Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Mickey Mantle's Last At Bat

TRIVIA WINNER: Congrats to Dan Taguchi of Los Angeles, who correctly answered the trivia question about the fact Mike Piazza was the only Dodger player to ever hit a home run completely out of Dodger Stadium. This week a new Trivia Contest. The Prize this week: Starbucks Gift Card. 

TRIVIA QUESTION: This column is about Mickey Mantle's last appearance. After Mantle popped out to shortstop, who followed him to the plate? HINT: He wore no. 21. 
Mike Piazza hit one of just five homers completely out of Dodger Stadium, and the only Dodger to do it. The others are Wilver Stargell (2), Giancarlo Stanton and Mark McGwire. Piazza hit his 478 feet in 1997. Stargell's remains the longest at 506 feet.

(I am writing this column today for my best friend Mary A., who I grew up with playing endless games of wiffle ball into the dusk hours, and who is celebrating his xxth birthday today. Maybe we are so close because he's just two days older than me. I can't forgive him for being a Yankee fan just like he can't forgive me for being a Pirate fan but it sure made for lots of great names in our line-ups as we became the Mickey Mantle and Bill Mazeroski of Wiffle Ball in his back yard.)

It was 75 degrees with a slight breeze at Boston's Fenway Park at 2:00 o'clock in the afternoon on September 28, 1968. The Red Sox were taking the field and the New York Yankees were coming to bat. Not everyone knew this was going to be the last time the great Mickey Mantle would put on a uniform and play for the team where he belonged. He belonged in history.

The great center-fielder who succeeded Joe DiMaggio way back in the early 1950's had been relegated to first base in recent years. His legs shot, his speed non-existent and his powerful bat carrying less oomph than ever. Years of drinking, injuries and battling had robbed the Mick of his prowess. Those who were not fans said he was only known for "arguing with the umpires," while those who watched him admired his great talent.

The Sox sent ace Jim Lonborg to the mound in this next to the last game of the regular season. The Yankees were long out of the race and would finish fifth. The Red Sox would finish fourth, four games ahead of the Yankees.

Lonborg, the 22 Game winner and Cy Young Award winner the previous season was struggling too. He was trying for win no.7 against 9 losses. The Red Sox won the pennant in 1967. This was 1968. This was the year Carl Yastrzemski came off his Triple Crown season when he hit .326 to win the batting title with the lowest average ever, .301. It was The Year of the Pitcher.

Mantle had battled injuries in his final season. This was nothing new. He was oft injured almost to legendary status. This year however, he was going to play in an amazing 144 games for the second year in a row. This after the 1966 campaign when he was limited to barely more than 100 games. It wasn't a bad season for any player. But Mickey Mantle wasn't just any player. He was The Mick. He'd bat 547 times, belted 18 home runs but only hit .237.

On this Saturday he started at first base and batted third behind Horace Clarke and Jake Gibbs. Clarke led off the game with a walk. Gibbs followed with a fly out to left. With Mantle at the plate. The Mick, batting left handed against the right handed Lonborg, then hit a weak pop up to shortstop Rico Petrocelli in short left field. The next batter also got out.

That was it, the last at bat for Mantle, Before he could hit a second time, Andy Kosco came into replace him. In the 8th inning Kosco belted his 15th home run of the year to make it 3-2 Red Sox. Joe Pepitone would also homer and in the end the Yanks bested the Sox 4-3. Longborg went all the way to lose it, Lindy McDaniel picked up the win in relief.

The final out recorded when Petrocelli grounded out to shortstop Tom Tresh who tossed it over to Kosco at first. That home run by Kosco was also his last as a Yankee. Over the winter New York shipped him off to the Dodgers for pitcher Mike Kekich. So Petrocelli not only ended the game but caught the final ball ever hit by Mickey Mantle.

For Mantle it brought an unceremonious end to an illustrious career. His final stat line:

18 years, 536 Home Runs, 1509 RBI, 1676 Runs Scored, and a lifetime .298 Batting Average. He hit .300 or better 10 times and made the All Star team in every year but one. The lone season he didn't make the team was 1966 when he played only 108 games. He even made it in his final season. A three time MVP he led the league in homers four times and in 1956 won the Triple Crown, batting .353. Twice he eclipsed 50 homers and in 1961 would likely have beaten Roger Maris and Babe Ruth for the single season HR title, but an illness ended his season early despite his 54 homers.

While The Mick was an extraordinary player, on this day though he was just ordinary and when it came to Mickey Mantle, ordinary was better than most, but not good enough for him. So it came to an end. Only 25,534 people saw that game at Fenway and no doubt most of them didn't realize they were watching the end of an era.

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