—– LET’S HONOR MICKEY MANTLE —– By Never Wearing # 7 Again

When I was 6 years old, my dad bought me my second baseball glove, a Rawlings “Mickey Mantle” signature model.  It was a little too big for my hand, but I thought it was just perfect.  Dad said that the first thing that I needed to do was to break it in.  I didn’t exactly understand what that meant because the glove seemed ready to go as far as I was concerned.    Anyway,  off we went to Ed Hermann’s store to get some Neat’s F0ot Oil – had to be Neat’s foot.  I was disappointed to see the oil discolor the rich, new leather of my glove, but if that’s what had to be done, then so be it.   I assumed that spoiling the beauty of a new glove happened to all real ball players, so I just resigned myself to the thing.

It wasn’t by chance that my glove was a “Mickey Mantle” model.  I was a Yankee fan and Mickey Mantle was my hero from the beginning.  Why I attached myself to Mickey at such an early age, I don’t remember.  I do recall that my mom liked Mickey, and that she used to play Teresa Brewer’s popular record, I Love Mickey (listen –  Mickey’s voice is on the record, too) and played it quite often – especially when I asked her.  In my hometown, I felt like I was unique in my admiration for Mickey.  I lived in central Illinois and I didn’t know anyone else who was a Yankee fan.  In fact, I never met another Yankee fan until I was in high school.  I guess I should have been born in New York, , , like Billy Crystal or Bob Costas.

Billy Crystal was born March 14, 1948 in Long Island, New York.  Bob Costas was born March 12, 1952 in Queens New York.  I split the difference being born April 20, 1950, but was not the recipient of the lucky Yankee location lottery – being born in Peoria, Illinois.  Billy Crystal was also fortunate to see Mickey Mantle hit a home run in Yankee Stadium in 1956 and get his program autographed that day.  Many years later, he was even luckier to meet Mickey on the Dinah Shore program, where he brought his program and had Mickey sign it again.  They became lifelong friends after that episode.  Bob Costas, after becoming well-known, famously revealed that he had always carried a 1958 Topps baseball card of his hero in his billfold as good luck charm.  Costas was eventually rewarded with the honor of being asked by the Mantle family to give the eulogy at Mickey’s funeral.  I recommend that you read it.  It is a fine summary of the feelings that so many of us have had over the years.  His eulogy was a perfect tribute, and Mickey deserved every bit of it. 

 In my young life,  I only got to see the Yankees play a total of 3 times. The first time I saw the Yankees in person was at a Sunday doubleheader in Chicago’s old Comisky Park.  We sat in the right field seats behind a Puerto Rican family that brought their own food to the ballpark.  That was the first time that I saw ketchup used on baloney sandwiches (I tried it later – not too bad).  I remember Art Ditmar and Early Wynn pitching, and I remember Elston Howard hitting a towering home run into the upper left field deck.  Mickey didn’t do much that day.  I also remember that between games, my parents and I strolled around  in the public walkway behind dead center field.  Out of nowhere walked a big, tall Yankee who began a conversation with someone who he seemed to know.  I was starstruck and moved in for a closer look.  I recognized the player as Gil McDougald.  He was a big guy for a second baseman (I think about 6’4″); he looked like an other-world giant to me.  I mustered up the courage to ask him for his autograph.  It was my first try, and I couldn’t wait to have a real Yankee sign my program.  He damaged me for life when he looked down and said, “Sorry, son.  It’s against the rules for us to sign between games.”  I was crushed.  I remember thinking, “Mickey would have never said that to me.”

If you were a baseball fan in my hometown, you either rooted for the Cubs or the Cardinals.  For some odd reason, it was pure National League.  There was the rare fan of the Chicago south-siders but, for the most part, it was Cubs and Cards – particularly Cubs vs. Cards.  I always felt that there were no real rivals for my Yankees.  No one ever cared whether the Yankees won or lost where I lived.  My dad sensed how I felt, and decided that I would have a rival for my team – him.  He made sure to root against the Yankees and, conversely, I returned the favor my rooting against his Cardinals.  Our personal rivalry was usually light-hearted, but sometimes it cut a little too close to the nerve.  Noting that Mickey tended to miss some games now and then because of injury, my dad started calling him, “sicky Mickey.”   It wasn’t too long though before dad inadvertently gave me an opening to rib him when I heard him exclaim during a Cardinal radio broadcast, “Oh, don’t pop up now, Stan.”  From then, I referred to dad’s favorite St. Louis Cardinal as “pop-up-Stan.”  He didn’t like it one bit.

