A practical joker with a killer golf swing _ that’s how Mickey
ATLANTA (AP) _ A practical joker with a killer golf swing _ that’s how Mickey Mantle’s neighbors in Georgia remember him.
Sure, he was a baseball legend, too. But Mantle, who died Sunday from liver cancer in Dallas, escaped to his lakefront home in Greensboro to get away from his legacy and the idolatry that followed him.
``One of the reasons he liked coming here was because we, as a group, would protect him from the autograph hounds,″ said Al Wise, one of Mantle’s neighbors.
``Here he was just one of the guys,″ Wise said. ``He was still Mickey Mantle, the sports legend, but to us he was our neighbor and friend, and that’s how we treated him.″
The former New York Yankees superstar spent a couple of days every two weeks or so at his home on Lake Oconee, about 65 miles southeast of Atlanta, Wise said.
Mantle also would hang out with Gov. Zell Miller, an unabashed baseball fanatic who had idolized the Hall of Famer for 40 years.
``He used to say I knew his stats better than he did,″ Miller said Sunday. ``It’s one of those things that I never dreamed when I was following his career, that I’d end up getting to know him and I’d end up liking him as an individual.″
Miller met his idol in 1991 at Mantle’s first charity golf tournament at the Harbor Club golf resort near his lakefront home.
The tournament, launched to raise money for a poor-children’s Christmas fund, has drawn celebrities and well-to-do fans from all over the country. The golf match and its auction of Mantle memorabilia netted $161,000 last year.
Mantle was a fiercely competitive golfer himself, bringing the same power he unleashed behind 536 career home runs to the resort fairways, Wise said.
``He had forearms like Popeye. He hit the ball 250 yards off the tee,″ Wise said.
But Mantle’s sense of humor kept him from taking his game too seriously, recalled golfing buddy Chip Barker.
``He always carried a rubber snake in his golf bag,″ Barker said. ``He pulled that on a few of his golfing partners.″
Mantle acknowledged that he had squandered his life abusing alcohol, but Wise said he never saw Mantle touch a drink after he returned from the Betty Ford clinic in 1994.
``It amazed all of us, because he came back from Betty Ford and showed up at the restaurant and it kind of embarrassed us. Should we hide our beers?″ Wise said. ``But he would have a Diet Coke and we would have our drinks. It didn’t bother him a bit.″
More than 40 years of hard drinking required Mantle to undergo a liver transplant June 8. Miller said he visited his hero while he recovered from the surgery in Dallas.
``When I left I said I’ll see you back in Georgia,″ Miller recalled. ``And he raised his eyebrows and said, `I hope so.‴