A recent column by New York Times Sports Columnist George Vecsey (Home runs and demons for Hamilton and Mantle) examines the lives of Mickey Mantle and the Texas Rangers Josh Hamilton. The article looks at how each of their lives and careers were marked by addiction (Mantle’s with alcohol, Hamilton’s with cocaine) and contrasts the attitudes of the times in which they lived and played.
Certainly, much has changed with respect to addiction in both attitudes and science. Yet some telling slips of language reveal that while much has changed in the nearly half century that separates their careers, much has not: Vecsey writes of Hamilton’s “raging weaknesses” that nearly took him “all the way down.” He adds that Hamilton was given “the ammunition to stave off the desires.” Later in the article, Vecsey writes of the bad company Mantle kept, namely teammate Billy Martin, but he then adds, “Mantle knew he had himself to blame.”
In calling Hamilton’s cocaine problem a weakness and a desire and in saying Mantle was to blame, Vecsey reinforces the idea that addiction is a matter of choice and that one’s will can overcome it. Anyone who has been addicted or has had a family member in the grips of alcohol knows too well that a person cannot will himself/herself out of addiction.
With the help of faith, Hamilton appears now to be in stable recovery. A combination of faith and friendship helped Mantle ultimately become sober. But Vecsey notes that Mantle carried “shame and sadness” to the end of his life in the public eye. Mantle may have felt shame until his final days, but by emphasizing that rather than the possibility that he may have gained some measure of peace in his sobriety, the column suggests humiliation is an inescapeable albatross for people in active addiction and in recovery.
Vecsey’s article is meant as a sympathetic portrayal of the similarities as well as the differences in the lives of two outstanding players, two men whose athletic prowess offered no immunity to addiction. In fact, their stature and celebrity clearly played a part in making them feel invincible, which in turn began their problems with alcohol and drugs. Before long, they were in the hold of something they were not going to break free of on their own. Personal weakness was not at the root of their problems, nor was individual strength or determination the source of their recovery.