As the Penn State scandal unfolds, it’s worth reminding ourselves that sports can provide the occasional grace note, the pleasurable escape from a troubled world. Remember Jason McElwain, the autistic team manager for a high school basketball team who went on a three-point shooting spree? Or the college softball players who carried an injured opponent around the bases to complete her home run trot?
An underrated feel-good sports story revolves around Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. A dynamic duo on the sensational Phi Slama Jama Houston Cougars in the early 1980s, they fell in the NCAA finals to North Carolina State on a fluky play at the buzzer – a crushing defeat of the sort you never live down (especially when, thanks to Jim Valvano darting around in a celebratory craze, the ending is televised ad nauseam). A decade later, Clyde The Glide was traded to the Rockets and rejoined Hakeem The Dream in the same city where they’d experienced the ultimate disappointment. The reunited buddies led the Rockets to an NBA championship, the ultimate vindication.
There’s a Robin Williams movie about a middle-aged man, haunted by dropping a touchdown pass in the big game in high school, who arranges a rematch 20 years later. You can guess the rest–he achieves redemption, Hollywood style. In real life, you don’t get the do-over. Except when life imitates art, as it did for Drexler and Olajuwon.
There are also the more low-key grace notes that certain athletes provide on a regular basis–not goose bump material, but small gifts that keep on giving. In an era where players indulged ever more elaborate end zone celebrations, after his many touchdowns Barry Sanders would calmly hand the ball to an official. “You should act like you’ve done it before,” he explained. Sanders’ class speaks for itself. But who would expect similar behavior from the often boorish Mickey Mantle?
As Jane Leavey documents in her recent, exhaustive biography of the Mick, he was, to put it mildly, a disturbed soul. There may be worse husbands and fathers, but that would take some doing. Mantle’s extreme self-loathing manifested itself in all sorts of lamentable conduct, including cruelty to kids who dared to seek an autograph.
But Mick was a complex man, with large virtues accompanying his outsized flaws. The cynic may suggest that he is regarded by many as a hero solely because he slugged 554 home runs (counting 18 in the World Series). But for me, Mantle’s displays of virtue came after the home runs. He put his head down and ran around the bases. Unlike many sluggers, he never dropped his bat flamboyantly, stopping to admire or call attention to his achievement. He never pumped his fist or jogged slowly to embarrass the pitcher.
Mantle’s classy home run trot may have reflected a number of things. It may have been simply the taciturn Oklahoman, shy about attention, or maybe the son of the ruthlessly demanding Mutt Mantle, internalizing the notion that you’re supposed to hit home runs so they warrant no celebration. While these elements were likely involved, surely Mantle’s no-nonsense trot also reflected a conviction (conscious or otherwise) about respect for an opponent. George Will once wrote: “Etched on every fan’s mental retina is the archetypal sight of Mickey Mantle in his home run trot, with his head down, so as not to show up the pitcher.”
I don’t know about etched on every fan’s retina (Will tends to exaggerate when he writes about baseball), but it’s nice to imagine that Mantle’s behavior made at least some impression on observers. The Mick sinned more than most of us sinners, but 554 times he showed great human grace.