By Johnette Howard
If you think back over the raw and rollicking tradition of tell-all sports books, many of the revelations in “The Last Boy,” Jane Leavy’s beautifully drawn new biography of Mickey Mantle, are not particularly explosive. But the book and its acute insights come along at an interesting time for superstars and sports. Remember when an “anything-goes” jock like Mantle was winked at and celebrated as the luckiest guy on Earth? Imagine the broads, the booze, the endless parties and big-bucks extravagances. Taking risks and flaunting convention was almost expected. Overindulging was an envied, even encouraged, part of a star athlete’s gig.
Jim Bouton’s controversial 1970 book, “Ball Four,” was the first to provide a frank look at what really goes on backstage in baseball, complete with some choice passages about the “real” Mantle.
Since then, sports biographies have become the place where former Yankee Fritz Peterson explained wife-swapping to us, Dock Ellis claimed to have pitched a no-hitter on LSD, Dennis Rodman confided he really digs cross-dressing, and Wilt Chamberlain fabulously boasted that he had sex with 20,000 women.
Pete Rose finally admitted to his gambling on baseball in a sports book. Magic Johnson rambled on (a bit too enthusiastically, perhaps) about the sexual escapades that preceded his diagnosis with HIV. Texas Rangers star Josh Hamilton outlined how he kicked substance abuse, but the late Bob Probert, the hell-raising hockey goon, puzzles in his new book about why he never could. And NFL great Lawrence Taylor, why, he copped to nearly everything years before he was arrested in May and charged with having sex with an underage prostitute.
Few sports books provide a character study as sophisticated or expertly rendered as Leavy’s portrait of Mantle. But many have this in common: They read like postcards from the edge.
What Leavy does better than anyone has in a long time while drawing her portrait of Mantle is get at how the entire construct of the star athlete is constantly undergoing reconsideration. The definition changes. Mores shift and move. What’s permissible evolves. The takeaway message from the athletes themselves isn’t always as remorseful as the one Leavy shows of a sad Mick, by then “a husk of a man,” uttering as he was dying of liver cancer, “Don’t be like me.” More often, the message is just that life on the edge ain’t always the total joyride it’s cracked up to be.
Which is another reason Mantle’s story feels especially relevant right now.
It’s starting to feel like night is falling on the “anything-goes” jock in some of its many variations.
The days of the remorseless NFL or NHL headhunter, for example, seem over, except for the thrashing. Steelers linebacker and former NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison met with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell just the other day. Harrison finds himself cast as a villain yet again in the league’s rush to discourage dangerous hits, thanks to the steady drumbeat of frightening news about concussions. Probert and NFL Hall of Famers from Chuck Bednarik to Ronnie Lott would all have to change if they played today, too.
And yet, the news on Monday that Randy Moss was cut by the Minnesota Vikings for, among other things, panning the team’s Friday lunch buffet is somehow more startling than any of those examples. When was the last time the threshold for an “anything-goes” star was set so low, and then the penalty for exceeding it was rendered so swiftly?Diva superstars — not just the bad boys — have fallen on hard times as well. The fallout that LeBron James has faced since “The Decision,” Brett Favre‘s long downward glide from iconic quarterback to punching bag, the feeding frenzy around Tiger Woods’ infidelities, and Allen Iverson‘s exile to Turkey because no NBA team believed he was willing to accept a reduced role — they’re all examples of how talent only gets you so much carte blanche anymore.
Moss was with Minnesota just four weeks, then — poof! — he’s gone?
Even stars who are straight arrows are no longer being treated like professors whose tenure can’t be revoked.
Look at how Donovan McNabb was just benched and publicly embarrassed by Mike Shanahan in Washington. Behold the rewriting of the Cliff Lee legend now that he lost twice in the World Series. In New York, the dissembling of 36-year-old Derek Jeter, who is up for a new contract with the Yankees, has already begun. “Why overpay Jeter? Where else is he gonna go?” are among the things being sneered.
Mantle operated in a gentler time, of course. As Leavy points out, athletes in the 1950s and ’60s expected the truth about their foibles or off-field exploits to go to the grave with the writers who knew about them.
Today’s jocks are more apt to find what Andre Agassi did after working two years on his autobiography. Agassi intended it to be a personal catharsis when he admitted to things such as being so unhappy he used crystal meth for most of 1997.
What a comedown for him to learn that plenty of people actually preferred the man who was living the lie, instead. They liked him better as some huggable, long-lashed plush toy who blew kisses to the crowd.
|In 1961, The Mick had New York, and all of the baseball world, at his disposal.|
The point isn’t to condone the illicit behavior of Mantle, Agassi or anyone else. It’s just to note that maybe we can all save ourselves some genuine shock or disgust or heartache if we break the pattern — We thought we knew him! Turns out we really didn’t! — and recognize that something else Leavy touches on about Mantle is right. At some point, it makes sense to go beyond the mistakes a person makes, or his public caricature, and consider something Leavy asks in her preface: “How do you reclaim a human being from caricature without allowing him to be fully human?”
You can’t. And it’s an important distinction. It’s the difference between viewing anyone’s life as a snapshot — the times Mantle was lewd to children and old people — and recognizing that all of us are more accurately understood as a sum of all our parts.
Most people’s life stories — not just Mantle’s — are complicated, and they rarely stay static over time. You are both the rabble-rouser you were at 23 and the hopefully wiser person that emerges at age 50.
Change and enlightenment do happen. The same can happen to fans and the sports industry as a whole. Acting on the mounting information about concussions, like refusing to laugh off substance abuse anymore, doesn’t signal some intolerable prudishness. It’s an attempt to stop celebrating athletes who act out or damage themselves for their audience’s vicarious pleasure.
Mantle is a classic example of a man who acquired clarity too late to avoid his fate. But Leavy sways between portraying him as an icon and a self-deprecating man and a tragic figure, which is why the book is so affecting.
If midnight really is falling on the “anything-goes” jock, it’s probably not all bad. A lot of athletes’ postcards from the edge say they had a helluva good time. But sometimes, there are better things to glorify and far less self-destructive ways to have fun.
Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com, and is the author of “The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.