My grandfather died the summer when I was 12, meaning that during the summers when I was 9 and 10 and 11, we sometimes watched the Yankees on television together.
My grandfather, who'd been a ballplayer, disliked the team's broadcaster, Mel Allen, in part because Allen was inclined to excessively celebrate Mickey Mantle, whom my grandfather also disliked.
Sometimes when Mel Allen would mention the star's name, my grandfather, who was otherwise a reserved and dignified man, would mock him. "Mickey Mantle," he would say with a sneer. "Mickey Mantle."
That mix of mockery and frustration at how good a less-than-admirable player could be was unmistakable. Apparently it was also unforgettable, because I haven't forgotten it. Just as I sometimes see my father or my grandfather when I look in the mirror these days, I heard the tone my grandfather used to employ when he said "Mickey Mantle" as Real Madrid finished knocking Manchester United out of the Champions League competition on Tuesday, courtesy of Cristiano Ronaldo…or rather Cristiano Ronaldo.
He is perhaps as good as Mickey Mantle was. Maybe he is better. He scores goals in bunches, the way Mickey Mantle, hit homeruns. What Mel Allen never mentioned about Mickey Mantle, an extraordinarily good player, was that Mantle was a pathetic case of arrested development. We didn't learn that until Mantle's former teammate, Jim Bouton, wrote about the slugger's witless, adolescent escapades and how he squandered his athletic gifts.
Cristiano Ronaldo has exceptional gifts, too. He also whines about not being happy, though he is among the most lavishly compensated athletes in the world. He sulks. He wrecks his preposterously expensive car and stops by the showroom to buy another one on his way home. He has mounted a larger-than-life portrait of himself, naked and flexing, in his living room. I know this because I read it somewhere. I've never been in Cristiano Ronaldo's living room. There is little danger I ever will be.
If my grandfather could visit me for a day to watch a soccer game involving Real Madrid, perhaps he would say "Cristiano Ronaldo" the way he used to say "Mickey Mantle." I like to think he would. I like to think we'd say it together. It's not father and son at the ballpark, exactly, all warm and fuzzy, but it pleases me to feel this connection with my grandfather, or at least to imagine it. It may be goofy and small-minded as connections go, but it's mine.
This program aired on March 6, 2013.