Mickey Mantle: My Granddad's Favorite

“Just a bunch of bums, pal,” said Gramps, sitting back disgruntled in his Yankee Stadium bleacher seat alongside his 10-year-old grandson, while wiping off his horn-rimmed glasses and smoothing back his long grey hair: “Just a bunch of bums.” He was referring to my beloved ’68 Yankees, who did totally suck. But damn could he rub it in.

Looking over the field grimly, Gramps would always shake his head and begin telling me about the Yankees of the past, and particularly Mickey Mantle. "See that '500 Foot' sign?" Gramps would say, pointing to the giant white figures on the centerfield wall. "That's where Mickey Mantle hit one of his greatest World Series home runs! No one's ever hit it out that far. No one!” Disgusted he would add, “Achh,” and gesture dismissively at the current “bums” loitering in the dug-out once inhabited by so many greats. When the Yankees took the field, Gramps would gasp as we watched the currently hobbled version of the mighty Mickey Mantle trundle out to centerfield with his glove in hand. My fourth year as a Yankee fan—1968--was Mickey's last; and his knees had blown-out from too many diving catches and crashing slides into the plate. But at one game, even as I prayed for him to park one, he blasted one of his last home runs way up into the right field bleachers. Everyone went nuts, but no one was more effusive than Gramps. "That's the ticket, Mickey!" He hollered, standing up and clapping like a madman. "Oh! What a guy!" This was immediately followed by the obligatory dissertation on the early days of the "Mickey Mantle Legend": his 54 homers in '61, his spectacular catches, his clutch hitting throughout many a World Series, and then Gramps would sigh and motion to the current Yankees: "They’re bad now, and they're gonna be nothin' without 'im, pal . . . just you watch . . . nothin'!"

And he was right. The Yankees sank right to the cellar, as did my hopes. All I was left with was Gramp's endless stories of the "glory days" and the great Yankee teams of the past: the mighty and legendary Babe Ruth; Lou Gehrig, the "Ironman,"; Joe DiMaggio, the "Yankee Clipper," the fiery Billy Martin, the electrifying Casey Stengel, the towering Elston Howard, the record-breaking Roger Maris, the clutch Tony Kubeck, the fire-balling Whitey Ford--against these formidable, haunting giants of the past, how could my pitiful no-name Yankees ever measure up? Well ... they couldn't. There was Horace Clark, who always got thrown out trying to steal second base; Dooley Womack, who gave up one towering home run after another; Gene Michael, who couldn't hit his way out of a paper bag : “Bums! . . . Aachhh." He blamed it all on the owners-CBS Broadcasting. "If they don't spend any money on talent they'll always be a bunch of bums," he would say. And he was right.

Every now and then we'd be watching a good game and some guy on the other team would make a "grandstand" play and rob one of the pitiful late-60's Yankees of a hit. Gramps would immediately leap to his feet and applaud in exuberant appreciation, totally oblivious to the massed silence. "Oh! What a play! (applauding furiously) Now that's the ticket! What a catch!" He'd carry on while I attempted to shrink, and I'd look up into the gigantic angered throng glaring at us and this insignificant little man clapping for somedude on the other team. And Gramps would just stand there with his jetted-back gray hair, the horn-rimmed glasses caught in the sun, the fine set of upper dentures showing brightly as he smiled: oblivious to it all. There, alone, in the raucous and malevolent cluster of thronged humanity, applauding.

However, eventually, it became apparent to me that Gramps was on to something. Emerging out of his embarrassing behavior and the vast impenetrable midst of his meandering stories was a great truth: A great performance is a great performance no matter what side it occurs on. "That's how you win ball games, pal. You have to throw caution to the wind! You have to have a little 'chutzpa!'

What Gramps particularly liked was the way Mantle could play the field, even towards the end when he had lost some of his speed. Much like our own Peter Bourjos of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, unbelievable "circus catches" was was Mickey's forte. Catapulting over the fence to snag a sure home run; leaping, diving, sprawling catches in the dirt to take away yet another extra base hit, and them instantly rising to uncork a perfect 100-foot laser to 2nd for the double play. "That's the ticket!" Gramps would yell, as “the Mick” sprinted deftly into the deep left center alley and robbed Killebrew of a sure base-clearing "double" with an impossible gliding backhanded stab. And we'd both leap up together, clapping, whooping, exultant together in one of the true moments of inspired derring-do achieved by one of the men in pinstripes during those frustrating years.

That's the thing Gramps loved about the Mickey Mantle’s of the world. While others are content to play it safe, let the ball bounce, avoid injury, these guys risk it all by diving headlong into the air like ballpark Baryshnikovs--every fiber, muscle, shred of flesh, bone, and blood straining, stretching, hurtling, reaching out to--YES! Make the catch! Hit the dirt and come up throwing! The crowd on its feet roaring; the man who hit the ball stalled open-mouthed and barely half-way to first; the world and time neatly staked to the bright green turf for a moment, caught in that one instant of "go-for-broke" physical excellence. For Gramps, it didn't matter what team the player was on, or what the people around him thought: after a play like that he would be on his feet applauding, cheering, and gearing up to begin yet another story.

Gramps has been gone now over 25 years. Over those years I have cheered a million great plays by my teams and other teams (as long as it wasn’t Boston), at professional games, and youth baseball and soccer games my kids have been participating in and I have been coaching, sometimes embarrassing my kids just like Gramps did to me. And I laugh to myself as I applaud the player and his epic performance, seeing Gramps again, and thinking, ”You’re right old dude, that IS “the ticket!”

Here’s to you Gramps!

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