Monday, July 24, 2006

Meeting A Hero- And Seeing The One Right In Front of You! - Part Two

This is part two of a 2-part look into meeting one's heroes, a tribute to my father, Al, as he turns 77 today! Happy Birthday, dad!

Mickey Mantle didn't look like a superstar- he looked just like any other dad on my block, except he was a bit bigger, and a bit more grizzled-looking, but he was still handsome, and had an air of dignity around him, perhaps part swagger and part reaction to the idol worship he had been subjected to for so many years. The long lines seemed to make him weary- perhaps it was the heat of the gymnasium, or perhaps it was having to hear the same platitudes over and over again. Either way, "The Mick" had a long day of idol worship ahead of him, and as we made our way closer, my dad said something along the lines of not wanting to trade places with Mickey for all of the "tea in China." Again, I was a fan of Mickey, but I only had the chance to see him on tv a few times in 1968 and 1969, when I was 4 and 5, so his career was really something more legend to me then the tangibility of my heroes, Willie Mays and Tom Seaver, both of whom I had the opportunity to see live many times, especially Seaver. Mantle's exploits were given to me verbally, by cousin Joe and my dad, and via the previously-mentioned books, "The Quality of Courage" and "The Baseball Life of Mickey Mantle." That's probably why I read both books so much- if I read them enough times, maybe I'd get to see Mantle play in his prime, in my imagination! (2 quick and important plugs- I recently had the fortune to read another amazing biography, this time of Mickey, himself, by Tony Castro, entitled "Mickey Mantle: America's Prodigal Son." Ms. Hochberger, the librarian from Part One, has long passed, so I had to pay full retail for this one (LOL) - and it was worth EVERY PENNY! Additionally, for Father's Day last year, my wife and kids bought me the DVD box set of Ken Burn's amazing series, "Baseball", which I whole-heartedly recommend to each and every baseball fan who owns a DVD player. This set is worth not only the price of the box, which is about $150+, but also the price of the DVD player, the television- you get the point! Buy them both- you won't be sorry! And, even watching old film, you can still see just how amazing Mickey truly was!) What I DID see that day, at least at first, was someone who had been an idol of millions, for a few decades, up close and personal, and, unlike so many of these stories that end badly, this one was quite the opposite. When our turn to get autographs came, I held out my ticket stub, as did my brother, and Mickey signed both of them with a smile. Both my brother and I became shy in the shadow of a legend, and said nothing, happy to watch Mickey sign and then walk away. To my surprise, Mickey noticed the books I had forgotten, under my arm, and asked me if he could see them. I gave them to him, and he smiled the smile of legend, and, to use the cliche (because to me, that day, it was the truth), I could see clouds part and angels hum, as a bright light seemed to shine down on Mickey as he said to me "Son, these books have seen some better days. Have you read them?" I told him that I had, many times, to which my dad smiled and my brother came out from behind me. "Son, let me shake your hand," he said, and I looked to my dad for approval. He nodded, and the Mick's hand enveloped mine, and our faces were inches apart. He put his arm around my small shoulders, and told me to "keep reading, keep studying, and get some better-written books!" He laughed, I laughed, my dad laughed, and in that moment, I got it! I saw the charisma first hand of someone who had spent the past nearly 30 years under a spotlight- but this charisma didn't come from fielding questions about his knee or his personal life- it came from his heart, which, we would later find out, was truly that of a champion! Mickey took the book and signed the inside cover, "To David, Best Wishes To A Big Fan, Mickey Mantle", in spite of the fact that I had already received his autograph on the event ticket, and in spite of the fact that he wasn't personalizing anything that day, and in spite of the fact that the show rep started getting angry that Mickey was holding up the line. Mickey didn't care- he was reaching out to a kid, and in doing so, he created a magical memory that would last a lifetime. I thanked Mickey, and he thanked me for being a fan, which I always remembered, and in light of louts like Barry Bonds, can you imagine a player today, this side of David Wright, actually thanking a fan for their support?! And this, my friend, was Mickey-freakin'-Mantle!!! On that day, AFTER his playing days were long over, The Mick created a fan for life, and that book remains as one of my prized possessions. Not because of any value that an ebay-seller might put on it; it has, and will always have amazing value because it is now representative of the moment in time that I came face-to-face with one of the game's all-time legends, and I got to share that moment with my dad, my real hero, and my baby brother, who himself just created another (handsome) Mets fan! One day, when I sit down with my grandchildren in the not too distant future (and that is NOT a hint to either of my daughters), I can give them this book, show them footage of Mantle via Burn's great tribute, and pass along my love of the game to them, a love passed to me by my dad, something which they will, I hope, pass on to their kids.

