Friday, February 17, 2012

My Goodbye to Gary Carter

Long before I lived and breathed the acronym soup that is WAR, VORP, BABIP, OBP and SLG, all I knew about baseball came from the back of my baseball cards and the front of my Strat-O-Matic cards.

I grew up as a Mets fan, so I remember the morning after I found out the Mets had acquired Gary Carter well. I was loudly chanting GARY CARTER! in the halls of my high school, telling anyone who would listen that I'd proudly be wearing my Mets jersey the following year after every win. But in those dark ages before satellite TV, I had barely seen Carter play. He was less of a player to me and more a ledger of impressive statistics.

This would change quickly. Carter smacked a game winning, extra-inning home run in his first game as a Met and had one of the best seasons of his career in 1985. But with Gary it's neither the numbers nor any specific big hits I remember. What sticks with me about Gary is how he played the game and - by extension - what that said about who he was.

The English language is a beautiful thing but sometimes - many times, actually - beautiful words are applied to people who don't deserve them. But this wasn't the case with Gary. He was an ebullient, effervescent player. Even on those great Mets teams of the mid to late 1980s, Carter stood out. He had an energy and a presence that grabbed you and made you a fan of the game...or even more of a fan of the game than you already were. His statistics were great, but it was Carter's personality that made him a superstar: he demanded your attention every time he was on the diamond. He wasn't always the best player on the field (though he usually was), but when he stepped to the plate with that wide open, almost ridiculous stance of his, I was riveted.

With some players I still can see certain pitches or at bats in my mind's eye. But with Gary there wasn't any single moment that stands out for me. I will remember how that wonderful face of his always looked so earnest yet so happy all at once. I will remember the energy and joy that Gary's body language conveyed after a big hit or after the Mets won a dramatic game. That body language and those facial expressions conveyed this: he knew he was one of the lucky ones because he was getting paid big money to play a game it was so obvious he loved so much.

And I don't think any of Carter's opponents thought that he was rubbing it in their faces when he pumped his fist after a home run or lit up the world with that million-dollar smile of his after a big hit. They knew as much as I did that the last thing Gary Carter was was a show off. He was the genuine article.

If there is a Carter at bat I remember, it would be Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, with the Mets down to their final out and no one on base. I'd be lying if I said that I knew Gary Carter was going to get a hit off of Calvin Schraldi that night. What I do remember is the look of sheer determination on Carter's face during that entire at bat. He might get a hit or he might not, but he wasn't going to go down without a fight. When he hit that ball into left field, it seemed to me like Carter had willed the baseball to fall into the grass so the Mets could keep that inning going.

I write about fantasy baseball and not the real version and I do it for fun, not for a living. So like most adults who have kids, careers, and responsibilities, for the most part I lost track of Gary Carter after he retired in 1992. Life moves on. So when I found out a couple of months ago that Carter's condition had deteriorated, I took it pretty hard, and I didn't even quite know why. I'm a generation removed from calling baseball players heroes, half a lifetime's distance from saying I idolize grown men who wear jerseys, swing bats and don gloves for a living. Why was I so upset?

When I found out the terrible news that Carter's condition had taken such a terrible turn, I posted a link to an article about Carter on my Facebook page. Very quickly, the comments section underneath had many stories about people who had met Carter or seen him play that reminded me why this was hitting me so damn hard. Everyone who met Carter or knew someone who had met him had a similar story to tell. To put it simply, Gary Carter almost always went out of his way. He made the autograph seeker or the fan who just wanted to shake Carter's hand and thank him for 1986 feel like the celebrity. I never had the pleasure of meeting Gary Carter, but the litany of stories about him over the years back this up. He was a great baseball player second and a great human being first.

I knew this was coming but it hit me hard anyway when I opened up Twitter late this afternoon and saw that Carter had a passed. I can't remember that last time I was this choked up about losing someone I didn't know, but it didn't take me long to figure out why. Cancer Sucks has become a motto, a rallying cry, a way of coping with something with which we are all incapable of coping. In this case, the sucks part of Cancer Sucks was palpable, a reality, a presence. Losing Carter, I felt the loss of one of the happy pieces of my adolescence far sooner than I expected, far sooner than the world had any damn right to take it away from me and the rest of us who loved watching that man play the game and making us love it all the more for the way he played it.

Goodbye Gary. The kid I was offers many thanks for the player you were and for the joy you brought me because of the joy you were clearly having playing this game of baseball I love so much. The man I am offers thanks for the man you were, for being the wonderful human being that everyone who knew you says that you were and that I have no doubt that you were. Thanks for touching so many. You were one of the greats, on and off the field. I miss you already, Kid, and I always will.


Scott said...

That was excellent, Mike, thanks for that.

My favorite Carter memory was the two-homer night he had in the 1981 All-Star Game, the game that came after the lengthy strike. I was 12 at the time, baseball-crazy, and the ASG was a big thing to me then. The strike wrecked my summer and in a way it was a key part of my growing up, realizing some of the facts of life with respect to pro sports and the business of them.

I don't remember the game itself that well; I recall it was in Cleveland's old stadium, I remember one of Carter's homers literally scraping the wall. But the indelible image is Carter's grin going around the bases, his curly hair flopping around, and the Sports Illustrated cover the next week: A Big Hand for Baseball. I was rooting for the American League that night, as a New England kid, but seeing Montreal's Kid gleam his way around the bases, I knew the rest of my summer was going to be alright. Growing up could wait.

Thanks for the memories, Gary. May we all find half as much joy in our days as you did.

Toz said...

Mike - really tremendous piece. Sometimes, it is nice to put the numbers away and simply enjoy someone and his game.

I despised Gary Carter as a Phillies fan. He absolutely WRECKED the Phillies on a regular basis. My "hatred" of Gary Carter was exceeded only by my respect for the man and the player.

Thank you, Gary Carter, for contributing to my love of baseball.