Gary Carter, 1954-2012   1 comment

Garycarter1

Best in the business, indeed.  I think I’ve figured out where my love/hate relationship with the BBWAA Hall of Fame voting process originated.  It was the first year Gary Carter didn’t get elected into Cooperstown: January, 1998.  After retiring in 1992, and waiting the mandatory five years, he was first eligible in 1998.  I naturally assumed he would easily get the necessary 75% of the total vote, ensuring him entry into the Hall.

He received 42.3% of the vote.  In 1999, it dropped – dropped! – to 33.8%.  In 2002, he fell 11 votes shy of the magic mark (he needed 354, he got 343), receiving 72.7%… I might have felt as bad as he did that day.  Finally, in 2003, the Kid got the call he was waiting for, and he was inshrined into Cooperstown.  I know – I was there.  Long before he retired, I vowed I would see his induction speech in person, and by golly, I did.

If you’ve read any of my baseball-related posts, you’d know that I’m a numbers guy.  I don’t worship at the feet of Bill James, but my opinion of certain players, the argument of X versus Y, is strongly influenced by sabermetrics.  Especially Hall of Fame stuff.  However, when it comes to determining whether a guy is a HOFer, two of my first questions are, “Was he the league’s best, or one of the best, at his position during his era?”, and, “Is he one of the ten best ever at his position?”

(Note to readers – I’m not going to use too many numbers or arguments, I promise.  This is a blog from the heart.  I just want to remind you, or inform those of a younger vintage, how good he really was.)

So, in his era… yes, he certainly was a dominant player.  When Carter was entering his prime, Johnny Bench was more or less leaving his.  Carlton Fisk was a similar player in the American League, and a HOFer in his own right.  Mike Piazza and Ivan Rodriguez arrived just as Carter was leaving.  Lance Parrish, Tony Pena, Bob Boone, Ted Simmons… All-Stars, but not quite as good as Carter.  Also, and regardless of his position, the Kid finished in the top ten for MVP balloting four times.  He wasn’t just one of the best catchers of his era, but for about a dozen years, he was one of the best players in the National League.

And I can’t think of ten catchers better.  (Neither could Bill James – he ranked him eighth all-time in 2001.)  He was equally valuable with his bat as with his glove and arm.  An 11-time All-Star.  Over 300 home runs.  Three Gold Gloves, and he probably deserved a couple more.  An excellent pitch-caller behind the plate.  One of only five men to ever catch over 2,000 games.  I mean this in the most endearing way possible (because I think many consider him too flashy for their tastes) – Gary Carter was a tough son of a… gun.

Being a catcher sucks.  Wait, let me rephrase that.  It can suck, because catchers take a beating behind the plate.  Baserunner collisions, foul tips, blocking errant pitches, crouching for hours at a time… it hurts.  When I was a kid (not the Kid), I played ball… fastball.  We didn’t have baseball where I lived.  But one day, I decided I wanted to be a catcher, just like Gary Carter, and I took my turns squatting behind the plate.  I took a beating some days.  And I’m convinced my left knee is still wonky, decades after catching a couple of double-headers.

Am I whining?  Hell yes.  We only played a couple of dozen games a year.  I barely had any collisions, the pitches were slower, my joints and muscles were as stretchy as they would ever be, and the games were short.

Gary Carter caught 2,056 major league games.  He led his league six years in a row, and placed in the top four in the NL 12 years in a row.  Now add in his bullpen sessions, and minor league games, and exhibition games, and Little League games.  My admiration knows no bounds.

_____________________________________________

If you don’t personally know me, you can probably figure out how old I am.  I became a baseball fan, in large part, because my mom was.  She was an Expos fan, so I became one.  I’m not so old that I remember famous Montrealers Rusty Staub and Coco Laboy… my first memories of watching Les Expos are of the first great teams they had in the late ’70s and early ’80s.  Dawson, Raines, Wallach, Cromartie… for some reason, Doug Flynn was a favorite of mine, too… and Gary Carter.  He became the face of the team, ergo, he became my favorite Expo.  A lot of guys resented him for it, but I didn’t notice.  Remember, cable was in its infancy.  There was no internet, no TSN or Sportsnet (at least, not in my house), no sports talk radio.  I just knew what I saw between the lines of the baseball diamond – that, and the commercials Carter appeared in.

