I thought I'd heard wrong. Why would Mickey Mantle say such a thing to me? He was rich and famous and handsome. I liked him. And I was only doing my job.
Even more politely, I repeated the question.
Mantle signaled to Berra, and they began throwing the ball back and forth an inch over my head.
I figured that the interview had come to an end.
Mantle's remark didn't appear in The Times the next morning. Even if such language were fit to print, who would believe he'd say such a thing?
I barely believed it. I felt that it was somehow my fault for provoking a kind, thoughtful, gentle hero to what was surely an uncharacteristic outburst of nastiness.
Nothing I'd ever read in newspapers or magazines or boys' sports books had prepared me for what I eventually discovered was standard behavior on the part of many sports stars. In those days, sportswriters rationalized making hard rocks appear to be cream puffs by claiming that they were "protecting" the tender sensibilities of young fans in need of role models.
That night at Yankee Stadium was a wonderful consciousness-raiser for me. I began to look at sports heroes—at all heroes—in a new and searching way. It took a while, but I realized eventually that Mantle had accelerated my education by giving me an early lesson in skepticism.
I was a Times sportswriter for 11 more years, and the lesson I learned from Mantle proved to be a valuable one as I grew older. A willingness to doubt shows you can be compassionate, that you're capable of caring.
Paradoxically, my compassion didn't extend as far back as my first meeting with Mantle. He had kicked me when I was still too young and vulnerable; that was something I couldn't quite forgive.