring message. It wasn't bitter. It wasn't bittersweet. Mantle simply offered himself up as a warning.

"This is a role model - don't be like me," he said, hardly recognizable as the same man who once ferociously pounded baseballs from both sides of the plate. "I blew it."

Perhaps it was an apology to the sons he barely knew for so long, to the wife who suffered his infidelities, to the father he could never quite please. To some, though, it was The Mick's finest hour.

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