- The Washington Times - Friday, March 3, 2006

This ending was sadder than most because everyone remembered the spectacular beginning.

In the spring of 1951, the perfect baseball player appeared out of nowhere — namely Joplin, Mo., in the Class C Western Association — at the New York Yankees’ spring training camp in Phoenix. He was 19 years old, could rocket from the plate to first base in about three seconds and hit baseballs incredible distances from either side of the plate.

But this was 18 years later, and Mickey Mantle was tired. Afflicted by chronic leg injuries and other physical problems, he had hastened his physical decline with alcohol abuse. Now, at 37, he had to pay the price.

On March 1, 1969, dressed in a blue turtleneck, blue slacks and a checked sports jacket, Mantle stepped gingerly to a podium in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and gazed out impassively at a packed press conference. “I’m open for questions,” he said.

The first was the only one that mattered. Had he decided on his future?

“Yes — I’m not going to play baseball any more.”

Thus ended, totally without fanfare, a career that once promised to rank with best ever but fell sadly short. During 1967 and 1968, playing first base rather than center field to ease the wear and tear on his aching wheels, Mantle batted just .245 and .237, reducing his career average to .298. His 536 home runs left him third on the all-time list behind Babe Ruth and Willie Mays, and he had played in more games (2,401) than any other Yankee. These were fine numbers for a mortal but ordinary ones for the baseball demigod he once had seemed destined to be.

Nobody knew better than the Mick himself how far he had slipped. He had pondered retirement over the winter, but friends urged him to wait and see if he could recover the magic in spring training. As the Yankees gathered in Fort Lauderdale, he realized it was hopeless.

In the fall of 1951, his superstar predecessor in center field had quit because “I can’t play like Joe DiMaggio anymore.” Now it was Mantle’s turn, and his words eerily echoed those of the Yankee Clipper.

“I can’t play,” he said simply. “I don’t hit the ball when I need to. I can’t steal [bases] when I need to. I can’t score from second when I need to.”

Although Mantle was not a particularly reflective man, it must have crossed his mind and affected his decision that the Yankees were no longer the Yankees. Over his first 14 seasons, through 1964, they won 12 pennants and seven World Series. Then, collapsing en masse along with their Big Guy, they finished sixth, 10th, ninth and fifth. The 1969 club also would finish fifth in the new American League East division, 28 1/2 games behind the first-place Baltimore Orioles.

Mantle had discussed his situation with manager Ralph Houk upon arriving at training camp.

“We decided this would be best for me and the club,” Mantle said. “Ralph said if he was me and at this point he wasn’t sure what to do, he’d probably call it off right now, and that’s what I’m doing.”

Mantle, Houk and club president Mike Burke spun the usual fibs at the press conference: Mantle’s growing business interests demanded more time, he was tired of the travel, he wanted to spend more time with his family. And, Burke said, an unspecified job with the Yankees would be waiting anytime Mantle wanted to accept it. (He never again worked for the club.)

But surely none of that would have stopped Mantle from playing if he could have. Two incidents in the sad season of 1968 reflected a decline so sharp that some well-intentioned opponents were taking pity on him.

Dave Nelson was a speedy rookie with the Cleveland Indians that season. On his first trip to Yankee Stadium, he dropped a bunt between the mound and first baseman Mantle and beat it out. Then his first-base coach grabbed him, figuratively anyway, and whispered, “Hey, Dave, we don’t bunt on Mick out of respect for him.”

Late that season, Mantle stepped in against Denny McLain, whose monumental 31 victories would push the Detroit Tigers to their first pennant since 1945. With the Tigers leading 6-1 in the eighth inning and the flag clinched, McLain called backup catcher Jim Price to the mound and said, “This is Mantle’s last at-bat at Tiger Stadium. Let’s see if he can whack one.”

Replied Price: “You’ve got to be kidding.”

McLain had grown up idolizing the Mick. “No, let’s let him hit one. You go back there and tell Mr. Mantle to be ready.”

Mantle took a couple of 45 mph pitches and fouled off another. “Where do you want the ball?” Price asked.

The Mick put his hand out and said, “Here, belt high, inside part of the plate.”

So McLain tossed the next soft pitch there and Mantle crushed a line drive into the upper deck in right field for his 535th homer, passing Jimmie Foxx for third place on the all-time list. Of course, the crowd went wild.

Somehow Mantle played in 144 games in 1968, but the toll on his body was terrible. During the offseason, his old pal and drinking buddy, Whitey Ford, rejoined the team as pitching coach a year after retiring. Pitcher Steve Hamilton, the Yankees’ player rep, was trying to help the players association get rolling and asked Mantle to try and make a go of it in spring training because his prestige and presence would add clout to the union’s efforts.

“Whenever I’m going good, I enjoy playing as much as ever,” Mantle told a reporter that winter. “The thing is, those days don’t come around as often.”

But he waited, along with everyone else, until realizing a winter of rest hadn’t helped the tortured body that was betraying him. So he said goodbye as a ballplayer.

In June, the Yankees threw a “day” for him at the Stadium, retiring his No. 7 and handing him the famous pinstriped uniform with the interlocked “NY” on the left breast. Afterward, a reporter asked him to settle an old New York City argument: Who was better, Mantle or Mays?

“Willie Mays was better,” Mantle said. “I don’t mind being second to Willie. If I’m second, I’m pretty good.”

Mantle lived 26 more years before dying on Aug. 13, 1995, after cancer was discovered during a liver transplant necessitated by decades of heavy drinking. Some weeks earlier, in a heroic and heart-wrenching press conference, he had told young people, “Don’t be like me.”

They say every athlete dies twice, the first time when he stops competing and the second when he leaves this mortal coil. Both of Mickey Mantle’s departures were terribly painful reminders of the long-gone golden promise that shone so brightly in that glorious spring of ‘51.

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