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TheTao of Mickey Mantle

by Douglas Page  (1999)

You can tell the millennium is about to change. People are starting to make lists. Like, someone asked me the other day who I thought were the 10 most important figures of the 20th century.

Without hesitation I ticked off Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Mickey Mantle...

The guy looks at me over his glasses and goes, "Whoa. Mickey Mantle?"

Ok, so he didn't win the Nobel Peace Prize, but The Mick was my hero anyway. I've been to New York. The place scares me. Every time I'm in New York City I'm tense the entire time.  It doesn't matter whether I'm 22 or 42. Something about that town terrifies me. If Mickey Mantle was afraid of New York it didn't bother him on the baseball field. He could drive a cotton ball past a second baseman.

I passed through New York the first time in 1963, as a GI, in uniform, dragging a duffle-bag looking for a place to cash a handful of $20 U.S. Savings Bonds to buy bus fare to New Hampshire, so I could catch a hop back to my unit in Germany. I was 19 years old. It was Wednesday. At midnight Sunday I would be AWOL.

I learned something about New York City that week. Nobody cares about a GI in uniform trying to cash U.S. Savings Bonds. Without a personal account with them, no bank would cash them. One of them wouldn't let me in the door. I might as well have been carrying a carbine or trying to pass counterfeit currency. For the next three days I caught naps in hotel lobbies and on old sofas at the YMCA until I could convince my dad to wire $50 to me. I never recovered. I've been uncomfortable in New York ever since. No wonder Mantle drank.

The Mick got to New York 12 years sooner, at the same age but in a different uniform. The Yankees gave him a shirt with a Number 7 on it that he wore in Yankee Stadium center field, where he just took Joe DiMaggio's place like there was really nothing to it.

Think of it. An 19 year old kid from some dirt field in Commerce, Oklahoma, comes to New York City and replaces Joe DiMaggio. Not only that, he starts hitting such towering homeruns you had to guess where some of them landed. Few people had smacked a baseball that hard since Babe Ruth.

There were other things I had in common with The Mick. I was an athlete from a small town, too, only my parents didn't let me gravitate in my natural direction, even though I was the fastest kid in town in the seventh grade. I wanted more than anything to play football. When I was 12 years old I had my life planned. I would be the second 16-sport letterman at Urbandale High School, following the legendary Danny Boales, who was two years ahead of me. Coach Forest Evashevski would have recruited me to follow in the footsteps of Kenny Ploen and Randy Duncan at the University of Iowa, where I would have become an All-American quarterback, just like them. After that, the Bears or Lions, then a coaching job in one of those small, rural towns like Boone, Grinnel or Marshaltown that hide in the trees by the rivers and creeks that slide easily toward the Mississippi through the Iowa countryside.

Somewhere along the way I would marry my childhood sweetheart, the one that grinned at me with her head cocked just so, the one who let me watch her dry dishes while her mom pretended to look for change to pay this paperboy who had a thirst for cold Pepsis and schoolgirls with blond hair gathered under barrettes.

Alas, none of it was to be. While my father acquiesced, my mother held my feet to the heat of her religion, attempting to graft her beliefs onto me. Sports was de-emphasized in favor of Bible study and Billy Graham.

Then she fell ill and required a drier climate. It was 1956. I was 13 when we moved west. Uprooted from the cottonwood groves and sloping fields I was transported from my dreams to a prosaic part of Los Angeles called Bell, where we lived for a year on a street named Clara. Try to imagine living on a street named Clara in Bell during the hay days of Howdy Doody. All that was missing was the Harpo Marx horn. This is what started people looking over the top of their glasses at me.

I compensated for this humiliation by continuing to run fast, dream chasing. But the move to California seeded an anger. The remainder of my life was restless in the way of things that have no roots. I was still the best football player in school, but the running now lacked direction. My roots remained inside the boundaries of Union-Tribune paper route 305X, on a slough laying along Roseland Drive in Urbandale, Iowa. In the next 35 years I would have 32 different addresses.

But with my dreams vaporizing, Mickey Mantle was always there, living his dream, letting me live it with him - solid, strong, smiling in the sun. I only saw him once. The summer I was discharged from the Air Force I passed through Urbandale on my way home to California. My sweetheart had disappeared - smiling now, no doubt, with her head cocked just so at someone else - but some of my buddies were still around. A carload of us spent a July weekend in Minneapolis. The Yankees were in town for four games with the Twins and we saw all four, including two on Sunday.

We got to the ballpark early to watch batting and infield practice, then took our seats just far enough down the left field line to be shoulder-to-shoulder with Mickey Mantle. Slowed by his bad knees, The Mick played left field in those days. It was 1965. We knew we were unlikely to see him again.

I scarcely took my eyes off of him. There was The Mick. With that grin. With that greatness. With that grand swing. And there I was that Sunday afternoon, close enough to hear him spit when he dropped a ball during warmups. Then, after catching the next one, close enough to hear him laugh when someone yelled "Hey, Mick, how's it feel to stop one?".

I don't know if he was enduring a world-class hang-over that day and it wouldn't matter to me if he was. Mickey Mantle was no more defined by his alcoholism than Mohammed Ali is by Parkinson's Disease. The ailments always win. Something gets all of us. But the great ones seems somehow immune to mortal failures. That's what makes them great.

The Mick was surrounded by something besides grass and spit that day. Something else shown in the Minnesota sun. You couldn't see it anymore than you can see love, but it was just as electric. When I encountered Mickey Mantle that weekend something inside me expanded, and for just those moments, for just those innings with the Twins in the middle of the summer in the middle of America - close enough to see if he shaved between games - I was great, too. It was almost like I could feel what might have been.

That makes all my Top 10 lists.