It may seem surprising to you - for it is to me - that I, the undeniable embodiment of all things Southern, should become so fascinated by a Yankee.
But I did.
Mickey Mantle had been retired for 25 or 30 years before I stumbled across the astounding accomplishments of his baseball career with the New York Yankees. He was the first switch hitter who could hit as powerfully from the left side of the plate as from the right and the one who stepped into the centerfield to replace the legendary Joe DiMaggio. Soon I was consumed, reading everything I could of his historic career and his celebrated fast-paced lifestyle.
Mantle drank as hard as he hit and partied longer than he played. He was, he would admit in his later life, an alcoholic. He would pay for that, too, for a price is always extracted for too much irresponsible fun. His liver was seriously damaged by the years of alcohol abuse. Liver cancer would claim his life on Aug. 13, 1995, at the relatively young age of 63. Five years later, his son, Mickey Jr., also an alcoholic - as were all Mantle's children - also died from liver cancer at 49.
In his last few years, Mantle moved South and took up residence on Lake Oconee in Georgia, near the small town of Greensboro. One friend of mine, a close running buddy, talks admiringly of Mantle's generosity and spirit while others who crossed his path recall tales of his abruptness and rudeness.
Behavior like that, though, is often indicative of a troubled, unsettled soul and one that knows its time on earth has not been well spent. Mantle proved that by the song he selected for his funeral.
In 1968, Grand Ole Opry and "Hee-Haw" star, Roy Clark, had a hit with a mournful though poetic song called "Yesterday When I Was Young" (English lyrics by Herbert Kretzner). It tells the woeful story of a self-absorbed man who has frittered away his youth and life with wayward pleasures and foolish pursuits. Clark, accompanied by own his mastery at guitar, sang the song at Mantle's funeral. I watched it on television and was chilled incomparably by that one moment.
A few years ago, I asked Roy Clark, backstage at a show, about how he had come to sing that song at the Mick's good-bye.
"I've never been more haunted by a song at someone's funeral than I was by that," I remarked. "It was beyond powerful."
A shadow covered the country music star's face and he nodded solemnly. "Mickey and I were good buddies," he explained in a sad tone. "He always talked about that song. One day we were playing golf and he came up and said, 'When I die, I want you to sing that song at my funeral. That's my life.' I shrugged it off. I said, "Naw, you don't want that song.' He said, 'Yes, I do. Promise me.' When he found out how sick he was, he called me up and said, 'Remember: You promised.'"
For a moment, quietly remembering the intense, regretting words of the song, Roy Clark and I just looked at each other and shook our heads.
"I had to do it," he said softly. "And I guess he was right. It was his life."
That song with its incredible lyrics is loaded on my iPod and whenever I play it, I am saddened by lines like "I ran so fast that time and youth at last ran out; I never stopped to think what life was all about" and the final refrain, "And now the time has come for me to pay for yesterday when I was young."
It breaks my heart.
But I bet it broke Mickey Mantle's heart even more.
Ronda Rich is a best-selling Southern author. Sign up for her newsletter at www.rondarich.com.