Mickey Mantle's been away. But he's back now. Back in baseball with his ban lifted by Peter Ueberroth. And back in our summer consciousness because of an honest new autobiography -- "The Mick" -- that shows us a man full of flaws living a life of fable.
Yesterday, Mantle was in Washington for a round of interviews and a book signing on K Street NW. Halfway through his allotted two hours, the store had sold all 400 copies of his book and had to turn away folks who wanted to fork over $15.95.
"The line went all the way to Pennsylvania Avenue," a store salesman said. "We kinda underestimated his appeal."
That's easy to do.
Pick up "The Mick" and it's not the lightweight pin stripe ode you'd expect. From the spare chilling first chapter, in which Mantle paints his parents as proud, doomed Depression Okies, to the closing sections on his son's ongoing battle with cancer, this is a Mantle we might have suspected but haven't seen.
In a sense, we should not be surprised. Time won't let personality stay unchanged. The Mantle who left baseball in 1968 and the Mantle of today hardly seem related.
These days, Mantle has an easy charm, a candid forthcoming way with a story and a relaxed, resigned dignity.
That'll be news to the folks who knew him in his prime 25 years ago, when he had rude and rowdy down to an art.
His answers have their own quality. Why's Billy Martin such a good fighter? "Well, he don't argue too long."
Did he wish he'd learned not to strike out so much? "Don't know. Gotta admit, I always wanted to see how far I could hit it. I struck out 1,700 times, but, ya know, every one of them was almost a home run."
Though he is only 53, and looks much younger, Mantle tells his tales with the let-the-chips-fall air of an old man who's past dissembling or smoothing the edges of his life.
Did he almost drink himself into alcoholism? Yes. Did he run into a telephone pole drunk, throwing his wife through the windshield? Yes. Was he a devoted father when he was playing? No. Did he take little or no care of his body as a player, abetting many of his injuries? Yes.
A month ago, he was in Baylor Hospital for CATscans to see if he had the form of cancer (Hodgkin's disease) that killed his father at 39 and three other close male relatives and which has afflicted his 27-year-old son Billy for several years.
The test said Mantle was okay. But he lives under the same lifelong cloud.
He's a simple man, proud of his rough edges, full of awful grammar and loose with dugout deletes. But there's nothing phony anywhere, no pretense or varnish about any part of himself.
An overlay of myth and melancholy envelopes him, giving him an oddly ambiguous quality. He is an ordinary man who has lived a deep life. Death and greatness have stalked him, marked him, though he has no words for it, any more than the shore can say how the tide feels.
Now that he has found his public voice, Mantle has a nice blend of qualities. Some of the laconic dust-bowl farmer is there, leaning on the fence post and understating a hard life. Few players endured Mantle's constant pain. He's proud that he played more games than any other Yankee, though his almost crippling injuries -- and his refusal to pamper them -- are part of his legend.
Ask why he doesn't play in old-timers games and he says, "I can't even trot. The last game like that I played in, I was on first and Willie Mays hit one off the fence. I barely made it to third and Willie slides in right behind me, yelling (in a high-pitched voice), 'Go on, go on.'
"I told him, 'Go on, my ass. Go on yourself. Back to second.'
"Besides, I like to remember guys the way they were. I don't enjoy seeing Hank Aaron playing at 240 pounds."
Mantle's vision, however, is darker than a farmer's. His father was a miner, and that pit, where Mantle worked as well, is never far away. He has heard the rocks start shifting 300 feet down. Of his father's brutally unsatisfied life and early death, Mantle writes, "What kind of God is there, anyway, to let him die like that?"
Few ever thought Mantle would have a fraction the style off the field that he had on it. Now, in a very individual way, he's a natural off it. Like Joe DiMaggio, but 20 years sooner, he's hit his stride late but well.
Memories enchant him, especially detail. "In my days, we just loved to have fun," he says. "And I don't just mean the stories about women. Hell, we'd do anything to have fun. If you don't relax, the game will get you."
Mantle actually envied the old Washington Senators, their loose last-place life, their craziness. "Pedro Ramos always carried a gun. And he and Camilo Pascual would laugh and rag each other about which gave up the longest home runs to me.
"I hit two home runs into the tree behind center field in old Griffith Stadium off Pascual, and Ramos is up waving a towel at Pascual while I'm rounding the bases. Later that year, I hit one off the facade in Yankee Stadium off Ramos, and as I'm rounding third, I see Pascual waving the towel at Ramos . . .
"Washington meant so many good memories. Remember (pitcher) Don Rudolph's wife, the stripper -- Patty Wagon . . . There were so many good fights in the left field bleachers in the beer garden -- or women sunbathing about naked -- that several times I was watching that when I'd hear the crack of the bat and I'd have to spin around to see which direction everybody was runnin'."
Time even has made him relish the day he hit a ball back between Early Wynn's legs and the pitcher made his first baseman play directly behind Mantle, not on the base, "so he could knock me down with throws to first."
Only when the Yankees went sour in Mantle's last four years did he discover that "playing without pressure is the worst thing I ever saw in my life. Puttin' in time. The game's no fun unless you have a chance to win the pennant, no matter how much strain it is."
For Mantle, whose fraternity house always was the clubhouse, his ban from baseball by Bowie Kuhn (for working for a casino in a nongambling capacity) was bitter. For years into retirement, he had nightmares about getting to the park late, hearing his old friends, asking, "Where's Mick?" In his dream, he'd always get caught trying to crawl under the center field fence and wake up in a sweat.
In recent years, that dream has been replaced, he says, by another. One in which his final baseball legacy is a tombstone that says "Banned from Baseball."
Now, he can lay that dream to rest, too. "The Mick" is a far better last testament to the exploits of his youth and the growing up that followed it.