It kills me that the Montreal Expos never won a World Series.  All that talent back then, but they never got over the hump.  They had a five-year stretch where they finished in second place three years in a row, then third twice, in the seven-team National League East.  Ten years later, with a new crop of young stars (Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom, Rondell White, and others), they had the best record in the majors… and then there was a strike.  They never recovered.

So I was thrilled beyond measure that Gary Carter finally earned his World Series ring in 1986 with the New York Mets.  However, try to imagine how I felt that fateful day, December 10th, 1984, when the Expos traded him away.  Yeah, that bad.  Nonetheless, I got up, dusted myself off… and switched my allegiance to the Mets.  Don’t blame me, I was still an impressionable and not-fully-formed youth back then.

Carter was an instant hit in the Big Apple.  He homered in his first game, an extra-inning, game-winning smash that kicked off one of his best seasons ever.  He was also entrusted with guiding a talented but young pitching staff, featuring Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez, and others, and he did an outstanding job in that respect as well.

It took another season, but he got his ring in ’86.  He had a great post-season, and his two-out single in Game Six kept the game alive for the eventual Mookie Wilson-Bill Buckner (mis)play.  The Mets rallied to win, and took care of business two nights later.

If I’d earlier led you to believe that Carter, while respected by most of his peers, was also resented by some teammates in Montreal, imagine the scene in New York.  The Kid, constantly smiling, God-fearing and family-oriented… that wasn’t an act.  That was who he was.  Contrast that to the younger, cockier (and in some cases, troubled) crew that included Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, Lenny Dykstra, and Kevin Mitchell, amongst others.  Carter was too clean-cut for their tastes, and he was often the brunt of their cruel humor.  The ’86 Mets, a team I loved as a kid, was not, in retrospect, a very lovable team.

Carter arrived in New York after a decade of catching and playing on the hard turf of Montreal’s Olympic Stadium.  He was, if not quite past his prime, at the tail-end of it, and his last good year with the bat was in 1988,  He lasted just one more year in New York, before landing with the San Francisco Giants for a single season, then the (hated!) Los
Angeles Dodgers.  The sight of the Kid in a Dodgers uniform (for those who remember Black Monday, 1981, from a Canadian perspective) was disturbing.  It was just plain wrong, even if he was from California.

Thankfully, he returned to Montreal in 1992.  He wasn’t very good.  He was 38 years old, and battered by a lifetime of hard baseball labor… but he was still the Kid.  Still upbeat, thankful for the chance to put on a baseball uniform one more day at a time.  And in his final at-bat, he hit a game-winning double in front of the home crowd, just over the head of longtime teammate Andre Dawson.  The Expos won, 1-0.

(I tried to embed it below, but I just couldn’t figure it out.  Please click below if you want to see that final at-bat.  An advance “thanks” to MLB for not asking me to pull it.  Yet.)

http://mlb.mlb.com//shared/flash/video/share/ObjectEmbedFrame.swf?width=400&height=254&content_id=20086255&property=mlb

Gary Carter was, in my admittedly biased view, the Expos’ first true star.  Thus, he was also Canada’s first baseball star, a player that put Canada on the MLB map.  Gary Carter made me a baseball fan.  He was a great player, and by all accounts, a better man, and today a lot of better writers are writing better testimonials to that fact.  Thanks, Kid, for everything.

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Posted February 16, 2012 by JasonMacAskill in Uncategorized

One response to “Gary Carter, 1954-2012

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  1. Angela!LONG time no talk, and thanks for reading this. I wish I could have met him, too – Coooperstown was as close as I got. A couple of years ago, he managed a team that came through Calgary, but I never made it to the park. I should have.Knowing what I do about him – both as a player and a person – AND what others have been saying these past 24 hours, I know I couldn’t have made a better choice those many years ago picking a favorite player.

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