Mickey Mantle was my first sports hero. I have said it before in this column space and I will say it again.
It seemed like it took forever before I finally latched on to my very own personal Mickey Mantle baseball card. My brother had one and I saw a feature on the latest 1960 edition of Topps baseball cards in a special edition of Sports Illustrated, which I cut out, but I didn't actually have my own card.
In fact, I finally had to order the Mantle card direct from the factory and it cost a whopping five times more than the cards that came with the stale bubble gum. The Mantle card set me back a whole five cents.
I watched every Saturday afternoon game on TV that the Yankees played just to watch “The Mick” take few cuts or chase down a fly ball in center field. “Seven” also became my favorite number and it still is to this day.
As I learned to play baseball, I tried to teach myself to switch hit like my hero. I actually got to see him play live when my family and my neighbor friends made a trip to Kansas City.
Eventually, the age of innocence began to wear off. I made the mistake of reading former Yankee pitcher Jim Bouton's tell-all book called “Ball Four.” Bouton painted a very ugly picture of the superstar as a heavy drinker and general transgressor of the morals of a very conservative America at the time.
I never lost my love of the game but I never put another baseball player on a pedestal in quite the same way as I did Mantle. Of course there are players I admire but I realize that heroes, like all humans, have feet of clay.
Let's fast forward to more recent times. After slumping in popularity a few summers following an almost devastating strike, or lockout, whichever view you choose to pursue, interest in baseball was resurrected with the great home run race of 1998 between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. McGwire eventually established a new single season record with 70 round-trippers. Barry Bonds would eclipse that feat a couple of years later with 73 homers.
Revelations of the widespread use of performance enhancers turned a dream season very quickly into an ugly nightmare of deception and dishonesty in the sport. It didn't take long for investigating reporters to turn up the fact that the problem was widespread and the new generation of baseball stars became known as a generation of cheaters.
For a while, it seemed the administration had cleaned the game up but more fines and suspensions were handed down just this summer to a group of players who were still attempting to keep “a competitive edge.” The biggest names on the latest cheater list included former National League Most Valuable Player Ryan Braun and the richest player in the sport, Alex Rodriguez.
Page 2 of 2 - However, I haven't given up hope. Last Saturday, I met a fine young man who moms and dads should hope their children will grow up to emulate. Mike Conley, star point guard of the Memphis Grizzlies, is giving back something of himself by lending his name and effort to the likes of the basketball camp that was held in Helena-West Helena.
Conley is obviously aware that God blessed him with talent and abilities that can forever influence and change the life of a child who otherwise might go down the wrong path. His family is very proud of him, as they should be.
At this point, Rodriguez appears only interested in salvaging the remaining $100 million of his lucrative contract. However, in the eyes of youngsters who are still playing the game for fun, Rodriguez is nothing more than a cheater.
Conley pointed out to the kids that the money and success that come from playing professional sports is only temporary and only a small part of a life. I truly wish other athletes would come to this realization.
As for Mantle, my opinion of the Yankee slugger has changed mellowed and changed over the years. A writer interviewing Mantle after the Hall of Famer had been diagnosed with liver cancer told the dying superstar that he had been his childhood hero. Mantle replied, “This is a role model: Don't be like me.”
Thanks to the efforts of his former teammate second baseman Bobby Richardson, a Baptist minister, Mantle became a “Born Again Christian.”
As long as life remains, it is never too late for a hero to repent and become a role model once again.