The selling of Mickey Mantle Jr. took a new direction the other night.
At first, the Alexandria Dukes simply traded on the famous name for publicity.
At right, Mantle worked out all last month with the Yankees in spring training and couldn't earn a minor league contract. But here he is with the Dukes, hired after a one-day tryout, and you figure he sold the family name to get a pro uniform. So all right, let the Dukes sell tickets to see the son of a famous father.
But now the Dukes are telling us Mantle was some kind of hero in a game at Salem, Va., Monday night. He made a routine play, but we can only assume that heroes named Mantle sell more tickets than routine guys named Mantle and, if it takes fairy tales to do it, well, business is business.
The Dukes won that Monday night game, 9-5, in 10 innings. When a Duke publicity man, Bob Siegrist, called the local television stations and newspaper, did he tell them who drove in the winning runs, who did the pitching? He told them a fairy tale about a play Mantle made in left field.
Nick Charles of WRC-TV said Siegrist told him Mantle threw out a runner at second base to end the game. WMAL-TV's Dan Lovett said Siegrist described it as a "key throw" that "saved a run." At The Washington Post, news aide Ben Gieser said, "All I wanted was the bare bones of the game, but out of the blue he tells me Mantle threw out a guy. He volunteered that insignificant information."
Siegrist's call were made Monday night.
Tuesday moring, Brian Hoffman, a sportswriter for the Salem Times-Register, said Mantle's work was nothing memorable.
"Mantle did throw out a guy," Hoffman said by telephone. "But it wasn't for the last out. If was the first out in the last of the 10th. And it was a dumb play by the runner. I probably could have thrown him out. He shouldn't have been running, and he didn't even slide at second."
Mantle was in the lineup only because the Dukes had pinch-hit and needed a new left fielder. In four previous games, he played only once, going 0 for 3. In Monday's game, he played only the bottom of the 10th.
Still, thanks to the deiligent Siegrist, Nick Charles called Mantle a hero on his Monday night sports report. The throw, Charles said, "saved the game."
As it happens, Siegrist's reports to the media were based on information given him Mike Halbrooks, the Dukes' general manager, who said he'd been kept up to date on the game by telephone by "someone in the office at Salem."
"It was an important play," Halbrooks said Tuesday night when someone suggested that retiring the leadoff man with a four-run lead is not at all heroic. "The first guy up hits the ball in the alley - you never know what will happen."
Besides, Halbrooks said, "We're letting people know Mantle can play baseball. We did not sign him to exploit him. Anytime he does something, we want to let people know. Everybody asks, What did Mantle do?'"
Nick Charles said he didn't ask. Dan Lovett didn't ask. The Washington Post didn't ask.
But they were told, anyway, of the "key throw" that not only "saved a run" ended the game" in the last of the 10th inning. Some people might think such misinformation had been designed to help ticket sales at Tuesday night's scheduled home season opener. Not Halbrooks, who passed off the fairy tale as nothing, saying, "Nobody forced Charles to say it on the air."
Happily, Mantle seems untroubled by it all. You'd like him. He comes on easy and friendly. He's 23 years old, hasn't played organized base-ball in three years and only last winter decided he wanted to be a pro.
So his father asked the Yankees to look at Mickey Jr. this spring. After a month, the young Mantle said his arm was adequate, his speed good, his hitting poor because of the long layoff. He left camp, unsigned.
Yet the Dukes hired him practically sight unseen. No dummy, Mantle knows why. The Dukes are a new team, just starting out, and they wanted the name. So he puts up with the exploitation. It is his payment for a chance to pursue a dream, a small payment if it brings smiles. He has given himself two or three years to make the major leagues.
His time limit on the exploitation is shorter, however.
"By mideseason, we'll know." he said Tuesday night. He meant we'd know what the Dukes are up to. We'll know if they are sincere in their promise to give him a chance to play or if they consider him a curiosity that will sell tickets.