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Sons and livers

Billy Joe Martin sat on the mound of an empty high-school baseball field in Arlington. He's always seemed alone since his dad died that Christmas day six years ago.

The younger Martin had been working with kids earlier in the day, showing them how to bat. Being a good example.

Now he is talking about the great games he played on this field while playing second base for Arlington High.

His dad and his dad's best friend, Mickey Mantle, just about inseparable from the time they were in their twenties, would stand off to themselves, and yes, they'd often been drinking.

But drinking was part of life for them.
It was also a part of Billy Martin's death--and perhaps will be a part of Mickey Mantle's.

The dust is packed hard, and the younger Billy toys with a ball, looking a heck of a lot like his dad when he takes those little round glasses off.

Every day of his life is spent trying to do things that would make his daddy proud, and trying not to do the things his daddy did.

And now is a good time for thinking. The man who was all but a second dad to him is over at Baylor recovering from a liver transplant.

Those two drank about every day, and they drank a lot.
I ask if their drinking ever embarrassed him in any way.
And it's like the memory is yesterday.

"You know, the only time either of them upset me was when I was nine, and I got these new fishing lizards," he says, and moves his thumb and forefinger across an imaginary lizard as he describes the colors, as easily as describing the shirt he wears today.

"I was so proud of those lizards, and I asked Mickey to show me how to put one on a hook.

"They'd been drinking Scotch all day, and Mickey took the lizard and pulled its legs off. They thought it was so funny. I know I cried. I remember crying. I was nine, and those lures meant a lot.

"But that was the only time. Drinking was just a part of life then."
Now there are the daily calls to Mickey's sons. They are close to losing their father to alcohol abuse. They may have come close to losing themselves, before entering rehab.

And there is Billy Joe Martin, the son of Billy Martin, who lost his dad on Christmas Day in 1989. His dad was drunk, with a buddy, and they wrecked a pickup, and Billy died.

You know--I say to Billy--it's weird, but I never thought of your dad having a drinking problem until he died. I knew Mickey drank a ton, too, but until he said he had a problem, I never thought of him as having a problem.

Let's be honest, every time a lot of us saw either of them socially, they were pretty toasted--but so were most of us who saw him.

You know, I remember talking your daddy out of his 10-X beaver cowboy hat at a party when I was 18. He was standing there looking like a commercial, with a Miller in his hand.

That's the way everyone acted back then, in the early 1980s. "It was a part of baseball," Billy says. "That's what you did.

"They'd go out and drink. They were from the '50s. Everyone drank back then--in movies, everyone had a martini in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Fall-down drunk was funny in their generation.

"It wasn't recognized as being so bad for you. I remember starting to dip snuff when I was nine. We didn't know it caused cancer."

I told Billy about the time we were at this wedding when he was seven, and I was 10. His parents let him drink champagne. I used his consumption as a plea to my Southern Baptist daddy--"See, Billy and those boys are drinking."

"Yes," said Daddy, "but that is Billy Martin's son."
That was all I needed to hear. I knew just what he meant in those words--they were a baseball family.

Two sets of rules, and most of society who knew anything about baseball knew the parameters.

Who's to blame Billy and Mickey if they followed the norm--albeit with a bit more gusto than the rest?

"You know," says Billy, "Kurt Menefee said Mickey shouldn't get a liver because he ruined it himself.

"Well, what if Kurt needs a heart transplant in 40 years because he ate so much fat? Should he not be allowed to have a new heart?

"How can any kind of a Christian person say that? That's part of life--having a chance to say you did something wrong and get a second chance, right down to the end of your life."

 

Yes, Billy knows now that his dad drank too much, and in fact, had a drinking problem. He knows now that Mickey did, too.

"But to be real honest, I was a lot older before I ever recognized the fact that he was altered or different than any other dad," Billy says.

"I remember now like when he'd come in and kiss me or something at night, and he'd have that old mellow look in his eye."

The signs were there. But only obvious in the rearview mirror.
"For example, my dad and I were not like father and son as much as we were pals," he says, just like Mickey's boys have said. "And we became more pals when I got older and started drinking.

"But you know, I never remember them drinking like it was a mission. I never worried about them either. They were invincible. They were bulletproof."

Kids didn't even think about driving while drunk back then.
Nothing would happen to Dad or Mick.
Even up until the Christmas Day when the call came that his dad had died on the way back from a drinking binge, it didn't seem like Dad could die doing something dumb.

The dad who had dodged the effects of so many Silver Bullets could not die.
"Sometimes I wonder if my father and Mick had not drank so much, how good they would have been," he says.

"I wonder if they would have been better. I always wonder if maybe the alcohol isn't where they got their bravado.

"Baseball is such a game of intimidation, and that's what they were. It made them intimidating and bigger than life."

I suggest that anxiety weighed so greatly upon Billy and Mickey--who suffered from anxiety attacks--that the alcohol might have served the same purpose as Xanax and Prozac, making someone functional and productive in an age when men like Billy and Mickey couldn't bring themselves and their machismo to admit a problem and seek help.

"I think Dad saw it as a huge sign of weakness to ask for help or admit there was a problem," Billy says. "I remember Dad quit drinking just for a month to prove he could.

"Mom quit drinking when she saw Dad drank too much and felt like she shouldn't encourage it in any way."

Now Billy's dad is gone. His dad's best friend is severely ill. And Billy is 30 and trying to make it as a sports agent.

"I don't know," he says. "Maybe one reason I loved every minute with him was that I was special to him. I had a strict sense of duty as a son--I didn't want to let him down.

"Now I'm very cognizant of how much I drink. This is not to say that I have never drank too much.

"I have it from both sides. My mom's mom drank a lot. Dad loved her. She was the only woman he'd let go fishing with him.

"She was the only woman who could keep up with him and not have to pee. Dad could pee off the side of the boat, but of course a woman was not equipped like that."

We laugh. It seems so funny. It's been so easy to see all Mickey and Billy did as funny because they were Mickey and Billy.

He looks back, across ballfields and barstools, trying to figure what effect alcohol had on his dad's life. He knows what effect it had in death.

The infidelities which drove away Billy's mom, a woman in love with Billy and vice versa, may or may not have been a result of alcohol. "I think it might have made it easier to do it with less guilt," he says. "But that was an accepted part of baseball, too.

"As I got older and started to notice how he drank, I could see his work was never affected on the field. But I think drinking affected his relationship with ownership."

Billy Martin holds the record for most games managed by a Yankee skipper.
He had a lot of crap to deal with in his years in baseball. Mickey, an old farm boy, was always uncomfortable with the pressure.

"That's how they dealt with everything," Billy recalls. "It's how they dealt with problems, with highs and lows. It was the cure-all.

"I think maybe Dad would have gotten help if he'd seen his buddy Mickey not ashamed of getting help. I don't know if Dad would have gone into rehab, but I think he would have tried to change if Mickey would have done this before Dad died."

 

I asked if he had deep-down wished that his dad would have gotten some kind of help for his problem.

He shakes his head. God, how he misses his dad.
"I don't know," he says. "I've thought about it--about anything to have Dad back.


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