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When we idolize sports stars, we hold them up to unfair standards

I used to be Mickey Mantle. Not really, of course. I'm from Porterdale, not Oklahoma, and I'm not even a switch-hitter - in any sense of the word - but whenever I used to hang out in that fantasy world where all little boys have hung out at one time or another, pretending to be a pro athlete about to win the "big game," I was always Mickey Mantle.

Not even the passage of time can obscure the fact that I was a terrible little league player. I was the classic right fielder and spent more time on the bench with the team scorebook on my lap than I did in the field with my glove on my hand.

But when I was alone in my backyard I was Mickey Mantle, and nobody was better than Mantle. He could run and throw and steal a base and hit with power - and he did it all with style, on the biggest stage in baseball: centerfield at Yankee Stadium.

There was a back alley behind our house that ran right beside our big chimney. If I stood at just the right place in the yard and threw a tennis ball against the chimney, I could make it bounce off the pavement like a hard ground ball to short, which I could field and throw back against the chimney to cause a hard rebound.

I could field a grounder, in other words, and then throw the runner out at first. A hard throw against the base of the chimney would produce a pop-up - usually. Sometimes it would get past me for a hit.

I played thousands of innings against that chimney - and never lost.

But being Mantle wasn't about fielding. Mickey Mantle was a hitter - a long home run hitter, and I also spent countless hours standing on the back alley hitting rocks into the adjacent woods with a baseball bat. From the time I was 7 until I was 9 or 10, I hit a thousand more home runs than Barry Bonds ever thought about hitting - always as Mickey Mantle.

Forget Willie Mays or, well, Mays was the Mick's only peer, but forget him. I was always Mickey Mantle - plain and simple.

And I followed his career in the papers, too, and cut out clippings and box scores and pictures from newspapers and magazines and put together scrapbooks. I still have a couple of those scrapbooks. I knew everything there was to know about Mantle - or so I thought.

As I grew older I began to hear stories about my hero's dark side, about how he was often rude or downright surly to fans and of his off-field escapades, usually with teammate Billy Martin. I heard about his alleged drinking and carousing and there was that famous fight in the Copacabana, which, I think, was a New York nightclub.

Didn't matter. Mickey Mantle was still my man. And then, near the end of his life, he came out and admitted that he was an alcoholic and that he had been a bad father and an unfaithful husband. He also opined that if he had taken better care of himself and actually worked at the game that he could have been an immensely better player.

A player immensely better than Mickey Mantle would have been unfair to the rest of the league.

By now you are probably saying to yourself, "OK, so Huck liked Mickey Mantle? Why bring it up today?"

Two reasons. I have been reading a book this week about my boyhood hero. It is written by Peter Golenbock.

This book is not for the faint of heart and if it, indeed, paints an accurate portrait of No. 7, well, let's just say his behavior off the field was worse than anyone could ever have imagined. But in the end, Golenbock points out that Mantle never wanted to be anyone's hero. He just wanted to be a ballplayer.

Which brings us to the second reason I bring this up today.

Another No. 7 has been in the news this week. Falcons quarterback Michael Vick has been castigated by everyone from Buck Belue and John Kincade of 680 The Fan to Terrence Moore of the AJC. I, myself, have often attacked Vick's character, with relish.

But as I was finishing up the novel about Mickey Mantle, it sort of hit me. Right now there are probably thousands of kids who play football alone in their backyards - or maybe in their living rooms on their game consoles - pretending to be Michael Vick, just like I pretended to be Mickey Mantle.

Vick, as I said, is constantly in the news for his negative off-the-field antics - and far be it from me to defend Michael Vick. But compared to my boyhood hero, he's probably a saint, and when we idolize athletes in modern society instead of true heroes, well, we need to realize that many have feet of clay.

So, I have decided to cut Vick some slack and let all of those without sin cast those first stones at him.

But for the record - when I fantasize about playing baseball today, I'm still Mickey Mantle.

Darrell Huckaby is an author and teacher in Rockdale County. E-mail him at dhuck08@bellsouth.net.

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