Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Getting Closure

Over the long weekend I finished Jane Leavy's The Last Boy, her personal tribute to The Mick qua investigative journalism into the stories about his athletic prowess - he was a prodigy on the field without any doubt, but the book is a full account so it also about his debilitating injuries and his horrible alcoholism. This was my "pleasure reading" during the vacation period and certainly reading about his power and speed were a pleasure. Since I was born in the mid 1950s, I missed the bulk of the Mick's performance the first time through. I got some of it in Baseball Cards. I know I had one about his mammoth homer at Griffith Stadium in 1953. But my memory beyond that must be faulty because what I recall, contrary to what Leavy wrote, is that the ballpark was small and that he hit it five blocks beyond the park. If only I had those baseball cards today to check it out. That discord between my recollection and Leavy's account does point to one of her themes - there was an awful lot of myth making in the recording of his performance.

There is the question of whether Mickey was all he could be on the field. The simple story, one he himself reinforced after his career was over by repeatedly saying he should have taken better care of himself, is that he had boundless potential which did produce some wonderful accomplishments, but so much more might have been achieved had he not let it go to seed. Mantle came up to the majors in 1951, the same year as Mays did. Bernard Malamud's The Natural came out in 1952. There must be some relationship between fiction and real life given that timing. A deeper look into the life and background of the Mick, however, makes for a reasonable case that he was an over achiever. After about 300 pages Leavy drops a bombshell that I didn't anticipate. I won't offer it up here, so as not to spoil the book. It is a good read. I will say this. We all have internal demons. Star performers may have more than their fair share, needing to deny part of their persona to achieve their stardom. Janis Joplin died when she was 27, Jimi Hendrix when he was 28, James Dean, closer in vintage to Mantle, died when he was 24. We fans, who don't know the inner workings of these people, confuse the instrument of death with the cause. Mantle blotted out pain with his drinking and that pain was very real. He ultimately did himself in, but by comparison with some of these others he stuck around for quite a long time.

It is not so much pleasure to read about a person's self-destruction, especially when it happens over and over again. So, as I commented about reading Diane Ravitch's The Death and Life of the Great American School System, I felt bludgeoned after a while with Leavy's book. I wonder if thorough reporting of an essentially unpleasant message necessitates that. Yet the book is curiously uplifting as well, because Mantle remains a hero, really the hero, for so many of our generation. The question is why and getting at that is the real mystery.

I have this habit/arrogance about me that in order to let go of an idea and move onto something else I must comment about it in a way that provides some insight. Once I get my two cents in I can refocus on what is ahead of me. Until then, however, I can't let go. I wanted to say something about why we love Mickey so much, but I wasn't sure what I should say. So I let the thought simmer. Yesterday, I did a Google search on Mickey Mantle versus Bo Jackson, thinking perhaps that would help. I found several links to fascinating content - this piece on tape measure home runs, who actually hit them, and the misreporting of how long the home runs actually were; a different piece from Baseball Digest about Bo's amazing feats on the diamond; and a YouTube video clip of Mickey with a rather young David Letterman, compelling to view.

Bo had less longevity than Mickey but otherwise he is the other athlete I can think of who combined speed and power in a package that amazed even very accomplished professional players. And I got to witness some of those performances on TV, so I have a better memory of what Bo did than of what Mickey did. Yet while I'm aware of this, I don't regard Bo as a hero, an amazing athlete, yes, a hero, no. So I puzzled over this and came up with the following.

My kids don't really care much about sports on TV. It's not a big part of their focus. For them, Harry Potter was much more important as was Lord of the Rings, and perhaps other science fiction/fantasy. They invested themselves in that. Kids probably need a theme to invest themselves. Sports mattered much more to me as a result. Also, when I left the East Coast to head to grad school at Northwestern, I got to hold onto a touch of the past as the Yankees made the World Series in 1976 and I watched it at the Norris Center Union, along with a bunch of other displaced New Yorkers. I think that cemented the the feeling for me forever, although that was the era of Thurman Munson, not Mickey.

So it may be that sports reporting in 1980s was more revealing that it was in the 1950s, with player indiscretions off the field no longer taboo to report. And it may be "Bo Knows" commercials were more overtly slick marketing than the Yoohoo and Wheaties commercials we watched as kids. But I believe the real deal is that kids can have total awe and then retain that as adults. Adults learning something for the first time can be very impressed with what they discover but won't have this purity in their perception.

And the real tragedy may not be the life Mickey led after baseball, but rather that we as adults keep hoping another hero will come.

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