To an Athlete Dying Old
The most poignant thing I have ever heard said about athletics was a statement Mickey Mantle made after he admitted himself to an alcohol rehabilitation center in 1994.
The Mick said that the greatest disappointment of his life was that he let down his father. If his father were alive, Mantle explained, he would not be able to tell him he was the greatest player ever, as years of alcohol abuse prevented Mantle from living up to his potential on the ball field.
Mantle's father, a miner in Oklahoma, taught Mickey how to switch hit practically before Mickey could walk. Mantle's father, after an exhausting day in the mines, would come home and play catch with Mickey. Images of a young Mickey making his own bat, like Roy Hobbs in The Natural, fill one's mind when imagining this most American story of a father playing baseball with his son.
Mantle's father died in 1951, during Mickey's first year in the big leagues as a 19-year-old wunderkind. Mantle's father was not able to see Mickey's phenomenal career, where he hit 536 colossal home runs (the most by a switch-hitter, almost 200 more than his closest rival), roamed center field for the dominant Yankees, and set most World Series hitting records.
Mantle is considered one of the greatest players ever, and by my unofficial count, is the third most recognized ball player of all-time, behind Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio. Yet Mickey considered himself a failure in his father's eyes because he was not what he could have been.
At a cocktail party during his playing days, when he would drink with Whitey (Ford), Billy (Martin) and Moose (Skowron) all night and then go out and play the next day, Mantle was once approached by a stranger, who, in tears, told Mantle that it was his lifelong ambition to meet the Mick. The fan told Mantle that Mantle gave him hope. Mantle, cordial as he always was, greeted his fan, all the while having no idea why it would be anyone's lifelong ambition to meet him.
In a Sports Illustrated article upon Mantle's death, the writer postulated that Mantle was an icon precisely because he led the stuff of boyhood dreams for his whole life. He could drink all night and then go out and-play center field and hit a home run for the Yankees.
For Mantle, however, the things that mattered were seemingly not as easy.
People have to grow up sometime, and as unfortunate as this might be, it seems that this statement is not just one of necessity. It's not just that it is inevitable that we grow up, but rather that it is better for us if we grow up.
Paradoxically, Mantle's regret to his father was a central part of why he was so popular. He didn't become the player he could have because he did exactly what he wanted. He did not want to stop drinking or spend time rehabilitating his chronic knee injuries or conditioning during the off-season. (He says he rarely put time in for such things). He drank, played golf and played baseball. (And, I might add, he did not womanize.)
Much of the appeal of sports is that it is a release from hard work, a time to vicariously have fun and feel the glory of victory. Mantle was a hero for these types of reasons. And he didn't realize that he was a hero precisely because his achievements were not considered by him.
His achievements were effortless. Where he could have made his self-realized mark, where he could have impressed his father, was in quite a different realm. Mantle's wasted potential pained him more than his remarkable accomplishments impressed him.
Coincidentally to my writing this column about the metaphysical implications of athletics, I'm taking Literature and Arts C-14 this semester, "The Concept of the Hero in Ancient Greek Civilization." According to Professor Gregory Nagy, athletics to the ancient Greeks were the ultimate contest. Ultimate victory required giving all of yourself to the contest, and in this way ultimate victory was analogous to death.
This conception has winnowed itself down to our culture in some form.
The sweat and toil of an at athlete always add to the glory of the victory, as when Gwen Torrence came back from life-threatening foot injuries to win gold medals in the 1992 Summer Olympics. Yet this idea is not the apex of athletics, as it was for the Greeks.
Mickey Mantle typified what we admire most about sports in that it was easy for him. He wasn't giving his life out there every day for the Yankees.
Little boys don't dream about the hard work, they naturally dream about the win. And, because little boys do not like to work hard, they dream about the win and not the win made all the more special by the work put into it.
Our culture lionizes many different types of athletes, but that lionizing is leisure. Generally, sports represents what we wanted to be like as kids. And, in some ways, it would be best if we all grew up.