We didn’t expect, we merely hoped, that one way or the other Gary Carter would conquer the enemy that finally took him down Wednesday. Knowing Carter, perhaps one of the better things we can think of his death at 57 is that at least he was granted that one final Valentine’s Day, to spend with the wife he loved proudly over thirty-seven years of marriage.
Until a massive attack of glioblastoma multiforme that was diagnosed almost a year ago, Carter was living proof that living well is the sweetest revenge. The exuberant young man who was considered poison because he was exactly what his public image made him appear—a genuinely enthusiastic ballplayer, husband, father, and man—had lived to make fools out of those to whom he entered and left baseball as phony as a seven-dollar bill.
Those fools didn’t include just his teammates, several of whom have been contorting themselves to praise Carter in the immediate wake of his death. “The obits you’re going to be reading tomorrow for Gary Carter . . . will probably tell you everything about him except this: many New York area sportswriters laughed at him behind his back,” wrote Allen Barra for the Village Voice Thursday.
Barra couldn’t resist recalling another Voice writer, John Morthland, who sometimes accompanied Barra to Met games when the latter was covering the club for that weekly, with Morthland once observing, “Some guys are scorned by their teammates because they’re phony. But there’s a lot of guys here who don’t like Carter because he’s exactly what he appears to be.”
Carter didn’t need to preach it, though. He simply lived it, let you see it in plain enough sight, without having to open his mouth once about it. He could and did talk volumes about baseball, he could and did talk a few chapters about his family, he could and did talk about the enduring influence of his mother, who died of leukemia when he was twelve. But when it came to his unapologetic faith, Carter carried and read his Bible but he didn’t even think about thumping it too much if at all.
We’ve just spent a football season watching waves of enchantment provoked by Tim Tebow’s extravagant witnessing, and while one doesn’t question Tebow’s sincerity just yet one wonders, whether quietly or aloud, whether Tebow isn’t setting himself up for a reputation at least as unfair as the one with which the less extravagantly pious Carter was draped. About the only real mistake Carter ever made in public was campaigning to become the Mets’ manager at a time when Willie Randolph, the incumbent, was merely embattled but not quite yet a candidate for execution.
Morthland couldn’t have been talking about the Met clubhouse alone. When Carter became Hall of Fame eligible, nobody among the New York writers who covered him—unable to contend with a ballplayer who didn’t think the media was some kind of wolfpack out to make him their next meal, which must have jolted even the jaded among them—mounted any kind of campaign for his election. Carter was elected in 2003, with late-career Dodger teammate Eddie Murray, after getting 78 percent of the vote on his sixth try. You’d have thought one of the maybe ten greatest catchers ever to play the game would have made it with 90 percent on the first ballot.
You suspect there might be those who were around the mid-1980s Mets who wonder even now how Carter managed to endure in the middle of the decadence that was as much a part of those teams as their almost extravagant winning. Actually, it wasn’t as difficult as you might remember. Carter wasn’t the only member of the 1986 Mets’ clean contingency. He had kindred spirits in infielders Tim Teufel and Howard Johnson, outfielder Mookie Wilson, perhaps one or two others. He was merely the most overt of the group, which should tell you something considering it took one helluva man to make the effervescent Wilson resemble a clinical depressive by comparison.
Carter preferred the atmosphere on the Mets, warts and all, because at least those Mets would make a point of telling you to your face what they thought of you. He once said he’d rather deal with the derision directly than from behind his back, as often happened in his Montreal years. Maybe that’s one key reason why Carter hoped aloud that his Hall of Fame plaque would show him under a cap half-Expo, half-Met.
Let it be said, too, for those who thought his sunny nature, overtly loving family manhood, and unapologetic if unpreachy piety were the incontrovertible evidence of human fraud, that Carter was among a small boatload of Hall of Fame talent in Montreal and New York but one of only two players—count them, pending Tim Raines’s canonisation—from either of those organisations in his time and place to earn a plaque in Cooperstown. (The other? Andre Dawson.)
He was an eleven-time All-Star in a nineteen-season career; he retired with the career record for catching putouts; he is sixth all-time among catchers with 298 home runs hit while playing the position. The Mets were fortunate to get Carter’s final three good-to-Hall of Fame-level seasons, before the years of grinding behind the plate began taking toll enough in earnest. He used no drug stronger than any doctor’s prescription for any given illness; he didn’t smoke; he didn’t swear, in normal conversation, anyway (it’s a long-established legend that, arriving at first base after muscling a two-out quail single off Boston reliever Calvin Schiraldi, with the Red Sox an out away from bagging the 1986 World Series, he told first base coach Bill Robinson, “I’ll be damned if I’m gonna make the last f–in’ out of this f–in’ World Series!”); he really didn’t run around on his wife, or let his salary stop in his pockets on the way to the trendiest haberdasheries or toward paying the salaries of a large entourage.
“There are things that make sense and things that do not,” wrote Jeff Pearlman, almost a month ago, mandating himself to apologise for comments in a splendid book about the 1986 Mets that weren’t half as bad as Pearlman retrospectively thought them to be. “Gary Carter, dying at age 57, does not.”
He launched his major league career taking the collar against the Mets; he launched his life as a Met in 1985’s season opener at Shea Stadium, with getting plunked by St. Louis pitcher Joaquin Andujar, looking at strike three, a stolen base against him (by Andujar, of all people), committing a passed ball, and then—sending the stadium into cheerful apoplexy—a game-winning tenth-inning home run.
“Hit by a pitch, strike out looking, a stolen base, a passed ball and then the home run. There’s not enough words to describe what it feels like,” he marveled after that game.
There are really not enough words to describe what it feels like to see a genuinely decent fellow overcome unwarranted clubhouse and media derision only to prove unable to overcome a malignancy that kills him so young. Imagine how sadly true that really is for his wife, his three children, and his three grandchildren.