To the Kid, from a kid: a final goodbye to Gary Carter.
All week, I’ve been reading beautiful tributes by people who covered Gary Carter during his 19-year career and got to know him on a personal level. They lauded his work ethic and his professionalism and his genuine zest for life, and they stand in admiration for how much he appreciated the gifts that allowed him to earn a living by playing a Kid’s game.
I, too, admired Gary Carter. But I did not know him, other than one brief, passing introduction. I did not cover him as a reporter; he retired while I was still in college. By all logic, he was a virtual stranger. Yet, it’s quite possible no one had more of an impact on me while I was deciding who and what I was during my teenage years. And so much of who he was is directly tied to what I’m doing now.
I’d describe myself — back when I was a kid growing up in southwest Ohio — as a perfectly adequate Reds fan. I liked baseball, a lot, and enjoyed the two or three hour-long trips every year my family would take to Cincinnati to watch games at Riverfront Stadium. We’d buy the cheap tickets, my dad would pick up eight $1 hot dogs, we’d sneak down to the good seats and move around as we got booted by the ushers. We would leave at the top of the eighth inning — Dad’s orders — to beat the traffic, and listen to Marty and Joe finish out the game on the radio.
But in those days, baseball was just a fun, family-involved hobby that captured my attention when it was convenient, like when Pete Rose logged hit No. 4,192 and when Paul O’Neill — swoon — made his big league debut. But baseball wasn’t yet an obsession. That came later.
I was at a friend’s house watching the pregame show before Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, and the featured interview was with the catcher of the New York Mets, Gary Carter. He was handsome. He was smart. He had charisma. He smiled, a lot. My 15-year-old heart went pitter-pat, and I was hooked.
I watched Game 6 with rapt attention, mainly because over the course of 30 minutes, in all of my teenage wisdom, I was now a die-hard Mets fan. Because I was now so emotionally attached to this team, I was wholly unsatisfied with how Game 6 was going to end. Carter came to the plate with two outs in the 10th inning, and I could barely stand to watch. It was, clearly, over.
Except it wasn’t. That Mets comeback is, of course, one of the most famous, if not the most famous, in postseason history. When that ball rolled through Bill Buckner’s legs, and all heck broke loose at Shea Stadium, I sat there, in my best friend’s living room in Dayton, Ohio, in absolute disbelief. I was simply stunned at what I had just witnessed.
At that moment, something in me changed. Somewhere, hundreds of miles away, this game, this comeback, this miracle, was actually happening. In my decade and a half of living, I had never watched anything so…well, Amazin’.
I vowed never again to miss another baseball playoff game. For the most part, I stuck to it. The next year, I skipped out early on parties and youth organization activities to plant myself in front of the TV, and in turn, I witnessed a wonderful ’87 World Series between the Twins and Cardinals.
In ’88, at a classmate’s party, I snuck into a separate room and watched Game 1 of the Dodgers-A’s World Series. Late in the evening, a friend said, “Come on. We’re leaving.” Kirk Gibson was, at the same time, limping to the plate. “Can you pleeeeease give me just five more minutes?” I begged. Thankfully, she obliged.
Through all of this, I remained fiercely loyal to one player: Gary Carter. My bedroom became what my parents, brother and I now refer to as the Gary Carter shrine. Posters. Baseball cards. Box scores from the USA Today when he drove in the game-winning run. And on and on.
He wrote books; I’d read them in a single night. If he was on TV, I taped it. My girlfriends thought it was weird; my guy friends thought it was funny. Few understood how I could partially abandon my loyalty to the Reds for whatever team Gary Carter was playing for. I didn’t care. Most teenage girls in the ’80s rebelled by piercing their noses, coloring their hair purple or hanging out with questionable characters of the opposite sex. Me? I just rooted for the Mets.
Carter eventually moved on from New York, and I focused my attention back to the Reds. Except now, I was 100 times more passionate. Baseball was a part of me, in the deepest and most emotional sense. To this day, one of the greatest nights of my life was the night the Reds won the World Series in 1990.
This is where you’d expect me to say that my love for Gary Carter led directly to a career in baseball. That would be inaccurate, and disingenuous. A lot of other things had to happen as well, like going to college and being completely disinterested in math and science and pretty much everything else…except for writing.
