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An interview in heaven with one of baseball's greatest heroes

Let's get this out of the way -- the reviewer is an unabashed, hero-worshipping, no holds barred, official, certified, card-carrying fan of The Mick. And if you were growing up as a semi-normal male in this part of the world during the 1960s, what else would you be?

Yes, his baseball card was my most prized possession. Yes, I wore No. 7 on my uniform, with the top button open, just like Mickey. Yes, I took my practice swings at the plate in the same slow, methodical and powerful way that Mick did.

And yes, this was all last year, playing for the newsroom softball team! I was 52-years-old!

With that confession noted, "7 The Mickey Mantle Novel," by Peter Golenbock, should rank as an insulting slap to hero worshippers like me. This controversial book is not a sugar-coated baseball story, but a frank examination in a novel of an often tortured life. And that's why it's a winner.

Using the brilliant device of an interview conducted in heaven by a New York Post sportswriter (why couldn't I think of that?), Golenbock allows Mantle to reminisce on a life that revolved around booze, babes and baseball -- with nothing else really mattering.

On the face of it, the novel paints Mantle as a boor. He was never faithful to his long suffering wife, Merlyn. He ignored his kids even during the off-season, preferring to be ramming around wherever he could meet up with his best pal and boozing buddy, Billy Martin.

He was an alcoholic. And though he will go down in history as one of the greatest baseball players in history, he never really took care of himself. He could have been even better.

But somehow, Mantle comes across as a sympathetic figure. He is oh-so-human, thrust from the cornfields of Oklahoma into the bright lights of Yankee Stadium. And blessed with red-blooded, American boy good looks, the power to hit a baseball 600 feet (as he once did in Washington's Griffith Stadium), and as the most famous star on the most famous team in sports, Mantle becomes an icon even if never wanted it or understood how to handle it.

Even if his life was a mess, Golenbock clearly likes him.

"I loved Mickey," the author said in a recent interview. "He was a very important part of my life."

And that's why Golenbock succeeds. First, he brings a degree of bona fides to the effort as longtime chronicler of New York sports, as a former public relations man for the Yankees, as Billy Martin's biographer, and as someone who knew Mantle well.

Even so, the book is vilified in some quarters for using artistic license to its absolute limit. But as Leonard Schecter (co-author with Jim Bouton of "Ball Four") interviews him in heaven in a back booth at Toots Shor's, Golenbock offers not only a raucous and ribald recitation of his many sexual escapades, but a confession of sorts.

In a memorable scene at Shor's, Schecter agrees to interview Mantle, but only if the star will be honest.

"All right, honest. Which is exactly what I need if I'm going to tell my story the way I need to tell it," Mantle says. "I don't need some ... writer censoring my words. I need you to help me explain my life to my family and to my fans, but most important, I need you so I can understand what happened to me. My therapy only went so far. It's too painful to do without help. I want Merlyn and my sons to understand that I was an alcoholic, that I couldn't help myself. And why. I learned that too late on earth to write about it. I need you to help me do it right."

"Sounds to me like you're looking for an excuse to soothe a guilty conscience," Schecter asks.

And so they begin. Mickey details every sexual conquest in terms usually reserved for Letters to Penthouse (if you're a prude, find something else to read). There is even a controversial and memorable scene in which Mickey takes on Marilyn Monroe in an afternoon fling.

Like just about everything else in the book, Golenbock insists there is a basis for the chapter.

"I know there is something to it," Golenbock said in the interview. "Billy [Martin] mentioned it to me one time. The problem is there are people who do not understand the difference between a novel and a biography."

And the heavenly interview device clears up some questions, too. At book's end Mickey tells Schecter that his attitude toward women may have stemmed from sexual abuse by an older stepsister when he was 10 -- a story that Golenbock insists is true and verified by Merlyn Mantle.

Oh yes, there's baseball in this book too, lots of it. He details the championship years with the Yankees, his home runs, his belief that no team ever deserved to beat the Yankees because no team was better. And through it all is the humanity expressed through baseball, such as his complicated relationship with manager Casey Stengel, whom he loved as a father but whom he resented for the merciless way he rode and berated him -- in an effort to make him better.

Golenbock relays Mantle's pathetic last years, signing his name on baseballs for money and slowing destroying his liver (he eventually underwent a liver transplant before dying of cancer in 1995). His public life mirrored his fictional life at this point, as Mickey promotes organ donation and tried to make amends with his wife and family for a life he admits was mixed up from the start.

"I'm positive he was trying to make amends," Golenbock told The Buffalo News. "If he lived longer he would have been head of an organ donor organization or that sort of thing. And he would have figured out his alcoholism. I really believe he would have used his platform as Mickey Mantle to open peoples' eyes about that."

It's not a bad thought that Mickey Mantle -- a tortured soul even in the face of greatness -- could still be a hero. Even if you chalk it up to a lot of leftover hero worship, I kind of like that idea.

The Mickey Mantle Novel

By Peter Golenbock

Lyons Press

286 pages, $24.95

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