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Times Kinder To Mantle The Player

Fri., Aug. 18, 1995

Much as he wishes otherwise, new Seattle Mariner left fielder Vince Coleman is destined to be linked forever in baseball history with the nasty episode at a parking lot in Dodger Stadium two years ago when he threw what amounted to a quarter-stick of dynamite toward a group of fans, injuring three.

I wrote then the act was jerkism of the worst kind. That it was. Still is.

For it, Coleman has taken a pounding. He was thrown off the New York Mets team, convicted of a felony, paid fines and restitution and publicly apologized. As long as he pulls on a uniform, hecklers will always find him.

Times change.

Upon the death of Mickey Mantle, I reread his 1985 autobiography, “The Mick.”

Mantle tells a story of a time he was baby-sitting 3-year-old Mickey Jr. Rather than stay at home, Mantle took the boy to a ritzy bar in Dallas, where Dad pounded numerous beers with pals.

“Some guy who worked there started a ruckus,” Mantle wrote. “He was picking on one of the customers. Whatever the beef, I sided with the customer … I jumped in and we started wrestling on the floor.

“About this time (the father of his wife, Merlyn) walked in. I’d been gone from home about 4 hours. Merlyn must have been worried. She sent him to look for me.

“The first thing he sees when he walks in is Mickey Jr. sitting at the bar by my beer and me fighting like a cowboy. He said, ‘I’m taking your boy.’ And he left.”

Mantle describes another episode in the winter of 1954 when he told Merlyn he would be gone a couple of hours. He went to his favorite bar in Commerce, Okla.

“I was plastered … It was 5 in the morning and I was on my way home,” he wrote. “Going past my neighbor’s house, I saw some activity … The guys were going fishing and I said I’d join them. They were happy to have me along.

“So we took off. For all Merlyn knew, somebody had kidnapped me because I didn’t come home for two days.

“I didn’t wake up until we reached Lead Hill, Ark. No phones, so I couldn’t call Merlyn to explain. So I stopped worrying about it and let time roll by. Forty-eight hours later I was home with a nice catch of fresh bass. I thought Merylyn would be happy with the fish.

“She opened the door. I brushed past her and deposited the fish on the kitchen table, as though nothing had happened. She said, ‘Your car was just sitting there, locked. Nobody knew where you were. How can you do this to me?’ I felt terrible, but I shrugged and went straight to bed without a word spoken about the whys and wherefores of my trip.”

That same winter, Mantle nearly ended his career after three years instead of 18. While he was out getting drunk, Merlyn grabbed some clothes and her son and fled to her parents’ nearby home. Furious, Mantle punched out a window at home, cut himself badly, and his drinking buddies took him to a hospital for 30 stitches.

Mantle’s personal life never really came together, as the book and his subsequent post-sobriety disclosures revealed. He was a tormented, insecure athletic giant who only in the last flicker of life came to some peace with his demons.

Yet none of Mantle’s drunkenness, brawling, neglect and recklessness have obscured his baseball legend.

Coleman has been a good player for 11 seasons, not nearly of Mantle’s caliber but more than a journeyman, and a catalyst for two World Series teams. Yet a moment of foolishness seems destined to mark him. He hurt some people in a public way, yet not nearly as many as Mantle admits he hurt in his time.

What if Coleman played in Mantle’s time? Would he have been forgiven? If Mantle was playing today, would he be regarded as dubiously as rogue Yankee Darryl Strawberry?

Hard to know. It’s entirely possible that Coleman and Mantle, on the scale of overindulged athletes slow to learn the rest of life, are more similar than popular mythology would suggest. The differences seem to rest with the times.

In his eulogy at Mantle’s funeral, TV broadcaster Bob Costas said, “In the last year, Mickey Mantle, always so hard on himself, finally came to accept and appreciate that distinction between a role model and a hero. The first he often was not, the second he always will be.”

That distinction has its most well-understood expression in Mantle, for which athletes and their followers should be grateful.

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