Posts Tagged ‘heroes’

The Mick

December 4, 2013







The Mick

By Rob Grogan

Watching one of those sports documentaries where fans tell tales of their childhood sports heroes, the name and face of Mickey Mantle jump from the recesses of my mind to the lead sports page in my head.  “The Mick” was my guy.  The Oklahoman played a career with injury after injury and most often in pain, yet he led the game’s best team for so many seasons, set records, and won World Series titles and individual awards that rival any other player’s achievements.  Mickey Mantle was flawed, much of it his reaction to all of the pain he suffered, but a young boy – me – could see only his greatness and character.

Even the stories of his misconducts and personal issues — his alcoholism is the one most identified — that I learned of and began to understand much later in my life, and long after his life had ended from cancer; none of that diminishes my admiration for Mickey Mantle and the awe he infused in me about what an athlete could mean to a kid.  Two stories about him — two very contrasting stories with a common result — head my list in my imagined documentary of The Mick. 

The first is one I read about later, years after the fact.  Mickey had missed several weeks of the season after tearing up his leg beneath a Cyclone fence in center field somewhere — I think Baltimore.  One night at the end of his stint on the disabled list, Mickey went out after the game he had just sat and watched from the dugout on the road, and tied one on — a habit he was habitually good at, I would later learn.  The following day at the ballpark, the Yankees’ manager could still smell the beer on Mickey and decided to call on him to pinch hit in that day’s game.

Mickey came to bat late in the game – staggered to the batter’s box might be a more accurate description – and hit a mammoth home run over the same fence that had torn him up weeks earlier.  Little did I know then his explanation of his fete, which went something like, “I did not expect to play.  I was still seeing double from the night before.  When the pitch came in, I saw two baseballs.  I swung at the bigger one.”

Reports like that did not make the evening sports news, and Sports Center did not exist at the time, so that story surfaced much later to the public and I now wonder what other juicy narratives about him were concealed by dutiful sports journalists trying to protect our hero and the game he and they so loved so well.

The other story is one I witnessed myself.  You can fact check this one — I may have ball-parked some of the details, be off by a year or a fact here or there, but the essence of the story is true, as are most of the facts of what I had witnessed.  It came in Mickey’s final year of his legendary baseball career, in what would become known as his “last great day.”  The year was 1968 or ’69 maybe — I was a late teen — on a hot August or September Sunday.  The site was Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York, 161st Street and River Avenue, where the A-Train from Manhattan dropped me and my buddies off on several Sunday’s each summer.  That Sunday, that game, made quite an impression on this hero worshiper who made the 40-mile trip from Red Bank, NJ to New York City after worshiping God at St. James Catholic Church’s 10:00 mass.  From Jesus Christ to The Mick in about an hour by rail.

It was a warm sunny Sunday in the Bronx for a doubleheader between the New York Yankees and their American League rival Baltimore Orioles.  The crowd was probably in the 50,000 range.  We — Joe and Bobby Pignataro, Ron Manley, and possibly Eugene Stoye — sat among them in the lower right field stands not far from the short-porch foul pole and fence, a perfect spot from which to watch a left-handed power hitter.  Mickey batted from both sides of the plate — though not at once, and he probably could have with some proficiency by swinging at both balls as the pitch came in.  If I remember well, he came to bat lefty in two of his five at-bats in game one of the twin bill.

In his first two at-bats, Mickey hit home runs over and past us.  Next, he hit two doubles.  His final at-bat that day produced a solid single.  Five for five, at least three RBI’s and runs scored. A perfect and last great day as he sat out the second game to rest his aching knees.

If I were a boy today, my all-time sports hero would be Mariano Rivera, who retired after the 2013 season as the Greatest Closer of All-Time.  Back then, it was “The Mick”  — unrivaled, imperfect, and more as I became than Mr. Rivera — although I’d like to think I have some of the traits of both men.  “RG1” is what my sports-loving friends call me, or “Papa G”:   Bats right, throws right, and remembers The Mick like he played yesterday.