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Opinion Columns

January 27, 2013

MARK BENNETT: Forgotten Message: Advice from ‘The Mick’ should be remembered in wake of Lance Armstrong’s troubles

The two comments were almost identical.

Almost 18 years apart. Our attention spans don’t last that long. If they did, we would’ve remembered what Mickey Mantle said. His advice and regrets would’ve kept us realistic about elevating athletes and public figures to role models. Maybe Lance Armstrong would never have resorted to using performance-enhancing drugs to win seven Tour de France titles, become a cultural icon, and protected that “one big lie” through cover-ups and intimidation.

Mantle warned us.

We forgot.

Instead, this month, one of the world’s most recognized sports figures uttered virtually the same lament that Mantle did in 1995.

“I will spend the rest of my life … trying to earn back trust and apologize to people,” Armstrong told television interviewer Oprah Winfrey, admitting to doping after years of denials.

The 41-year-old cyclist, who famously conquered cancer on his way to championship glory, looked distressed but far less broken than “The Mick” did on July 12, 1995. The man idolized by kids in the 1950s was then 63, frail and recovering from liver-transplant surgery that he hoped had saved his life. Little did Mantle know that the cancer he thought he’d dodged was spreading throughout his once strapping body.

But on that day, sitting before cameras in the Baylor University Medical Center, a pale, gaunt Mantle vowed this …

“I’m going to spend the rest of my life trying to make up.”

He died a month and a day later.

In those few days, though, Mantle came closer to heroism than at any point during his 18 incredible seasons as a New York Yankee, the greatest switch-hitter and World Series home run hitter in history. He made clear to parents and kids that his choices in a 40-year battle with alcoholism hurt a lot of people around him, especially his wife and kids, and “shortened my career.” He tried his best to put the public worship of his baseball exploits in stark perspective.

“You talk about a role model — this is a role model,” Mantle said, referring to his weakened self. “Don’t be like me. God gave me a body and the ability to play baseball. I had everything, and I just …” His voice trailed off, according to a New York Times recount.

Abject regret in the face of his own mortality, Mantle continued, fighting tears. “All you’ve got to do is look at me to see it’s wasted. … I want to get across to kids not to drink or do drugs. Moms and dads should be role models, not ballplayers.”

Moms and dads.

Not athletes.

That’s a convicting statement to millions of Americans. Do we become enamored with those able to throw a 95-mph fastball, hit a 400-foot home run, run 100 meters in 9 seconds, “thread the needle” on a touchdown pass, “drain the 3,” win at Daytona, or out-ride relentless cyclists on a grueling trek through Europe? Do the physical skills needed to deliver those homers and TD bombs equal role-model status in our minds? Do we hold their successes up as examples to be emulated by kids? Is such glory limited to athletes, or do those with wealth, power and social status receive similar adoration?

It’s our choice whether we answer that honestly.

Here’s what Mantle said at that same 1995 news conference …

Sitting beside Mantle was his son, Danny. In an emotional voice, Mick said, “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.

Then, he added, “I feel more like a dad now,” according to an ESPN.com archive story.

After a pause, Mantle bowed his head, muttered something under his breath, looked up, recomposed himself and said, “I’m going to spend the rest of my life trying to make up. I just want to start giving back. All I’ve done is take.”

A year earlier, Mantle checked himself into the Betty Ford Clinic for rehabilitation. Upon completion, he wrote a first-person account for Sports Illustrated, and explained that he looked forward to being accountable. “I like the idea of having to stay sober in public, knowing that people are watching me,” he wrote.

“From now on,” he concluded, “Mickey Mantle is going to be a real person.”

Their situations are completely different. Mantle put a performance-debilitating substance in his body, and succeeded in spite of that, legitimately. Armstrong admitted to cheating and bullying those who dared question his legitimacy. Still, his challenge is to do what Mantle did at his rock-bottom turning point — get real. Armstrong hinted at that when he promised to spend his days earning back trust and apologizing. In a story concerning the Armstrong saga last week in the Gannett Wisconsin Media, a minister said that through pure humility and honesty in that 1995 news conference, Mantle — who embraced Christianity in his last days through longtime Yankees teammate Bobby Richardson — presented the ideal way to seek forgiveness.

In Armstrong’s case, given all of the legal and personal consequences now cascading down around him — including the future of the Livestrong Foundation, a charity he founded to support cancer patients — he’ll need a Mantle level of honesty. That task transcends any race. As Armstrong acknowledged, “I’m not the most believable guy in the world right now.”

Whether Armstrong can somehow regain some sense of honor, genuinely this time, hinges on his humility and honesty going forward.

“It all depends on people’s perceptions of Armstrong’s words and actions,” said Paul Trapp, faculty adviser for the student-supervised Honor Code at Valparaiso University. “We really are a country of second chances.”

Valpo’s Honor Code has been in place since 1943. On every test, quiz and essay, students must write, “I have neither given or received, nor have I tolerated others’ use of unauthorized aid.” It exemplifies a system, self-maintained by the 4,000 students, to prevent cheating. It is strict, but contains a second chance. A first offense yields an F in that course. A second violation gets a student suspended. A third leads to expulsion. Trapp, who came to Valparaiso nearly 25 years ago, can recall only one third-offense expulsion in that era.

By contrast, honor violations among public figures have become almost routine.

“I don’t think anyone in our society today is surprised by these incidents,” Trapp said.

There’s a way Armstrong could surprise a lot of people — be like Mickey Mantle.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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