Thursday, February 22, 2007

Mickey Mantle, the Drunken Poonhound: New Golenbock Work of “Faction” Further Sullies the Mick’s Already Tarnished Image

Title: 7: The Mickey Mantle Novel
Author: Peter Golenbock
Publisher: Regan Books
Price: $24.95
ISBN: 9780061238598

When I was young, I had a neighborhood friend who idolized Mickey Mantle. Idolized Mickey Mantle. For example, my friend's dog was named Mickey. When that dog died, he named his next one Mickey II. When we played Wiffle ball, my friend was always Mickey Mantle. He modeled his swing after the Mick, and would even lay down bunts like the Mick, even though in Wiffle ball there really is no situation that exists where a bunt is called for. But multi-dimensional Mick did that sometimes for the New York Yankees, so it happened on the Wiffle ball field too. A natural righthanded hitter, my friend would strive to hit lefthanded as well, because, as everyone knows, Mantle was a switch-hitter. My friend even batted lefthanded (a la Mantle) against me, even though I was a lefthanded pitcher!

Later we got into playing Strat-O-Matic, the baseball board game that uses dice and player cards based on the most recent season statistics. By then we were in the late ‘60s, and Mickey Mantle wasn’t so good. His 1968 Strat-O-Matic card boasted a .237 average and 18 home runs. My friend rejoiced at the occasional homer the Mick would hit, but anyone who knows Strat-O-Matic knows that a .237 average is death. The game is based on numerical odds, and there’s very little chance that a .237 average will somehow translate into something very much higher, no matter how hard you roll the dice.

Mickey Mantle was finished, I knew, because the Strat-O-Matic cards told me so. He retired for good in early 1969. Frankly, I didn’t really care much, ‘cause I was never a Mantle fan and was hardly alive when he was having his greatest years. But I did know the Mantle legend, of course, and my friend had never let me forget it.

A couple of years later, Jim Bouton’s book Ball Four was published, and the world learned that the Mick loved to drink and carouse and spy on women through hotel windows. My friend didn’t like that. As for me, I didn’t care about the Mick’s legacy or image so much as I absolutely loved Ball Four—because it made me laugh so darn much. It remains a classic, and you can still pick it up, and place your finger into any page, and find marvelous tales about bygone ballplayers, with all their eccentricities and adolescent behavior, not to mention the fun they had playing major league baseball in a tumultuous era of social change that didn’t seem to impinge on their own little insular world.

Then Mantle pretty much vanished from public view. My friend and I grew apart and went our separate ways, eventually falling completely out of touch.

It wasn’t till Mantle died in 1995 that he became news to me again. We had heard that he had gotten a liver transplant some time before that, but the general public conclusion was that Mick was a drunk, responsible for his own condition. Nobody was surprised that he didn’t last long after the surgery. The new liver couldn’t make up for all the other internal damage he’d already done to himself.

So Mick became a figure of pathos in the end. The 536 career homers, the three MVP awards, and his 12 World Series accomplishments looked slightly dimmer, though they still loom pretty large when you stroll through the record books.

Now comes veteran sportswriter Peter Golenbock with 7: The Mickey Mantle Novel, a bizarre attempt to channel the Mick from beyond the grave. Golenbock spotlights Mantle in heaven, then has him sit down with the late Leonard Shecter—ironically, the coauthor with Bouton on Ball Four—and spill his guts about his entire life. Shecter, a tough old bird when a beat writer covering the Yankees—and considered anathema to players like Mantle at the time—has been dead himself more than 30 years, but in heaven (to where, apparently, Jewish sportswriters can advance) he hasn’t changed one whit.

Golenbock’s Mantle is desperate to explain himself, and practically pleads with Shecter to help him relate his personal tale. Finally, Shecter agrees and gets out his tape recorder. Whereupon we then learn probably more than anyone should ever know about any sports figure, in fact or fiction.

