Just a Kid: Gary Carter (1954 – 2012)

I’ve been spending a lot of time of late thinking about my childhood. Not quite sure why. Maybe because I’ve finally realized I’m not 25 anymore after trying to celebrate that birthday for a straight decade with mixed results. Maybe because after leaving Montreal, a city I love, but a city hard to grow out of, I’m considering growing up.  Maybe because I’ve been spending a lot of time with my sister’s kids, ages 3 and 5, and I’ve been blessed with quiet fragments of flashbacks, brought on by eating hot dogs with regularity, watching Mary Poppins without the cynical tones of hipster irony, and marveling in their fascination and affection for wonder. But as you get older, you find that nothing takes you back to childhood with such humility and pause as when a hero of that time is suddenly gone. Gary Carter, major league catcher, World Series champion, Hall of Famer, hero to many, the Kid, died yesterday of brain cancer at the age of 57. He will be missed.

I despise the word hero. Like love or soul, its overuse has robbed it of its meaning, and nowhere is this more prevalent than in sport. Our cultural landscape is bereft of true heroes, instead dotted in false idols born of contrivance and vanity. But when I was a kid, I had Gary Carter to look up to. By the time I fell in love with baseball, and in turn the Montreal Expos, Gary Carter had already been traded to the rival New York Mets. But through the genius of baseball cards and back issues of Sports Illustrated I was able to discover the magic that was The Kid. He was well known for his effervescent smile, which he wore in every photo I found. Through the gift of imagination and statistics, I knew that Carter was special, and that as a former Montreal Expo he was one of ours, he belonged to me.

Gary Carter was a throwback. He wore a flapless batting helmet. His uniform was dirty before the national anthems had sung their last note. He chewed bubble gum. He ran hard on every ground ball, legged out every extra base hit, tracked every foul pop until it found his glove or the stands, a style that early in his career earned him the nickname Kid sarcastically, but which as a 10-year-old fan you mercifully don’t understand. He played every inning just like we did on the weekends on gravel diamonds, in backyards as the summer light gave way to the first pitch, and in our hopeful imaginations as Dave Van Horne’s radio call gave way to sleep. Gary Carter played every inning just like we dreamt we would, if only given the chance, if only blessed with his talent.

Before twenty-four hour coverage of sport, before online forums for rumour and conjecture, before PEDs and ball players before congress, there were baseball cards. They told us the story of a player, and what wasn’t there in statistics and random factoids we filled in with our imaginations. And you could tell that Gary Carter loved baseball, the way the adult me would discover he loved his wife, and his three kids, and God. I remember the 1986 World Series not for the now infamous Bill Buckner error, but rather for a scrappy catcher with a huge smile who refused to let his team lose. It was Carter’s single that started the rally that would eventually score Ray Knight on Buckner’s legendary gaffe. And my lasting image of the ’86 series has always been, and will always be, Carter, like the perennial 10-year-old he was, charging out to the mound and jumping into Jesse Orosco’s arms, just like we did when we dreamt a championship moment playing in neighbourhood parks, on backyard diamonds, and in our imaginations.

It’s strange to look back at that ’86 team as an adult, with the curse of knowledge and cynicism of age. That team was filled with rough characters, miscreants and addicts, bastards. Lenny Dykstra used steroids and stole from friends and family. Darryl Strawberry and Doc Gooden struggled with cocaine and ego. I know now that Carter was the antithesis to rest of the clubhouse, a clean living religious man who famously told reporters he would bring his wife on road trips if he could, while the rest of the roster treated those trips like bachelor parties in Vegas, reveling in both their fame and wealth. And in that manner, Carter kept the nickname Kid, and as an adult armed with this knowledge, it’s interesting to look back and consider that despite their differences, despite the opposite manners in which they approached the game, approached life, they all loved Kid. Because above everything, he played hard, he played to win, and he was a better, more complete, more competitive player than all of them. And he led them to a world championship, and in sport victory is the great equalizer.

The 1986 Mets may have been one of the best teams ever, but what Carter’s teammates lacked, and what defined Carter, would eventually lead to their downfall. On a team that won 108 games, that won the World Series, that boasted Gooden, and Dykstra, and Strawberry, and Howard Johnson, Carter would be the only one who would eventually make it to the Hall of Fame. And when he did, he entered the Hall in a Montreal Expos cap, the first player to do so. As a lifelong Expos fan, as someone who took a long time to return to baseball after Nos Amours were moved to Washington, this was a moment, a redemption. Many Canadian baseball fans’ defining moment is when Joe Carter hit a homerun to win the 1993 World Series. For some, it’s Blue Monday, the 1981 NLCS when the Dodgers’ Rick Monday hit a two-out ninth inning homerun off the Expos’ Steve Rogers in what would prove to be the difference in the game. But for many of us, for me, that defining moment came in a nothing game in a year the Blue Jays would bring Canada it’s first World Series title.

In 1992 Gary Carter returned to Montreal for what would be his final MLB season. It was a mostly unspectacular year, a quiet swansong for the Kid, but in what ended up being his final at-bat, Carter laced a double over former Expo Andre Dawson to score Canadian Larry Walker in what proved to be the winning run. The crowd of over 40 000, knowing that this was it, that Carter would never play baseball again, rose to their feet and said goodbye to a player who they could only wish had stayed in their town a little longer, could only dream of what might have been. Kid was replaced for pinch runner Tim Laker, and the Olympic Stadium crowd, his teammates, the city of Montreal, would not let the moment end, and Carter stepped from the dugout for a curtain call, a storybook ending to a beautiful career, a moment that could not be dreamt, nor written, nor contrived. A moment of pure, unadulterated love for a kid who just wanted to play a game, and ended up dominating it on its biggest stage.

As a kid, I loved baseball. I loved oiling my glove and wrapping a ball in it, securing it with elastic bands with the help of my dad before I went to bed. I loved diving for balls and coming up bruised and grass stained. I loved that odd occasion that I made contact and could leg out a single. But, I realized very early on that I would never be a great ball player. Or even a good one. The great myth of professional sport is that character can get you far. It can’t. I wasn’t fast enough. I couldn’t hit a curveball. A decent fastball found the catcher’s glove before I realized it had been thrown. But I loved the game. I loved putting on the uniform. Loved having a number on my back. I loved it’s traditions and history, its narrative. My parents bought me a copy of Bill James’ Abstract before I knew what it was, before sabremetrics became part of baseball’s lexicon. I just loved looking through the numbers, studying them, memorizing them, and wondering how I could fit into this magical world. Turns out my entry was Gary Carter, because though I would never play an inning above little league, everything I had ever wanted, everything I had ever dreamt of in baseball, Gary Carter would go out and achieve, and as a child I would live vicariously through the innocent wonder of a kid in a grownup’s body.  Somewhere, in a place Gary Carter very much believed in, Kid is lacing up his cleats, getting ready to step onto the fresh cut grass of a field of dreams, smiling, about to play the game he loved.