Meeting a baseball hero – 5 minutes with Mickey Mantle

23 Jan

At a mere eleven years old I experienced one of my life’s great thrills, I met my hero. Actually it was my fathers hero but the thrill was still the same as the man was a living legend. That person was the Commerce Comet, Mickey Charles Mantle.

Having lost my mother young, dad raised me as best as he could. My bedtime stories weren’t about ponies and princesses, they were about the Mick although a fair dose of Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra was thrown in for good measure. To listen to dad you would almost think he saw every swing Mantle ever took. While I was a big Thurman Munson fan whom I identified as my sports hero, it was hard for Mantle to not be a very close second even though I never saw him play.

It was a cool April evening and baseball practice was winding down. I was riding home with coach that day to save my dad a trip to the ball field as we lived in the same neighborhood. As all my teammates except the coaches son Robbie hopped in cars and sped home for dinner, we finished bagging up the equipment. It was then I heard something that shocked me. “The Mick is on the eighteenth green. He’s here on some kind of sales pitch.” How coach had this information is still a mystery as these were the days long before cell phones or pagers. I was excited but skeptical as we loaded the car and headed to the clubhouse.

We waited a few minutes in the parking lot and my doubts rose. There was no Mickey. A half hour or more passed and then a hulking figure swaggered out of the clubhouse. He was older than I’d seen in pictures, not quite as muscular, but he was definitely number seven. Robbie and I were both unsure what to do as Mick approached. Neither of us moved or spoke as he came within several feet of us. Out of nowhere the Mick spoke. “Hiya kids. You been out playing ball?” All we could do was nod. He looked at my shirt which stated it was “Property of the Yankees #44” and asked “Are ya a Reggie fan?” I stuttered out something to the effect of not really because he strikes out too much, and added I was a Munson fan. He patted my shoulder while flashing his still boyish grin and said “Good choice kid.” Micky Mantle actually said good choice. I know it meant nothing really, but then again the Mick could have told me toast was best when burnt and served three days old and I would have accepted it as gospel and be eating three day old burnt toast today.

He asked me if I had a good softball practice to which I quickly pointed out I played baseball and I was the catcher. He nodded and commented things had changed since he was a kid, but it was good to see all kids playing ball. Out of nowhere a pen appeared and Mickey signed a slip of paper for me and my brand new glove which was supposed to last at least a few years. We thanked him and stood motionless watching him walk off. Even though I was just a little kid, at that moment I could see why he was my dads hero because that day he became mine.

Our ride home was mostly silent. Even coach who grew up in New York and watched Mantle as a child didn’t know what to say. When I walked in the door I didn’t take off my cleats and dirty socks as I was supposed to do. I walked straight to the kitchen where I knew dad would be making dinner. He looked at me and suddenly a very concerned look took over his face. I can only imagine how I looked or what he was thinking at that very moment. I handed him my glove and pointed to the signature. Suddenly he understood.

He turned off the stove and drove me to the sporting goods store to buy me a new glove. We both understood anything the Mick handled much less signed was never going to be used again. He never even scolded me for tracking mud into the house. Somehow I think for him my meeting Mickey was just like him meeting Mickey. Now I tell my daughter the story of how I met Mickey Mantle and wonder if she will ever get to meet her hero. If she does I just hope she doesn’t track mud all over the floors, but if that happens I will certainly understand.

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