We’ll skip the humble, small-town Oklahoma beginnings stuff. If Bouton’s book told tales on the Mick, apparently they were only the tip of a very large iceberg. It’s hard to know what Mick liked better: booze or broads. Suffice to say they were twin pursuits of equal gigantic appetite. Page after page, we get stories of Mick and his best buddy, Billy Martin, chasing, as Mick refers to it—endlessly—“puss.” Together, Mantle and Martin successfully exploited women in every balltown across America. They plotted their conquests as a duo—even watched each other have sex— from Boston to St. Petersburg to Los Angeles and back. They screwed pretty, sophisticated Uptown girls and fat, pimply small-town girls. They had a pair of sisters and another pair of twin sisters. They drank relentlessly and cheated unmercifully on their wives, caring not a bit for the havoc they were wreaking on their bodies or their personal lives.

The details of the tawdry sexual pursuits actually get wearying in this volume—almost embarrassing—but at some level, I suppose, they make up a dream scenario worthy of any sex-crazed male. Golenbock’s Mick seems to have a good memory for the especially salacious, too.

Then there’s Martin, who comes off as a complete loon, a pathetic creep who won Mickey’s admiration with his unabashedly successful skills at luring women into hotel rooms, his endless thirst for alcohol, and his knack for picking fights with crumb bums and, usually, winning them.

At some point, it crosses the reader’s mind that perhaps Mick and Billy in fact were embroiled in a twisted kind of homosexual relationship, so devoted were they to each other. Intrepid reporter Schecter never broaches this subject, however.

Mick tells all, and after we get through the long passages of sometimes grotesque sexual behavior, we finally settle into the details of his baseball career and later his abject inability to do anything productive with his life after that, save for making money at baseball shows signing autographs—more irony, Mantle hated doing that during his playing days and used to tell people to “fuck off”—or as a greeter in Atlantic City. Meanwhile, the hurt he placed on his devoted and long-suffering—but clearly dysfunctional—wife, Merlyn, continued even into his fifties and sixties.

Mick took his sons—he had four of them—to strip clubs. (Good move, Mick.) And they all apparently inherited his alcoholic tendencies. Now there’s a legacy.

Golenbock’s Mick gets an A+ for consistency, however. Even after his playing days were over, he still chased women, still dissed his family, and still followed Martin around, commiserating with his pal about his mistreatment at the hands of Yankees owner George Steinbrenner when Martin eventually became manager of the storied franchise. Mick even gets misty-eyed thinking about Martin’s trials with his late-in-life psycho-bitch wife, Jill, and his death in 1989 when he drove his car off the road and into a ditch in Johnson City, N.Y.

While the semi-angelic figure of Shecter not always so gently prods and scolds Mantle along, Mick regales us with all the baseball stories—about Whitey Ford, Roger Maris, Phil Rizzuto, Joe DiMaggio, erstwhile father-figure Casey Stengel, hated Yankee executive George Weiss, etc. Which then leads to Mick’s mea culpa, where he somehow suddenly finds self-awareness and guilt and regret and remorse and apologizes to all who came into contact with him during his unaware, guiltless, regretless and remorseless life.

The fictional Shecter also elicits from Mick the de rigueur psychological coup de grace: Mantle was sexually abused when he was a child, suffering at the hands of an older half-sister. Maybe this explains the poonhounding and, relatedly, the boozing. Maybe.

But Mantle’s cri de coeur ends up sounding pretty hollow. Not because, in reality, he maybe didn’t feel that he was one screwed-up guy. No, it’s because the real Mantle was probably such a one-dimensional and thick-headed rube that he would never have been able to express his feelings the way Golenbock has him apologetically do in the book’s conclusion. It’s a kind of nice way for Golenbock to throw Mantle a bone, maybe to assuage all the disappointment that Mick’s fans will feel after reading the first three-quarters of this book. But it’s doubtful it could ever happen. Even in heaven.

Mick was, for sure, a sad case on many levels. And it is definitely too bad that he never got to therapy or met someone who might have had a positive influence on his obviously unbalanced and unenlightened life.

That said, his place is secure in baseball history. The statistical numbers don’t lie, even though that’s all that Mick did to his stupid self for 63 years.

In 18 major league seasons, the real Mick scored 1,677 runs. Golenbock’s fictional Mick tallies twice that in puss. Eat your hearts out, fellas.

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