As last summer's tale of failed miracles, heroics, and redemption played itself out at Baylor University Medical Center, I struggled to explain to my teenage daughter why Mickey Mantle's liver cancer (and the bottom-of-the-ninth transplant that pushed the game into extra innings) was front page news.
As last summer's tale of failed miracles, heroics, and redemptionplayed itself out at Baylor University Medical Center, I struggledto explain to my teenage daughter why Mickey Mantle's liver cancer(and the bottom-of-the-ninth transplant that pushed the game intoextra innings) was front page news.
"Why is he so important to you guys?" she asked, meaningpeople in their 40s and 50s. I tried to put it in terms of mythologyand innocence and loss of innocence, but it finally came downto a cliché: You had to have been there, had to have grownup in the 1950s as a boy, or as a girl with a sports mad brother.
Growing up in rural Texas, my brother had little choice but toteach his kid sister to hit and field. Once on his birthday, heasked for an expensive leather baseball glove--for me--so thatwe could play catch together. That glove transformed itself overtime, developing a deep "pocket" for snagging fly balls.
The '50s brought television into our lives--Ed Sullivan, ErnieKovacs, and the game of the week. That was how we knew the NewYork Yankees--Yogi, Whitey, and especially Mickey, with his perfectswing from either side.
It was some 30 years later that I actually met the great Yankeeslugger with the famous arthritic knees. My office in New Yorkhad received an invitation to a press conference to announce anew NSAID, and Mantle was the featured speaker.
Another editor, who had no interest in baseball, was given theassignment, but she graciously let me take her place in the lineup.She did want an autograph for her husband, so I bought four "official"American League Rawlings baseballs, to bring along just in case.
I remember how handsome The Mick looked that day on the podium,a little overweight but still imposing, so unlike the thin, drawn,dying man who went before the cameras one last time to let theworld know, as gently as possible, that his cancer had spread.
After the NSAID press briefing, Mickey stayed behind to sign stacksof photographs for the reporters. When it was my turn, I offeredup my baseballs and watched as he carefully positioned each ballso that the signature would fall between the seams and then, withobvious effort, dug the ballpoint pen deep into the leather towrite his name.
Ball 1: "This one's for my brother who taught me everythingI know about baseball," I said. "My daddy did that forme," he answered.
Ball 2: I searched my starstruck brain for something else to say.Did he ever wonder, I blurted out, if modern surgery and rehabtechniques could have helped extend his career? "No,"he said, "I wouldn't have done the exercises."
Ball 3: Well, what about this new NSAID. Did it help? He shrugged."Sometimes you just have to live with it."
Ball 4: Mission accomplished. I stammered out a thank you as hehanded back the last ball. My moment in the batter's box was over.
They say that Mickey once joked that when the time came, St. Peterwould turn him away from the Pearly Gates, saying, "Sorry,Mick, but, hey, can you sign some balls before you go?"
Well, it turns out that every ball Mantle ever signed has nowskyrocketed in value, but the price tag on my auto-graphed ballremains the same as on that day in New York when I returned tothe office with a briefcase bulging with red-seamed Rawlings:"Priceless and not for sale."