Friday, February 17, 2012

Coming to Terms With Gary Carter

Gary Carter's death this week at the age of 57 is a bit of a stomach kicker. For one, the guy was only two years older than I am. Plus, it came during the same week when I lost a man very dear to me who has been a part of my life for over thirty years. So it's already been a week of loss and sadness. There is a lot of such sadness in life and our only recourse is to balance that with the blessings and the good times. Since the man I lost this week was 95 years old, there is much more sadness for me than for him as he had a rich life and died peacefully. There are so many good memories that can be recalled to soften the tears. But what of Gary Carter? Unlike the man in my life that I lost, I spent most of my adult life with a fetish of dislike for Gary Carter. But I saw the beginning, middle and end of his career and athletes aren't supposed to die. Not that young anyway.

Much of this is irrational. And I realize that. Mourning the passing of a ballplayer is over-hyped in a world where people die by the millions every week. Because the player was famous and a Hall of Fame player at that, his passing is given much more attention than it deserves. There is little attention except for perhaps a back page story for a child that has lost a father or a mother who has lost a son in any small town in America. But because Gary Carter was a Hall of Fame catcher, his death is given much more coverage. That's just the way it is. And my dislike for the man was every bit as irrational.

When did that dislike start and why was it so? Don't ask those silly questions of a baseball fan. Is there ever any good reason? I dislike Kevin Youkilis. Always have. Is Youkilis a bad guy? Probably not. But something inside me is turned off by the guy. Maybe it's his stupid batting stance or the way he takes a personal affront to every inside pitch or his temper when he strikes out. But other players have done that, so what gives? I don't know. Something about Gary Carter pushed all the wrong buttons inside me.

Carter was known as an intense player. Perhaps that is the tie of his dislike to that of Youkilis, who is also intense. We love intense players when they are on our team. But when they are on the other team, we like them a lot less. Carter was a catcher. Catchers are supposed to be low-profile guys. Grunts. The tools of ignorance guys. But Carter was flamboyant and even as a member of the Expos, became famous for a team that did not get a lot of national press. Carter went to seven All Star Games as a member of the Expos, including a run of six straight from 1979 to 1983. Plus, he played in the post season in 1981. It was during those contests when the dislike built.

But the loathing came to a full head in 1986 when Carter was a member of the World Champion New York Mets. Gary Carter was center stage in that post season and certainly in that improbable tenth inning of the most famous Game Six in World Series history (perhaps eclipsed this year by the Cardinals). Gary Carter helped break my heart that season.

Though I've spent a lifetime as a fan of the Red Sox's rivals, that 1986 Red Sox team had captured my heart. It was the season I developed a major man-crush on Roger Clemens. Dwight Evans will always remain one of my favorite all time players. Wade Boggs was the most amazing hit machine I have ever seen in my baseball life. Tom Seaver was having his last hurrah with that team. Bruce Hurst was an underrated left-handed starter. Bill Buckner and Marty Barrett were blue collar heroes. Oil Can Boyd was comic relief.

That team just captured my imagination. As I have mentioned here many times, I was living in southern Maine at the time (just over the NH border) and we didn't have cable television. There was no Channel 38 and the Red Sox were the only games I could watch with my antenna on the roof. So I watched nearly every game of that 1986 season. I saw every one of Clemens' brilliant starts. I saw every Wade Boggs hit. I exalted over every perfectly positioned throw from Evans in right field. It was a magical season.

And that magical season led to the 1986 World Series. I kind of liked the Mets with their band of bad boys. But, of course, I didn't like Gary Carter. And then came Game Six. The game was in the bag. This Red Sox team that I had grown to love was going to win it all! It was the bottom of the tenth with just three outs and it would be done. You can "Bill Buckner" me all you want. But I remember vividly watching that last inning and screaming at the television. It was to be one of the worst managing moments in history. Boston manager, John McNamara, lost that World Series. Buckner should have been replaced defensively. Calvin Schiraldi had already yielded the lead in the bottom of the ninth and shouldn't have started the tenth. He had already pitched two tough innings. Why was he still out there?

But then Schiraldi got the first two Mets to fly out to start the tenth. One more out! One more out! It never came. I remember standing behind the couch with the couch as a barrier between me and the television. It was if I needed the furniture to keep me from devouring the television. I was close to euphoric. The Mets were down to their last out. But then Gary Carter came up. Carter with his permed hair and his All-American boyish looks hit a single. No problem, McNamara will take Schiraldi out and get this over with. Kevin Mitchell came up to pinch hit. It was the perfect time to make the switch. Except McNamara stood there. Mitchell got a hit. Still, McNamara stood there. Then Ray Knight got a hit that scored Carter. Knight was another player I hated for much the same reasons as Carter. Of course Carter's helmet came off when he slid into home. Of course, he crowed in his All-American goodness. Of course his rah-rah style of play was evident. I fumed. That couch saved lives that day.

Finally, McNamara removed Schiraldi. Bout time, stupid. But it was too late. The rest was history. I was crushed and dancing on the field, in the middle of the pile of happy Mets was Gary Carter. Loathing became hatred. Hatred burned deeply. One of my most disliked players had helped break my heart.

Flash forward to the present. That same Gary Carter was diagnosed with cancer, that dreaded disease that strikes fear in all of us. Carter was upbeat and leaned on his faith. He faced his illness with class and courage. How can you hate such a man? Footage was shown just recently of him at an event and ravaged by illness, he still had a big smile on his face. Where does such courage and faith come from? Years of loathing and animosity melted away to admiration in less than the time it took to write this post. I came to love that Gary Carter.

How strange life is. Carter's death will forever be linked to the other loss in my life this week. The two will be paired. One man I lost will be a love grown over thirty years and an influence on my life that will never end. The other's death was a man I had disliked as long as I had loved the other man. But both are mourned today. The inherent goodness of both men is the bottom line and I have no doubt that both will have eternal rewards beyond this life. Both men led by example. One just took longer to get his message across than the other. Rest in peace gentlemen. Rest in peace.


Bill Miller said...

What a great, great post. You and I may have been on opposite sides during that World Series, but I think we ended up feeling the same way about Carter, in the end. How ironic. And how sad.
Also, very sorry for your other loss as well.

Thomas Slocum said...

I'm with you on the mortality issue - Gary Carter was actually but 9 months older than me. Not so with the other issues. I had no particular like or dislike for Carter as a player, just an awareness of and admiration for his performance as a baseball player. The fact that he played a role in the Mets defeating the Red Sox in 1986, for it merely meant that my second least favorite team (growing up in Southwestern CT, one liked the Yankees or the Mets and was then obligated to despise the other) beat my least favorite team. That was not a World Series that held any particular joy for me.

He was both a contemporary of and a worthy successor to Bench as a premier offensive catcher. And he was a catcher who often prevented Carlton Fisk from being considered the best catcher in the majors. If Thurman Munson could not be considered the best catcher in the AL because of Fisk, at least Carter might keep Fisk from being considered the best catcher in the game. Oh, those rivalries!