In the fall of 1968 I left home to attend Boston University.  The first couple of weeks in Boston were a rough adjustment for me.  My roommate was an upperclassman, who always went home on the weekends to see his girlfriend.  The  few friends that I did acquire during those first weeks were, unfortunately for me, commuters.   On Saturday, September 28, 1968 (which was about my 4th Saturday in Boston, I read in the morning newspaper that the Yankees were going to play the Red Sox that day and this might be the last game that Mickey Mantle would play in Boston.  Not really having anyone to go to the game with me, I decided to go by myself.  I hopped the MTA to Kenmore and walked to Fenway.  I stood in line near center field and purchased a right field seat for $ 1.00.  I bought a program for a quarter and sat back to enjoy the game.  I don’t remember how many people were at the game, but I remember that there weren’t many sitting near me.  I kicked back and put my feet on the seat in front of me and relaxed for a great day at the old ball park. 

Mickey popped up to Rico Petrocelli in the first inning, headed to the dugout, and did not return to the field.  He was replaced by Andy Kosco at first base.  In the lingo of the time, I thought, “What a bummer!”  I was ticked.  Nevertheless, I bought a couple of hot dogs and decided to stay for the entire game.  I scored my program, got some sun, had a little relaxation, and headed back to the dorm.  Years later, I read in Mickey’s autobiography that after leaving the game, he went straight to Logan Airport, caught a plane back to Dallas, and may have made it home before the end of the game.   As it turned out, that was the last game that Mickey Mantle ever played.  He went to spring training in 1969, but retired before the season started.  His body was worn out.

As a postscript, I still have my original Mickey Mantle glove.  A few years ago, I took it to a professional glove restorer to have it spruced up a bit.  He gave me the sad news that he couldn’t do anything with it. “Just leave it alone and look at it once in a while.” he advised me.  That’s what I do.  As for the last-game program – I sold it during the early years of eBay for $ 535.00.  It still had the mustard stains on it, and I thought at the time that I should pass it on.  I’ve probably sold 4,000 – 5,000 items on eBay over the years without regret – that is, except for that program.

Billy . . . Bob . . .  thanks for rekindling  memories of Mickey from time to time.  All of them are special.  I’m sorry that neither of you were lucky enough to see the Mick’s last game.  I think we all wish he could have gone out with more fanfare, but it just didn’t happen.

Mickey . . . you were the best.  I’m not up for any debates, but you were heads above every baseball player of your era.  And we all know that, along with your great sense of humor, you had more guts than any athlete of your era.  If there was ever a hero for kids like me, it was you. 

There has only been one great baseball player to wear the number 7.  Mickey Mantle will be forever associated with that number.  It is my hope, that in his honor, no player ever chooses to wear that number again.  I know that it will never officially happen, but I do hope that it can be an unwritten, even unspoken, rule.  I know that there are other great uniform numbers in baseball – 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 32, and 44 – but to name a few.  I don’t have any squabble with moth-balling those numbers either.  But, for me and my era, 7 is the big one.  Let’s put it away forever.

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As a baseball fan, I’m sick of ESPN’s “Baseball Tonite” Web Gems. 

This year is the 10th anniversary of the Web Gem segment of  “Baseball Tonite,” and  has been virtually institutionalized as a “must see” part of the show.   Web Gems was conceived by producer, Judd Burch, to highlight great defensive plays each day.  It has been a popular mainstay of the show, beloved almost as much by the players as the fans.  All the players take particular pride in making the top 5 or so best plays of the day.  And, the competition is stiff.  The extraordinary defensive skill and athleticism of today’s Major League  baseball players is, um . . . amazing.

