Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Adventures with Mickey Mantle

Background: 1965 or 66.The Del E. Webb Corporation, Phoenix; my first job after I was discharged from the service. Mr. Webb owned the New York Yankees during the 50s and had recently sold the team to CBS Television (of all things). But the great Mickey Mantle was his "son." There was a strong, loving bond between the two that transcended business and baseball. "The Mick" still visited Mr. Webb as often as possible.

We were introduced on an elevator in the Del Webb Building on Central Avenue. It was all I could do to say "Haw…haw…haw ya do?" I forced my sweaty hand out and—shook hands with Mickey Mantle!

I did not pee my pants.

More background: 1988. Café Capri in Dallas; a fine restaurant where I worked for eleven years. It is owned by two Iranian brothers, Johnny and Iraj Jahani, who immigrated to the US about twenty years earlier. Café Capri features fine European cuisine, a restful dining room with a beautiful chandelier, a harpist every evening, candles and flowers on the tables, tableside preparation, and tuxedos on the wait staff. Take $100 per person when you go for dinner.

There's a dress code. Men, wear a tie and a suit coat or jacket. Women, wear a dress.

One of our favorite customers was Mickey Mantle who was always unpretentious and respectful. He never asked for anything special. If other patrons stopped by his table, he was pleased and gracious. He often brought his family with him. Occasionally, customers asked for his autograph, but he gave them a run-of-the-mill, pre-fab, pre-signed photo from a stack he kept in the trunk of his car.
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The first time I saw him in Café Capri, I hurried up to him, introduced myself and reminded him of our meetings in Phoenix. (I didn't pee in my pants then, either.) Yes, he remembered those days, but had forgotten most of the people. After that, as opportunity presented itself, he and I had some nice conversations. He always greeted me by my first name. He asked about my family. He was interested in my son who was flying in Iraq. He introduced me to his own sons, Little Mick and Danny. (Danny always signed the credit card, by the way.) Mrs. Mantle had a shy, delightful smile. Once in awhile, Mickey Mantle called me his buddy. It was always good to have him for dinner.

Mickey Mantle's Birthday: One evening, Mickey Mantle and his family came to Café Capri for his birthday dinner. Everyone honored the dress code—except The Mick, who was wearing a stylish new, red jumpsuit. He was a pioneer in "business casual."

Johnny Jehani said, "I'm sorry, Mr. Mantle, but I can't seat you tonight. We require a coat and tie."

I nearly peed my pants!

There was a long pause while the Mantles exchanged glances with each other. "Well, then I guess we have to go somewhere else."

"I'm sorry," Johnny said softly, but firmly. When they left, I said, "I can't believe you did that, Johnny."

The next morning, all the network TV shows and all the radio stations announced, "Today is Mickey Mantle's birthday…”

When I got to work, Johnny asked me, "Paul, who is this Mickey Mantle guy, anyway? Why's everybody talking about his birthday? Look, it's in the newspaper today." He jabbed his finger at a small photo of the birthday boy.

I mentally scrambled for someone who might compare, someone my Persian boss—and friend—might recognize. Johnny liked sports, especially soccer. "Well, Johnny, you know the soccer player, Pele?"

"Of course!" he replied enthusiastically.

"Mickey Mantle is the Pele of American baseball. He's one of the greatest baseball players of all time." Johnny's mouth fell open. I saw light bulbs light up. "He'll always be the greatest, if you ask me," I added. "He's a legend. He is an honest-to-goodness American hero. It's difficult to get close to him."

Johnny just stared at me, his mouth still open. His pen dropped from his hand. He didn't bother to pick it up. He just stood there staring at me.

That night my boss relaxed the dress code—just a little. Mickey Mantle returned several times after that—in a suit. And on the evening of Mickey's funeral, Johnny displayed one of those pre-fab photos of him.

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