February 17, 2012 - Chicago
I was finishing my prep for tonight's Celtics game in Chicago when the news came. A few miles from where Gary Carter hit his 300th home run in the summer of 1988, an quest which had become such a Tim Wakefield-aian struggle at the end, David Letterman did a whole bit on it later than night. The outpouring of obituary affection was overwhelming and at some level comforting. Almost as much as the knowledge that his pain was finally over. Such a bittersweet moment to think that more than once in 1985, Gary Carter and Whitney Houston were the two best parts of my teenage day.
I wrote this last month, when things seemed most grave. It was an ode, and a paying of due respect. But really, it was therapy for me and maybe at some level, that ridiculous, youth-inspired backwards sports-thought that you could jinx something from happening, merely by saying it out loud.
It didn't work.
But the Empire State Building, which I could see out of my window every day growing up, bright with Mets blue and orange on Friday night was the best tribute of all.
He had a way of brightening up everything.
January 20, 2012
This should have been a fun Thursday night. The Lakers and Heat are on. We had Penguins-Rangers, no Rob Lowe tweets and the unintentional comedy of both Fausto Carmona, and pretty much every Republican candidate pretending to be someone else.
But I can’t shake the story that’s gotten lost in the always-frenetic news cycle.
Gary Carter is dying.
I can’t believe I have to type that.
Nor do I know why life-is-unfair moments continue to catch me off guard. But this one truly has.
We’ve spent the last couple of months, celebrating, canonizing, debating, appreciating, bashing, and then appreciating all the bashing of a player who plays the game with an indomitable joy and a faith he feels compelled to share. But as fascinating and must-see TV as the year of the Tebow has been. I enjoyed it more the first time I saw it three decades ago. It was called Gary Carter.
He was the National League’s all-star catcher, after Johnny Bench and before Mike Piazza. He was the centerpiece of the two of the decade’s great teams. The early 80’s Expos and the mid/late 80’s Mets.
But he was different. It’s one thing for a rookie to get the nickname “Kid”. It’s another when a burly catcher in mid 30’s not only keeps it, but earns it every day.
Our collective national snark wasn’t as honed in the 80’s. I mean, my God, just look at the hair. How cynical could we possibly have been?
Bobby Bonilla famously told the New York media when he arrived twenty years ago that they couldn’t knock the smile off his face. That had a Kim Kardashian marriage kind of chance. And lasted about as long.
Carter seemed immune to it. He seemed to have a Kenneth-the-30 Rock-page, aw-shucks immunity to it. He chased foul balls he couldn’t possible reach, he dove into the stands and every Shea Stadium curtain call looked like Kevin Garnett winning a championship. And he never shied away from thanking the Lord on the post-game show, no matter how cringe-worthy.
With our conflict-seeking trained eyes now, we can probably see Keith Hernandez and the more too cool for school element of the dugout rolling their eyes at Carter. The same way Red Sox teammates would snipe off the record about Curt Schilling years later.
I remember a DL stint for Carter late in the ’86 season in which Tim McCarver and Steve Zabriskie had him up in the TV booth. He was so bottled up from not being able to play, I don’t think he stopped talking for like six full innings. It was Walton-esque.
We all work with someone like that. They’re just a little too enthusiastic, a little too rah-rah. Not one of the cool kids, and kind of an easy target. But you miss them when they’re gone, because they made you work harder, or play harder, or just enjoy more being part of a team.
Gary Carter was that guy.
He used to scream at his teammates, “You’re the man!”
When really, he was.
In the old days, when there was only one ESPN, one Game of the Week, and you did your fantasy league stats every Tuesday when USA Today printed the stats, baseball’s winter meetings were in mid-December, the week of my birthday. So every year, as a Met fan, I’d get someone new for my birthday. At least that’s how I looked at with the limitless myopia of youth.
By 1984, Frank Cashen the Mets GM had been stockpiling assets for years, meticulously building the farm system to make the one big deal. That December, he had enough to go shopping at the big boy store. And the Expos, foreshadowing and pre-dating the departure of Andre Dawson, Pedro Martinez and Vladimir Guerrero, were ready to deal their franchise catcher.
We loved Hubie Brooks, loved him, but I would have driven him to the airport myself. Were I old enough to have a car…or a license. Keith Hernandez had changed the culture in the Mets clubhouse, but Carter legitimized it. The result, was baseball nirvana. Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, Lenny Dykstra, Wally Backman, Jesse Orosco and Roger McDowell, as motley and wild a crew as has ever been assembled, now had a heart.
I get it, everyone hated the Mets. The way they hated the Yankees of the late 70’s, the Celtics of the late 2000’s, the Broad Street Bully Flyers, the cast of Jersey Shore.
Jeff Pearlman famously wrote the story of the mid 80’s Mets, it was called “The Bad Guys Won.” There should have been asterisk for the catcher.
He was a leader from the first day. The walk-off home run in his first game as a Met against Neil Allen and the Cardinals. I was there that day, finding out first-hand what happens when both an all-star catcher anchors your lineup, and you sit at Shea Stadium for three hours in mid20’s April wind-chill. The results of both are devastating. He had, by the way, ruined Opening Day the year before, hitting a grand slam in a 10-0 Expos rout. Now he was my birthday present. He was on my side.
The stats, the hall of fame career? They’re all on Baseball Reference.
The 1-2-3 double plays, the purely genuine fist-pumps, riding those bad wheels into second on a double. I watched every minute of the Mets’ six hour game in Atlanta on July 4, 1985. I watched it. Gary Carter caught it…all 19 innings.
When Mookie Wilson nearly lost his eye in spring training in 1987, when a rundown throw shattered his sunglasses, Carter was the first one to rush to his side. “Aw geez, did it break the glass? It did.” He was devastated because his teammate, had gotten hurt.
These are the things I remember.
Before we had Wikipedia, and YouTube and every conceivable sports moment cataloged at our fingertips, we relied on our own childhood memories, and by not having to go to either to write these words, I realized today how much Gary Carter is a part of mine. And how much I appreciate it.
We seem to have great skill and grace when it comes to the posthumous homage.
But I’m writing this tonight on the hopes he’ll see it. On the hopes that rather than write an obituary, he could know how much one fan loved to watch him play, and will always remember not just 1986, and a World Series win one teenager who grew up watching Mets teams lose 95 games a year never even dared to dream, but the everyday love of the game that came through the television decades before HD.
But mostly on the hopes he can beat out one more base hit it doesn't seem like he can.
From me as a kid, to the actual Kid.