Monday, January 3, 2011

Lure of the ball field... is it lost on the modern player? An inviting conundrum from Jane Leavy's new biography of the Mick

With a captive audience in the car this morning, I attempted to re-tell a story to my wife that I'd read in Jane Leavy's fine -- but somehow depressing -- new book on Mickey Mantle. Why do I even try to tell her these baseball stories I think are so funny? Might as well ask why I drink coffee in the morning.

The story is about Mickey Mantle and Irv Noren on the final day of the 1954 season when the Yankees' final game was meaningless. It had been the first meaningless game Mantle had ever played as a Yankee. The Yanks had won enough games to be champions any other year -- 103 -- but this year the Cleveland Indians had been spectacular winning 111. Mantle had actually played shortstop in the last game and despite Casey Stengel's fears, no paying customers had been killed behind first base.

To be sure, it had been another gruelling campaign for both players. Mantle's knees had betrayed him often and his trademark grimmace had been evident since spring training; as Leavy so well points out, he was a boy who played a game he loved in constant pain. Stengle had been in his face the night before for not running out a ground ball and loafing in center, which, in retrospect, seems particularly cruel.
Mantle finished the season right at .300. Noren finished at .319.

After the last inning of the season Noren, who planned to drive home to California, offered Mantle a ride down Route 66 in his new Chevy. They threw their bags in the car -- Leavy says Mick couldn't wait to get out of town -- made a few nightclub appearances, then headed west stopping only to eat and to stretch their sore outfielder legs.

But somewhere along America's signature highway, they spotted a ball field with a gaggle of boys on it. Now, these guys had been playing baseball at the highest level since spring training, seven months of baseball, for Mantle most of it in pain. But neither could resist. They pulled up, got some bats and balls out of the trunk, and -- in street clothes -- walked out on the field.

This is the crucial part of the story for me. Why? What is the lure? What could lure two grown men who have played baseball every damned day for seven months in the biggest arenas in the country to stop the car and get out in the middle of nowhere to play some more? Noren had just finished playing 125 games with 480 plate appearances. Mantle had ground out 146 games that season and dug into the batter's box 651 times. When I say "ground out" I mean it. X-rays showed his right knee bone on bone.

I'm indebted to Leavy for leaving me this wonderful conundrum. Why did they feel the need to walk on a ballfield one more time before they got home for the winter?

They get out of the car and Noren tells the boys he wants to see if he can strike this guy out. He sends them back about 400 feet to shag and he starts throwing to Mickey. Eventually, Mickey smashes one over the boys, over a house and over the trees. When the boys show up with the ball 10 minutes later, one of them says something like, "Guess you can't strike him out." And Noren says, well no, because, you see, this here is Mickey Mantle.

When they get back in the car and on down the road, Noven says can you imagine when they get home and tell their dad Mickey Mantle pulled up at the ball field today and hit a ball over that house and those trees in left field.

To which Mickey replies, Yeah, and their father says, "I thought I told you never to lie."

OK, I got a kick out of that. But my wife was stoic. I glanced over. She WAS listening. Like a fool I say, "Get it?" and start repeating what the father must have said.

"You need that Oklahoma drawl to make it funny," she says.

Maybe so. I can do Kansas hick pretty darn good but I don't have Oklahoma drawl down just yet. I can hear it; I just can't do it.

But my wife is brilliant. She came back with the question of the century.

"Would that happen today?" she asked.

I thought about it a moment. No, I said.

But the question is, why? I mean, my buddies and I never get enough. We're in our 60s for god's sake and we took batting practice on the next to last day in December. We've hit when the temperature was 14 degrees. We've played quadraheaders when the temperature was approaching 100 degrees. But would a modern ballplayer be lured by a sandlot full of kids on his way home from a gruelling season? Not very likely.

"Why not?" I wondered aloud.

"Because those guys hadn't yet seen themselves as commodities," she said.

Amen. Chew on that a while.

Irv Noren baseball card by Topps on Baseball Almanac

1 comment:

  1. That's just a great story on so many levels. Thanks for sharing.