I took the leap after grad school and pursued a career in baseball. By chance and luck and all sorts of other great things, I started working for the Astros in 1997. In July of that season, my boss, Rob, brought me along on a St. Louis-Montreal road trip. It was a training trip; Rob was bogged down with the planning and building of the Astros’ new downtown ballpark, and he needed someone to take over his share of road trips with the team.
Montreal happened to be where Gary Carter was working, as a broadcaster. I tried to plot the perfect plan to meet the man, but after going over various scenarios in my head, I decided not to introduce myself, for fear of coming off like a complete goober.
Sunday brunch in the press box at Olympic Stadium was famous in baseball circles as the very best in the game. The Expos had a chef who prepared made-to-order omelettes, and eager to experience this, I stood in line with Rob, waiting for my turn. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw someone making a beeline in our direction. He was walking quickly, with authority. It was Gary Carter.
I froze. What was he doing? (I also wasn’t aware, at the time, that everyone in baseball knew Rob, and everyone in baseball loved Rob.) Carter reached out, grabbed Rob’s shoulder, and gave him a hearty greeting and a handshake. Then he turned to me, extended his hand and bellowed, “Hi! I’m Gary Carter!”
I tried not to laugh at the ironic absurdity of the situation. He was telling me who he was, oblivious to the fact that it was beyond unnecessary. I shook his hand, mumbled my name, tried not to look too stupid and quietly walked back to my spot in the press box. I giggled, thinking, well, that was easy.
On a road trip the next season, we were sitting on the team bus after a game and Alan Ashby, then an Astros broadcaster, asked me what celebrity posters made it onto my wall when I was a teenager. I rattled off Rob Lowe, Andrew McCarthy and a few others, and then said, “Honestly, the only person that had any staying power was Gary Carter.”
I then happily chirped away for a solid two minutes about my admiration for Carter, about how much he had to do with my love for this game. Then I looked over at Ashby and saw a somewhat pained look on his face. “Gary Carter?” he said. “Please tell me you’re kidding.”
Today, I have a deep knowledge and appreciation of Astros history, but at this time, I was still learning. I hadn’t taken into account that so many of the people sitting on that bus — Ashby, Jim Deshaies, Jose Cruz, and probably more — remembered the ’86 Mets for a different, and painful, reason. “Game 6″ had always carried a special meaning for me. In Houston, I learned, there was another Game 6, and even all those years later, the wounds were still open for those who were a part of it.
So from then on, I clammed up about Gary Carter and the Mets. I rarely talked about this part of my past in my new life in Houston. Over time, I became so attached to the Astros and so fascinated by their history that even today, on many levels, I wish they had won that 16-inning NLCS game in ’86.
I saw Gary Carter several times over the next decade, mainly on All-Star Sunday, at the legends/celebrity softball game that he usually played in and I covered for MLB.com. By then, the years in baseball had taken a predictable toll, in that I was no longer affected by encounters with ballplayers — even Gary Carter.
Now, what I felt when I saw him (and snapped a few photos of him, from a distance), was wistfulness. I allowed myself only to harken back to a happy time in my life when the mere sight of him would have sent me into a frenzy.
I never tried to interview him. I simply gazed at him with muted amusement and a touch of sadness, remembering how I admired him, and how grateful I was that he impacted me as dramatically as he did at such an impressionable time in my life.
The news of Gary Carter’s brain cancer diagnosis last May was devastating. The recent news of his death has been overwhelming. It has crushed the baseball world and sparked moving tributes from coast to coast and up into Montreal, where his Hall of Fame career began.
In my own corner, quietly, I mourn. The pain is suffocating.
The one thing I learned in all of the years of following Gary Carter was that his on-field accomplishments paled in comparison to what he was in life. He was a kind, decent person. He was a terrific husband, a doting father and grandfather and a man fiercely devoted to his faith.
Carter’s mother passed away from leukemia when she was 37 and he was 12. Her death, and the way he found out the news — a neighborhood kid rushed up to him on the walk home from school and said, “Hey Gary, your mom died” — haunted him for the rest of his life. When he became a famous baseball player, he parlayed that grief into charitable efforts and raised millions for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. He went on to raise countless funds for a host of other charities.
The day he passed, I wrote, “When you are a Hall of Famer, yet you’re best remembered for being a good, decent, nice person, you know you’ve lived a great life.”
Gary Carter was a great ballplayer, but it turns out, that was the least of his accomplishments. He simply loved living his life. That, to me, is his legacy.
What a way to be remembered.