CARSON, Calif. — Bruce Arena grew up in New York as a rabid Yankees fan, and, natural for boys of his generation and locale, thought the world of Mickey Mantle. His favorite Yank? Used to be.
“Hard for me not to say Mickey Mantle,” he said Tuesday, as his post-practice media scrum swerved toward America's Pastime. “But I think [Derek] Jeter's moved ahead of him. I really think so.”
The Yankees visit the Dodgers in Los Angeles next week, and Arena will be at Dodger Stadium on Tuesday night with one specific desire.
“I have Derek Jeter's Sports Illustrated cover from his rookie year, autographed by Derek Jeter. It's faded. Came from his mother,” explained Arena, who hopes to visit the Yankees' clubhouse. “I'd like to get it re-signed. It's the only autograph I have of everything I've done, meeting presidents, prime ministers, athletes. It's the only autograph.
“Well, actually, I have the Seinfeld cast as well as [Seinfeld co-creator] Larry David. Those are the other two. But that is the only athlete I have.”
Arena was pleased Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, who is retiring after this season, was the MVP of last week's MLB All-Star Game.
“Why not?” he said. “It's a ceremonial game, and who's a better choice to celebrate than that guy. And the next guy who should get that is Jeter. It should be the exact same thing. There aren't two classier athletes in the history of sports than those two.”
The late Mantle, an extraordinary five-tool player whose career was hindered by knee ailments and a fondness for the bottle, remains an icon in Arena's eyes.
“Mantle would have been the best player of all time [if not for his issues],” Arena said. “Mantle tore his ACL his rookie year 'cause he ran into this drain cover in right-center 'cause he had too much respect for [Joe] DiMaggio and he waited till the last second to take the ball 'cause he was conceding it to DiMaggio, then he took it at the last second and blew his knee out. He played his whole career [with a bum knee]. In those days they put you in a cast. Unbelievable. I never saw a guy run down [the] first base [line] like Mantle. It was ridiculous.
“And the guy's arm! Mantle could do everything. Everything. He could bunt, his defense, he could throw, run, hit for power ... The argument always in New York was who was the best center fielder, Mantle, [the Giants' Willie] Mays or [the Dodgers'] Duke Snider. I think Mantle would have been. I think in the end maybe you concede to Mays. Mantle could have been the best player of all time. Ridiculous. Switch-hitter, so you have to give him [the edge].”