The man who shuffled to the microphone “didn’t look strong enough to bunt, much less hit a home run. Pale and thin from his liver transplant surgery nearly five weeks ago, Mickey Mantle walked slowly, painfully” (Dave Anderson, N.Y. Times News Service, AOL, July 12, 1995).
How different was the man I saw conducting that news conference than the one I saw walk to the plate in Cleveland Stadium in the 1950’s and 60’s. I loved baseball so growing up in Northeastern Ohio, I was an Indians fan. On those rare occasions when we could go to a game, my Dad would take me to see them play. The crowds were always small except when the Yankees came to town. The Yankee dynasty, their incomparable talent, and the aura of such players as Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Roger Maris, etc., prompted many to make the trek to the shores of Lake Erie to watch them play our Tribe. But none of them compared to Mickey Mantle. He was the focus of attention. We would arrive an hour or two before the game just to watch batting practice and to see Mantle put ball after ball into the seats. Kids scrambled all over the left and right field stands in the hopes of getting a ball hit by him. Such would have been a treasured possession of any kid — not for the money it might bring but for the sheer awe of having a ball hit by the Mick.
No ball player ever hit a homerun out of that cavernous stadium. Mantle came very close to doing it. It was a prodigious shot over the fence in right center. How do I know? I was there. In unison with everyone else in that stadium, I jumped to my feet to see it go. There was not the usual cheering and booing, though, at least momentarily, but an eerie silence as Mantle jogged around the bases. I never forgot that hit. Even though I was an Indians fan, I, along with several thousand other kids my age, had a special place in my heart for the Mick. He was a switch-hitter. I became one. He wore number “7.” I always tried to get it but it was always the one taken first. He was a role model for me. That is why his words the other day hit me hard.
As a kid I didn’t know of his drinking and partying but as an adult I saw the toll it took on his career and then on his body. “Mantle, whose 40 years of hard drinking in part led to his being near death and needing a new liver on June 8,” (Jaime Aron, Florida Times Union, July 12, 1995) was the terrible truth.
Mickey said, “You talk about a role model — this is a role model. Don’t be like me. God gave me the ability to play baseball and that’s what I wanted to do. God gave me everything and I just wasted it” (Mark Wrolstad, Tallahassee Democrat, July 12, 1995). He continued, “All you got to do is look at me to see it’s wasted. I want to get across to the kids not to drink or do drugs, everything. I think the moms and dads should be the role models” (Anderson, emphasis mine – GT).
It’s, sadly, a lesson that took Mickey 40 years to learn. His use and abuse of alcohol shortened his baseball career, ruined his health, and nearly took his life. Young people, learn that lesson now. Do not squander the life God has given you by giving yourself over to fleshly lusts (See 1 Peter 4:3-4). Rather, heed the wisdom of Solomon and live for God, even in your youth (Eccl. 12:13-14).
And let your godly parents be your role models. God wants you to respect and obey them (Eph. 6:1-4). I was thankful Mantle added that thought to his statement. I’m sorry it was a lesson that took me a long time to learn. For, you see, the best role model in that stadium of thousands of people at that game was not Mantle or any other professional ball player. It was a fellow who had played shortstop for Norton High School in the mid-1930’s — the man sitting next to me who not only shared with me a love for baseball but also instilled within me a love for the Lord. “Thanks” for everything, Dad. I love you and I miss you. Save me a seat up there.
— Gene Taylor