Today in Sports History: March 1st

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(Mickey Mantle holding a bat. Photo courtesy of Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

3/01/1969 - Mantle hangs it up

After 18 years with the New York Yankees, Mickey Mantle announces his retirement from baseball. Mantle was one of the greatest sluggers the game had ever seen and in 1961, he rivaled teammate Roger Maris in an attempt to break Babe Ruth's single-season home run record. But he had played much of his career in excruciating pain and was coming off a year where he batted a career-low .237. At 37 years old, Mantle was not hesitant to call it quits.

"I can't play anymore," Mantle said plainly and unemotionally. "I can't hit the ball when I need to. I can't steal second when I need to. I can't go from first to third when I need to. I can't score from second when I need to. I have to quit." "I feel bad I didn't hit .300," he added, noting that his final years had brought his career average down to .298. "But there's no way I could get it back over .300 again. There's no use trying."

Mantle retired with 536 home runs, the third most all time behind Babe Ruth and Willie Mays. He also tallied three MVP awards and won the AL triple crown in 1956. His retirement ended fifty years of a great Yankee succession that began with the Babe (who wore No. 3). Lou Gehrig (No. 4) then came along just as Ruth was wrapping up his career, then Joe DiMaggio (No. 5) emerged, and finally Mantle. Mickey originally wore No. 6 to keep the streak going, but he was sent to the minors early in his career and returned wearing the No. 7. His number was retired by the Yankees that summer, joining Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Bob Feller, and Ted Williams as the only players to have their numbers retired.

Mantle's private life took several twists and turns from there. He made a large amount of money as a presenter at sports memorabilia shows, was expelled from baseball for working at a casino, and was later reinstated by commissioner Peter Ueberroth. In 1994, Mantle admitted to Sports Illustrated that he was an alcoholic and stated that he wasn't happy with his life anymore. His alcoholism, partly brought on by the pressure he faced in living up to his Yankee predecessors, was front page news. He later checked into the Betty Ford Clinic in an attempt to rehabilitate himself, but nothing he did could repair the forty years of drinking he had done; in 1995, he died of liver cancer at the age of 63.

In one of the final public appearances in his life, Mantle pleaded with his admirers to live their lives differently from him. "You talk about a role model? This is a role model: Don't be like me... God gave me the ability to play baseball and I wasted it. I was given so much, and I blew it."

3/01/2000 - "Bird is not walking through that door"

Rick Pitino had a fantastic run as a college basketball coach, but it never quite worked out for him in the NBA. At first he did okay; when he took over as the New York Knicks coach in 1987, he stayed there for two years and led the Knicks to their first division title in two decades. But the University of Kentucky offered him a job, and Pitino -- whose first love was college basketball -- couldn't pass it up.

At Kentucky, Pitino reaffirmed his status as one of the best coaches in the nation. He led them to three Final Four appearances and an NCAA championship in 1996. Once again though, the lure of a higher-paying, glorifying job was offered to him, and Pitino left Kentucky to coach the Boston Celtics. It seemed like a good fit, since his first coaching was at Boston University.

Had the Celtics won the NBA lottery in 1997, and had they been able to draft Tim Duncan, maybe things would have gone differently. Instead, Pitino did terribly; in his four years coaching the team, the best the team could muster was a 36-win season in 1996. Pitino was frequently on-edge, and it became obvious that the stress of not living up to the expectations in Boston -- who had won more titles in history than everyone -- was frustrating him to no end.

Finally, after a home loss to the Toronto Raptors on March 1, 2000, Pitino vented with one of the more memorable memes in NBA history: "Larry Bird is not walking through that door, fans. Kevin McHale is not walking through that door, and Robert Parish is not walking through that door. And if you expect them to walk through that door, they're going to be gray and old. What we are is young, exciting, hard-working, and we're going to improve. People don't realize that, and as soon as they realize those three guys are not coming through that door, the better this town will be for all of us because there are young guys in that (locker) room playing their asses off. I wish we had $90 million under the salary cap. I wish we could buy the world. We can't; the only thing we can do is work hard, and all the negativity that's in this town sucks. I've been around when Jim Rice was booed. I've been around when Yastrzemski was booed. And it stinks. It makes the greatest town, greatest city in the world, lousy. The only thing that will turn this around is being upbeat and positive like we are in that locker room... and if you think I'm going to succumb to negativity, you're wrong. You've got the wrong guy leading this team."

The line "Larry Bird is not walking through that door" would live on long after Pitino resigned in 2001. Like Lee Elia, the Cubs coach who went on a postgame rant in the 1980's, Pitino's words signified the losing the culture that had embraced the team -- and for a team like the Celtics, who had been so great for so long, it was a memorable statement indeed. For eight years, that line was the de facto mantra of the Boston Celtics, as they tried desperately to reclaim their glory years. Eventually they were able to do it, though only after they traded for Kevin Garnett in 2007.

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