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When a ballplayer stuck with one town

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
A fan wears a Mickey Mantle jersey outside the new Yankee Stadium before the first pitch on opening day April 16, 2009.
A fan wears a Mickey Mantle jersey outside the new Yankee Stadium before the first pitch on opening day April 16, 2009.
  • Bob Greene: Mickey Mantle tied to New York; Cardinal Stan Musial beloved in St. Louis
  • Greene: General rule used to be a team could trade or cut a player, but a player had no choice
  • Players today have the freedom to go elsewhere for a better contract
  • Greene: But benefit of staying in one city, becoming part of its lore and its hero, is lost

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose books include "Late Edition: A Love Story" and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen."

(CNN) -- Walking along the New York street known as Central Park South the other afternoon, I passed a restaurant that seems to have been busy every time I have visited the city for decades.

Mickey Mantle's, the place is called.

Mantle came to the plate in Yankee Stadium for the last time in 1968. He has been dead since 1995. Yet the restaurant that bears his name continues to thrive.

I asked the general manager of the establishment, Bart Alexander, if he thought Mickey Mantle's would still be in business had Mantle played for a team other than the Yankees in the final years of his career.

"I really don't think so," Alexander said. "It's such a rarity anymore, for a great professional athlete to stay with one team in one town for his entire career. Fans today are used to the players being nomads. I think our restaurant is still here because Mickey never played a game for anyone but New York, and people will always associate his name with the city."

It's a complicated subject. Mantle played his first game for the Yankees in 1951, and when he retired before the 1969 baseball season it was just prior to the historic change as Curt Flood of the St. Louis Cardinals challenged his trade to the Philadelphia Phillies.

Before Flood made his stand, the general rule in professional sports was that a team could trade or cut a player, but a player had no choice about where he was employed. It was deeply unfair to the athletes, and in the years since Flood stood up to the owners, players in every sport have benefited from free agency: being able to consider offers from whatever teams wanted to hire them.

A genuine value...can accrue to a player who establishes a bond with the fans of one city.
--Bob Greene

Yet there seems to be a genuine value that can accrue to a player who establishes a bond with the fans of one city, and who elects to remain there for every game of his career. The subject is in the news right now because of the tense and at times contentious contractual dance that has gone on between the Yankees and their captain, shortstop Derek Jeter. Jeter has played all 15 of his major-league seasons in the Bronx; after protracted negotiations, it was reported over the weekend that he and the Yankees have agreed to terms for a new deal.

It has become so unusual for a marquee-level player to remain with one team from the first day to the last that there is a case to be made -- and the Jeter situation would seem to validate it -- that departing, regardless of any perceived short-term gain, can cost a great player in ways that never show up in contract language.

Consider, if you will, Stan Musial, who just turned 90 years old. From 1941 until he retired from baseball in 1963, Musial played for only one team: the St. Louis Cardinals. He continues to make his home in St. Louis; largely because of a campaign enthusiastically waged by his fellow citizens of that town, he will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House early next year. He never left, and he is loved.

During the baseball strike of 1994, the Cardinals held a Fan Appreciation Day in Busch Stadium, even though there were no games being played. None of that year's Cardinals showed up; some of them had left town for the duration of the labor dispute, and the ones who lived in St. Louis chose not to attend. Almost 50,000 fans came to the park near the Mississippi River, though, on a day when they knew not a single inning would be played.

Stan Musial came, too.

He posed for photos with the fans, he chatted with them, he pulled out a harmonica and played some tunes for them. No one had to pay him a penny. He was, and is, the greatest Cardinal, and he and that city are inseparable.

I asked him then why he had come to the ballpark that day.

"The only big-league uniform I ever wore was a Cardinals uniform," Musial said. "I don't know if that will ever happen again -- players staying with the same team for so long. But when it happens, you feel something for your town."

Of the St. Louis fans who surrounded him that day, Musial told me: "It's been a long time since I've played, but they still seem to remember."

At 90, of course, Musial is closer to the end of his life than the beginning. The other evening I spoke with broadcaster Bob Costas, who maintains homes both in New York and St. Louis, about what that signifies.

"Stan Musial is totally, totally beloved," Costas said. "When his time comes, in St. Louis it will be as if a head of state has passed on. It's not just that people saw him play for all those years. They remember bumping into him at stores, seeing him at the next table at a restaurant. They sat in the stands at soccer games with him as he and they watched their grandkids play.

"It's an intangible thing, the connection between a city and a player who spends his life there. It doesn't happen much. With so much turmoil in sports, I think a city finds it comforting and reassuring when a player stays, and appreciates that player in ways that only grow stronger over the years."

Today, players know that they may do much better financially by leaving, and have been conditioned to regard themselves as brands that are potentially stronger than any jersey they wear. The prime example of this may be basketball's Shaquille O'Neal, who in his professional career has played for six different teams so far: the Orlando Magic, the Los Angeles Lakers, the Miami Heat, the Phoenix Suns, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Boston Celtics.

Lou Gehrig, who, in another era played for only one team, was known as the Pride of the Yankees. Pride of the Yankees/Pirates/Tigers would not have had quite the same ring to it.

Meanwhile, at Mickey Mantle's on Central Park South, Bart Alexander said that the restaurant has just signed a new 10-year lease. Which means that, a full half-century after Mantle's final game in Yankee Stadium, the place will still be open for business.

"He never wore another uniform," Alexander said. "That means something."

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.