Friday, February 17, 2012

Gary Carter (1954-2012): A fan's tribute


Gary Carter, the Hall of Fame catcher and one of baseball's greats, has died at the age of 57. He had been diagnosed with brain cancer last year.

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Growing up in Montreal, I was an Expos fan from an early age, and Carter was my favourite player -- even with all the talent on those Expos teams of the late-'70s and early-'80s, particularly the great outfield of Andre Dawson, Warren Cromartie, and Ellis Valentine, and later Tim Raines. Part of it was simple. He wore #8 and 8 was my favourite number -- the Expos retired his number in 2003. But it was also his great talent and wonderful style of play: the hustle, the intensity, the leadership. In my youth baseball career, I think I played catcher for a half inning and hated it, preferring to pitch and play SS or 3B. But Carter was my clear baseball idol, the way Guy Lafleur was my hockey idol, the way Terry Bradshaw was my football idol, the way Larry Bird was my basketball idol.

I even met Carter once. At the Montreal auto show, I think. He was signing posters. The line was long, but I had to meet him. I'm sure I was terribly nervous. We chatted for a couple of minutes as he signed the poster -- he was in a Mets uniform in the poster, as it was after his trade to New York, but no matter, he was always an Expo to me. He asked what position I played. He wished me good luck. Something like that. I still have that poster somewhere. And I still remember what he signed: "Catch ya later!" It was awesome. He smiled the whole time. You never know with athletes, or with celebrities in general, whether they're sincere or not, but he seemed like the real deal to me, a generous man who cared about his fans and who understood, humbly, how important he was to them. I saw that in him then, even as a boy. And it just made me a bigger fan. Even a fan of him in a freakin' Mets uniform. Dammit.

1981 was the great year for us. A strike broke up the season, but Montreal had a really strong team and made the playoffs. We beat the Phillies 3 games to 2 in the unusual first round, the Division Series, of that unusual year. Carter hit .421 with 2 HRs and 6 RBI. But then there was the NL Championship Series against the Dodgers, which the Expos lost 3 games to 2. The deciding fifth game hurt. I still remember it well. It was 1-1 in the top of the ninth. The Expos brought in their ace, Steve Rogers, to pitch the ninth. Wtih two outs, he gave up a HR to Rick Monday. We got a couple of guys on in the bottom of the inning off Dodger ace Fernando Valenzuela, but closer Bob Welch came in to get the final out. It was one of the most devastating sports moments of my life. Yes, I cried. Carter didn't have a great series, hitting .438 but ending up with no HRs and no RBIs. It wasn't his fault. It was a tough series.

I also remember the All-Star game from that year. Carter was the starting catcher for the NL. He hit two HRs and was named MVP.

Carter was with the Expos from 1974-84 and then again in 1992, ending his Big League career where it began. It was hard for me, and for Expos fans generally, to see him play anywhere else, but I was happy when he won a World Series in 1986 with the Mets. He was a leader on that team and still a great player. He deserved to win it all, just as he deserved to make the Hall. He was an 11-time All-Star, winning the MVP twice. He won three Gold Gloves and five Silver Sluggers. He ended up with 324 HRs and 1,225 RBI, 2,092 hits and 1,025 runs -- all in an era that wasn't nearly as offensive as the one now. He was an outstanding defensive player. He was a great leader. He was one of the greatest catchers of all-time. And he just seemed like a good guy. Yes, he was a great baseball idol.

After retiring, he went into broadcasting and then coaching/managing. He had some success but seemed to be struggling to move up through the ranks. But I think he would have made it to The Show again. He just had too much talent and too much fight in him not to. Ultimately, though, some things beat you no matter how hard you fight.

Gary Carter, who died at the age of 57, will be greatly missed.

So long, Kid.

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Here are some things you should read:

-- "Remembering Expos Hall of Famer Gary Carter," by Ian MacDonald of The Gazette.
-- "Gary Carter, Baseball Hall of Famer, dead at 57," by Richard Griffin of the Toronto Star.
-- "Former Expo Gary Carter dies," by Bob Elliott of the Toronto Sun.
-- "Adieu le Kid," by Marc Antoine Godin at La Presse (in French).

And some clips you should watch:

-- Keith Hernandez remembering Gary Carter on SNY.
-- Carter's 2003 Hall of Fame induction tribute.
-- The Expos retiring Carter's #8 at the Big O in Montreal.





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