I was just one of millions of fans that Mickey touched, in some way, so when I speak about my dislike for someone like Barry Bonds, it's not because of the whole steroids issue, it's about the fact that, because of attitudes of players that emulate him, the game is not as popular as it could be. Yes, it competes with the internet, video games, dvd's, etc, but if stars were more accessible, perhaps kids would get over paying $3 for a pack of baseball cards that I once paid 8 cents for, and would actually care about Barry Bonds, the man, and not Barry Bonds, the guy whose rookie card is worth $500! I don't want to oversimplify things, nor do I want to blame Bonds for more then he should truly shoulder; however, if there aren't moments like the one which I had with Mantle, or with Jon Matlack and Jerry Koosman at Lum's Chinese Restaurant in Flushing, then perhaps my love for the game might have diminished over the years rather then growing in legend, the way it should. Without a dad like I had, perhaps I wouldn't see things from the prospective that I do, but it's clear to me that if players like Bonds were more accessible to their fans, perhaps the next wave of fans would be as committed and fanatic as the generation that I grew up in was and is. But I digress, as Jonathan and I will put together an article about the strengths and weaknesses of this game we love when the season is over.

Ironically, growing up, my favorite players were Tom Seaver and Willie Mays. Ironic, because Mays' became Bonds' godfather, and I grew to understand that Mays was surly like his godson, much to my chagrin. My dad had served in Korea, at the same time that Mays did, and he wrote for Stars & Stripes, the army news journal. He had been witness to Mays rookie season, and longed for the day that both he and Mays were done in Korea and back home again, worrying about simpler things, like how Mays could outrun a Vic Wertz-hit baseball, rather then wondering if the plane you heard was going to prove to be friend or foe. Since the Mantle autograph show at Hofstra, I longed to get my dad an autograph of Willie Mays. I pulled a Mays card from a pack for the first time in 1971, and I made my dad carry it around in his wallet for years and years. In the late 80's, I had the chance to meet Willie at the huge National Convention, and gladly paid something like $50 for the opportunity to have Willie sign a photo for my dad. In fact, I paid for 2 autographs- since Willie wasn't personalizing that day, I had a plan- I'd tell Willie about my dad being in Korea with him, rooting for the Giants while living in Brooklyn, and perhaps, if he saw that in exchange for the 2 autograph tickets, all I wanted was for him to sign it "To Al", he'd gladly do so! Unlike the amazing experience I had with Mantle, the one with Mays' was far less so. As I started to tell Mays the story, and ask for my request, his associate yelled at me for holding up the line and for asking Willie to personalize something. Willie didn't want to hear a thing I said, and was a real grouch to me. I didn't get my money back for the additional autograph; I didn't get to have Willie personalize the autograph to my dad; and I didn't like the fact that the love my dad gave to Mays all of those years was, sadly, unrequited. I did get the autograph, and fashioned it into a plaque with Mays' Hall of Fame postcard and that old 1971 card, and this was my dad's entree' into the world of memorabilia collecting (a photo of a small part of his collection can be found below). I didn't tell my dad about Mays' attitude until years later, and it was a sad day for both of us, finding out that sometimes, our heroes are less then heroic.

An amazing thing, however, happened in our lives- my father had given me a love for baseball, and now I had inspired my dad to begin collecting memorabilia, not for the money but to be surrounded by momentos of players and games that he loved so he could relive them over and over again (not quite a fair trade, but I brought him some amazing pieces over the years in reverence of what we shared). It did become a bit overwhelming for my mom, as our den, my old bedroom and my brother's old bedroom were filled to over-flowing with everything from baseballs and bobbleheads to stadium seats and tons of signed photos, plaques, balls, bats, footballs, basketballs, pucks, boxing gloves, etc. Recently, my folks moved from the big house I grew up in to a condo, and, sadly, the bulk of this memorabilia went with the move. However, some key items remain, as it would be impossible for my dad to no longer be surrounded by at least a handful (okay, a number of hands-full) of sports momentos.

As my dad's collection grew, and my brother and I took great pleasure in acquiring more treasures for dad, I began to think about the differences I had experienced in my meetings with Mantle and Mays. If Mays had treated me like Mantle had, perhaps I would have a different viewpoint about the game, and might have fallen into the camp of "apologists" who make excuses for players like Bonds. Conversely, if Mantle had been rude to me that day, or hadn't by some fluke seen those books, perhaps my love for the game wouldn't have remained as great after following up what might have been less then a memorable experienc with the Mays experience. What these two meetings did, taken in sum, was show me the real hero of this story- my dad! My dad was the person who explained the game to me, played catch with me, managed my first little league team, snuck me money for cards, took me to games and most importantly, shared himself and his life experiences with me, not just of the game but of everything in life that he had experienced. It was the baseball things that we are speaking of today, because those are certainly the most fun things. So here's to the late Mickey Mantle, the great centerfielder for the Yankees' and the only Yankee I will openly and proudly wear a jersey of; here's to Willie Mays, who, in spite of his surlyness, gave my dad and I, as well as countless others, so much joy ON the diamond, if not off; and here's to my dad, who gave his love of the game (and sports) to me, and to your dad, who hopefully passed down his love of the game to you! THAT is what will keep our game great- share it with your kids, and teach them to share it with theirs!

This is for you dad,
With Love,
David (& Michael, Shari & Caren, Stephanie, Barrie & Gavin!)

PS- At Cooperstown in 2004, my dad FINALLY got to pose with The Babe for a photo- here it is! And this is the man who not only met the Babe, but also saw Jim Bunning throw a perfect game against us on Father's Day AND who was in attendance last Thursday in Brooklyn for the Cyclones 26-inning game (but, thankfully, my dad left after the seventh inning!)

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