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Constant scrutiny makes heroes harder to find

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I was born at a very bad time to be a baseball fan in New York.

The Yankees stunk.

Well, at least through my early years they did. From 1965, when I turned 7, through 1975, they won zero pennants. They were 10th in 1966, ninth in 1967 and fifth in 1968.

Even so, I had Mickey Mantle.

At least I had a shell of Mickey Mantle, who hit .245 in ’67 and .237 in ’68. He was my hero, even if he no longer could do the things that made him one of the greatest players in the history of the game.

Mantle was bigger than life, the epitome of a Yankee. I had heard and read all the stories.

Being a young kid, I figured he walked on water. How else would someone be able to hit 536 home runs?

I had no idea that my hero was a functioning alcoholic. In 1995, just before his death, Mantle made a public plea to those who looked up to him as a role model. “Don’t be like me.”

It struck me the other day watching the coverage of Stan Musial’s death that we have fewer sports heroes these days, and that could be a good thing.

The coverage of Musial’s death included a comparison with today’s “cheats,” including Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, and they had thrown Lance Armstrong in there as well.

Musial was so far superior to those guys. Would Musial ever make up a story and feed it to the press? Of course not.

There was no way Musial was like those guys.

By all reports, Musial was a great family man, not consumed with ego and a pleasure to be around. But I would warn anyone about making comparisons of players, in general, from the middle of the last century to today’s players.

It is a different media world, and the old-timers, as a whole, might not have been much different than today’s stars. Back in the day, the press had the players’ backs. The only time you read about spit on a baseball or a corked bat was in comic terms. The skill of being able to cheat was lauded.

OK, there was the occasional player whom everyone hated; but in general, writers protected the players, who were their friends.

Think about the time when Musial was a star. First, not everyone had a television, and even if they did, not every game was broadcast. Writers were forced to paint a picture of that day’s events so readers could “see it” with their eyes. It was not a world that included a whole lot of clubhouse quotes. Since fans weren’t getting video from the game 10 minutes after its conclusion on ESPN, they wanted to read about “the game.”

Now the writers or broadcasters have to find the story in the clubhouse. Everybody knows what happened on the field. They saw it. The fans want to know what the players had to say about the game and whom they had been dating.

It created a divide between the players and the media. Editors and producers were looking for different kinds of stories, and it had nothing to do with going from first to third on a hit-and-run. The media stopped traveling on road trips with the players to break that buddy bond.

You have to understand that it was only 25 years ago that one of the Oakland Raiders’ beat writers showed me a color television that owner Al Davis had sent him after the conclusion of the season. Davis was universally lauded as being a genius at the time. What was his image as portrayed by the press at the end?

In today’s world, a sports star should assume that somebody is going to be poking into his private affairs all the time, looking for flaws. And it’s not just restricted to stars. High school coaches are reluctant to drink a beer in public for fear somebody will snap their photo and have it filed online in a matter of minutes with a little subhead, “Coach Bryant drunk at The Tavern.” Oh, and did you notice that woman standing behind him?

So before we barbecue today’s players by saying they can’t man-up in integrity against the best from another generation, let’s understand that many old-timers have transgressions that will remain buried because of our focus as a society.

It’s a different world now, in which kids are told that guy who launches baseballs 525 feet might not be as good of a role model as the lady who serves meals at the local shelter. In all the high school athlete of the week articles I have written for The Republic in the past six months, only one student mentioned a professional athlete as a role model. One.

Maybe if I had known Mantle was such a mess in his personal life I would have felt differently. Maybe I am glad I didn’t know.

Man, could that guy hit a baseball.

Jay Heater is sports editor of The (Columbus) Republic, a sister paper of the Daily Journal.

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