It has become obvious in recent days that bestowing “hero” status on athletes is a misplaced priority.
The revelations that Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods and Joe Paterno, among others, are not the icons we thought should make us rethink the idea of putting sports figures on pedestals. Nowadays, with the constant barrage of information coming out about athletes being connected to performance-enhancing drugs we have to wonder if we can look up to anybody in the sports world.
The question of athletes as heroes was on my mind recently as I read a biography of Mickey Mantle. Growing up, I witnessed many future Hall of Famers on the diamond, but two clearly stood out among the rest. Mantle and Willie Mays were simply the best players of their generation.
I was fortunate enough to grow up in the Bay Area and watch Mays play the last half of his career. In my mind he is still the best all-around player in the history of the game, and many baseball insiders agree. I never got to see Mantle play in-person but it was a given he was in Mays’ class as a player.
Both were “heroes” to kids growing up. Who wouldn’t want to be like them? Mays had a “good guy” image that was never tarnished by any off-the-field scandal. He may have grown surly in retirement (with good reason), but he is still a baseball icon everyone respects.
Mantle is another story. He fit the image of the “boy next door.” He hailed from Oklahoma, married his high school sweetheart, had four sons, and made it to the majors at the age of 19. He had a combination of speed and power that any ballplayer would envy. He hit 536 home runs, captured three Most Valuable Player awards, and played on seven World Series winners in 18 seasons. He purportedly hit the longest home run in major league history when he blasted one an estimated but likely exaggerated 565 feet out of Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C., in 1953.