Even pitchers love to make a sparkling play to get a Web Gem appearance.    Mark Buehrle, a very good pitcher for the Chicago White Sox made such a play on opening day this season.  A ball was hit back to Buehrle by Lou Marson of the Cleveland Indians.  Hit back too hard to cleanly field, the ball bounded off Buehrle’s foot and caromed into foul territory, where he chased it down, scooped it with his glove, and then flipped it back through his legs to the first baseman, Paul Konerko, who bare handed it just in time to beat Marson for the out.   I’m not sure that I’ll ever see another play like that in my lifetime.  The video of the play should be in the Hall of Fame – that is, if it already isn’t.

So, why have I really had it with these Web Gems?  Easy answer.  It’s not the pitcher’s or the infielder’s plays.  It’s those outfielders.

To make a Web Gem play as an outfielder, you have to end up on the ground, preferably rolling.   If you don’t leave your feet by either diving, lunging, flopping, falling, or sliding, then you just don’t have a TV hit.   There’s no subtlety here – like a diver entering the water with almost no splash.  No, here in the Major Leagues, it’s all about the splash, and nothing but the splash (or splat!).  How this has developed, I really don’t know.  Wait a minute! I think I do know – it’s the show itself that is making quasi-acrobats out of baseball players.  I don’t think baseball managers are in on this folly, but maybe they are.  Whatever, it’s nuts.

I never saw the great Yankee Clipper, Joe DiMaggio, play baseball.  He retired when I was 1-year-old.  From what I understand it would have been a treat.  Yogi Berra said that he never made a fielding mistake, and that he never dove for the ball.  Now that almost sounds like Yogi-ism hyperbole, but another of DiMaggio’s teammates, Phil Rizzuto, echoed the same thing.  He said that what Yogi meant was that, “he’d get the jump on the ball.  He’d be there to catch it, never having to dive, never having to fall down, reach down, or anything.  He was unbelievable.  Yogi meant that no matter where the ball was hit, if it was catchable at all, Joe would be there in plenty of time to catch it right at shoulder height.” 

Alfonso Soriano is a veteran left-fielder with the Chicago Cubs.  He hasn’t always been a Cub, nor has he always been an outfielder.  He started out as a second-baseman for the New York Yankees and was a very good player for them.  The Yankees traded him to the Texas Rangers, where he was informed that they needed his services, but not at second base.  He was told that he was to be an outfielder.  He pouted, threw a fit, and refused to play for a short period.  Upon realizing that he had developed a particular lifestyle to which he was now accustomed, he reluctantly attempted to make the switch to the outfield.  The results were not very good.  Soriano has never really “taken” to the outfield.  The two of them just don’t seem to get along.  The Rangers finally tired of the Soriano act and traded him to the lowly Washington Nationals.  After a stint with them, the Cubs landed him in 2007 where he continues to play everyday.  His salary is $ 19,000,000 this year – not bad for a guy who can hit the ball, but has a heck of time catching it.  He still doesn’t like playing in the outfield.    Lately, this multimillion-dollar-fizzle, has been benched in the late innings of games for a defensive replacement.  Here he is in stop action:

There’s another thing about Soriano-in-the-outfield that is quite intriguing.  He has developed what could best be described as a nervous fielding “tic.”  This odd mannerism reveals itself as a habit of doing a little hop just before attempting to catch a flyball.  He knows that he looks like a fool doing it, but he cannot stop himself.    This odd-timed baby-jump has caused a number of embarrassing bobbles of the ball, but shame and ridicule isn’t strong enough medicine.  He seems to be mentally stuck – reminiscent of Charles Barkley’s golf swing interruptus.  Neverthless, you suspect that Soriano wants to make a Web Gem play someday.  It may be awhile – long-long while.

One more thing here.  Joe DiMaggio did not suffer from a lack of range.  The players don’t remember balls falling just out of his reach because he didn’t quite get there.  He always got there; he always made the catch; and, he always stayed on his feet.  His grace on the baseball field is something that we don’t see much of anymore.  I think we could – if  it were not for that damn Web Gem segment.

Hey guys, let’s stop the ridiculous showboating in the outfield.  I know that baseball is entertainment, but the pratfalls are an act gone stale.

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