Last-Inning Epiphanies

Once in a great while advertising and life can converge to create something semi-profound, if you’re paying attention. It happened to me a few years ago when two deaths occurred within hours of each other. Each would send me in new directions.

One was the death of my all-time hero, Mickey Mantle, the other a misguided new business pitch that was dead on arrival.

In August 1995, we found ourselves in the finals for EDS, Ross Perot’s Dallas-based megacorporation; DMB&B had made its way in.

As global new business guy I already have my hands full closing on substantial deals with both Mobil and Miller to pay the agency just to take a look at their business—all of which have me by the balls—which means my heart and mind, too. So I hand over responsibilities for this EDS pitch to a well-meaning, but eventually clueless, account guy. We close these other deals, by the way, and I figure I have my priorities right.

Trouble is, agency chairman Roy Bostock’s got his testosterone sky high for this one, and he’s actually coming down to Dallas with us to pile on for this monster $3 million account pitch, set for Aug. 16.

Meanwhile, Mickey Mantle, Yankee legend and my all-time, lifelong hero, dies, following liver transplant surgery and after they discover inoperable cancer. The funeral’s scheduled for Aug. 15. Of course, I was moved, but not moved to action until my wife says, “Go. You’re supposed to be in Dallas the very next day anyway. Go to Mickey Mantle’s funeral.”

So I do. And the Mick’s funeral was to represent nothing less than the end of my childhood. Meanwhile, the EDS pitch was to represent the proverbial end of my 18 cumulative years with D’Arcy.

Once I seized on the potential for it all, it didn’t take much to arrange for an earlier flight down to Dallas. I arrive four hours before the doors are to open into the Lover’s Lane Methodist Church, and get in line. And there I stand in a familiar 100-degree Texas sun. While I wait, the crowd grows by tenfold and the news media collects all around us.

Finally the church doors open and I simply walk into the sanctuary and down into the main congregation—while the rest of the outside crowd works their way into the back and up into the balcony like they were told to do.

I find myself surrounded by living legends—Ralph Terry, Stan Musial, Hank Bauer, Moose Skowron, Bobby Murcer, Reggie Jackson, Jerry Coleman, Joe Pepitone, Billy Crystal, Roy Clark, George Steinbrenner—and many more who you knew were from baseball and from another era by the wrinkles in their sun-baked faces and by their countrified demeanor. Gentle men, come to bury a hero.

And the forces gather around me that would bring closure to my childhood. Mickey Mantle, from Oklahoma, not too far north of my childhood home in San Antonio, was my connection and my anchor to a world far outside and much safer than the volatile household I grew up in. He was the biggest star on the best team, they were on television what seemed like every weekend, on NBC’s Game of the Week, and so I attached myself to the New York Yankees.

Mantle and the Yankees had the power to pull me away from my youthful angst and into the perfect world of baseball, back when it was a game, where you could get on base and come all the way around back home, safe. I still have four Mantle baseball cards, one ’56 and three ’57s, plastered into my scrapbook from those days. Priceless. And worthless.

And now here I am, immersed in the eulogizing of his life and the celebration of his accomplishments—which include his heroic effort at the very end, courageously facing his alcoholism and getting sober long enough to become a genuine hero. Unlike my father, who drank himself to death after my mother died, without ever confronting his own alcoholic demons, Mantle closed on a positive note; he seemed to find some peace, finally, with himself and with those around him.

Bob Costas described the end of Mantle’s life this way in his moving eulogy: “… What he did was stunning. The sheer grace of that ninth inning; the humility, the sense of humor, the total absence of self-pity. The simple eloquence and honesty of his pleas to others to take heed of his mistakes.”

I had expected the funeral to be emotional; it was part of the pull that drew me to Dallas a day early. But I didn’t know why until the casket was rolled up the aisle, just like the caskets from my childhood.

When Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra led the pallbearers up the aisle right past me, Ford and I locked our reddened eyes from not an arms length apart and shared this indelible moment as no more than two people who held Mickey Mantle as someone tremendously meaningful in our lives. And no less, either. I wept openly and unashamedly from many years back and for this moment.

The EDS pitch hung in my hotel room that night like a date with the dentist. We gather the next morning in the hotel restaurant to see what we had to present—and for the first time, I see what we’ve got. Or, don’t got. I’m stunned, but shouldn’t have been. Bostock’s pissed. And there’s no way out of it. We shuffle ourselves out to EDS where Roy Boy provides some kind of a half-hearted opening and we go through the motions of trying to surround a multinational company with a ready-to-rock attitude for all of a $3 million ad budget.

Minutes before I’m up, following Bostock, I notice the Dallas morning newspaper at the end of the conference table. Mantle’s funeral’s on the front page, and I’ll be damned, there it is: a photograph of that very moment less than 24 hours earlier, taken from the church balcony by a Dallas Morning News photographer. And there I am, right on the end of row 12, with the back of my balding head looking exactly like my father’s, and there’s Ford, Hall of Fame baseball pitcher and Mantle’s teammate and soul mate, passing right next to me, taking the end of my youth with them up the aisle and out into the same bleached-bright Texas sunlight that once shined down on my childhood so many years earlier.

When I look up, Roy’s walking back to his chair. I’m on. And on I go, somehow less concerned now about the forced fit before us and more in sync with the life in front of me.

Of course, we tank, and Bostock nurtures a palpable grudge long enough until I finally get myself out of D’Arcy and on to much better everything. Except stock options.

And for that very moment back in Dallas, I figure I’ve got my priorities straight.