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58: Mantle, nearing death, laments a 'wasted' life

7/15/2004

He walked into Beasley Auditorium at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, Texas, slowly, gingerly. As a huge crowd of reporters look on quietly and sadly, Mickey Mantle carefully lowered himself into a chair behind a lectern.

Then, the weak and frail Mantle, the man who embodied baseball for nearly two decades, the man with the magical baseball name who hit tape-measure home runs and guided the New York Yankees to 12 World Series in a 14-year span, opened up, broke down and emptied his locked vault of emotions, without warning, without hesitation.

THE MOMENT
It is July 12, 1995. Baseball's All-Star Game is slated to be played in the evening in Arlington, Texas. Just a few miles away from the Texas Rangers' home, Mantle is recuperating from a liver transplant, performed a few weeks earlier, on June 8, at Baylor University Medical Center. He was within a day or two of dying, if not for the transplant.

Now here he is, in his first public appearance since the life-saving surgery, and he is highly emotional, knowing how close he was to losing his life. He talks about how he is so thankful he is alive, so thankful that he has a little more time to spend with his family, whom he neglected for so long, for so many years, while he was drinking himself away during his Hall of Fame career with the Yankees.

When he entered the medical center, he had a massively swollen abdomen accompanied by excruciating pain. Doctors told him he was dying of three potentially fatal ailments: liver cancer, cirrhosis and hepatitis. He had, they said, just a few weeks to live, if that.

The 63-year-old Mantle, one of the most electrifying players ever to grace the major-league landscape, begins to tell the assembled press corps how lucky he's been all his life, how blessed he is to have been given such incredible talent, how the baseball world embraced him so lovingly.

Mantle's hands and arms are eerily thin -- his fingers are so bony that a ring dangles loosely. His wristwatch rests midway up his right arm, not around his thin wrist.

Behind Mantle are several enlarged photos of him swinging a bat in his Yankees' uniform -- the one in which he hit 536 career home runs and a record 18 World Series home runs. The pictures are signed by well-wishers and fans from the All-Star Game's FanFest, held in conjunction with major-league baseball's All-Star Game.

"I owe so much to my family, to God and to the American people for accepting me as they have, for being such great fans," he says, choking up.

Skeletal and pale as a result of losing 40 pounds, Mantle goes on to talk about a life of regrets, a life of internal hell, a life he had squandered away because of alcohol. He goes on to tell the writers, his admirers and the world that he was "no role model," just a guy who was given a gift, a guy who was blessed and tortured at the same time.

"God gave me the ability to play baseball," he would say. "God gave me everything. [But] for the kids out there ... don't be like me."

There is regret and sadness in his voice as he speaks apologetically. "All you've got to do is look at me to see it's wasted," he says of his life, with tears welling up in his eyes as he alludes to his 40-year bout with alcohol abuse that led to his liver problem. "I want to get across to the kids not to drink or do drugs. Moms and dads should be the role models, not ballplayers."

Sitting next to his son, Danny, Mantle becomes more emotional, saying, "I wasn't even like a father. I don't ever remember playing catch with the boys in the back yard. I was a drinking buddy. I feel more like a dad now."

Mantle pauses and bows his head. He mutters under his breath, looks straight ahead to the audience and says, "I'm going to spend the rest of my life trying to make up."

He pauses again. His eyes sparkle from tears. His lips tremble. "I just want to start giving back," he would say. "All I've done is take."

He only had four more weeks to give. He passed away on August 13. After being discharged from Baylor University Medical Center on June 28, he developed anemia as the result of chemotherapy treatments, and cancer spread throughout his body.