Yesterday there was a death in the family.
There wasn’t, thank goodness, and there was. I emerged from the day’s work to voice-mails, e-mails, text messages, tweets, blog posts and all other kinds of communication in our digital age discussing the death, at the age of 57, of my all-time favorite ballplayer, # 8, the catcher, Gary Carter of the New York Metropolitan ball club.
For those who know me, the mere fact that I felt the need to dust off the forgotten, old blog signifies what an event this is. You see, some 3,000 miles from where I type this, in my re-done childhood bedroom, there’s a framed poster on the wall, signed, “Walter, God Bless, Gary Carter”. I got it when I met Gary Carter, at a now-defunct sporting cards store in New Milford, NJ, along with Keith “Mex” Hernandez, at some point during my childhood that my parents were awesome to take me to. There is also, jammed in a box in the closet, a beat-up white binder with literally every single baseball card Gary Carter ever appeared on (Expos, Dodgers, Giants, seriously every one), including his autographed rookie card. On the bookshelf is his dusty ’87 tome on the season that defined it all (“’86, baby!,” as my friend Michael still teases me about), A Dream Season. In a storage locker not too far from where I type this is the framed front page of The New York Times, dated October 26, 1986, along with my ticket stub from that game, which I went to with my father.
I mean, what are you supposed to write when one of your childhood heroes dies?
The news has ricocheted around the ‘web, made Mex choke up on SNY, and my newsfeed clogged with tributes, because Gary Carter was good. Not good in the baseball sense (I mean, of course he was. He was a Hall of Fame catcher who thrilled we fans from his very first at-bat, lest you forget), but good in the sense of people-good. There’s a scene at the end of the pilot of Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night in which one of the two ESPN-like anchors discuss getting out of the business, and what’s cited is what we now call the usual in behavior from our athletic heroes: arrests for domestic violence, cocaine use, and, yes, that double-murder in Brentwood. And Gary Carter was the epitome of the opposite of all that. He was, a my father said to me today, “A good role model for you all to have.”
As I alluded to, I met him once. Somewhere in a box of photographs in that same childhood bedroom I’m a forever-geeky pre-teenager, smiling awkwardly in a jean jacket, next to Carter, in a hideous sweater. And I couldn’t tell you a damn thing about that day except for two salient details: It was Keith I chatted with more (he recognized the ‘Lesnevich’ Air Force patch on my jacket, and realized I was related to the former boxing champ, Gus Lesnevich), and that Gary Carter was so damn nice.
And that’s the thing I’ve pondered many times as we fans headed towards this terrible time of dealing with the Kid’s death: I don’t know that Gary Carter and I would’ve even gotten along. In this hagiography of this good, good man, let us remember, he got teased for often hogging the spotlight, for mugging for the camera. He was, at least in his post-baseball life and in public, far too religious for my taste. He took a lot of flak for campaigning for the Met’s managerial position even before Willie was axed at 3 a.m. I mean, he was a human being. I don’t know his politics, but that’s the thing about baseball and childhood heroes. I mean, could Mike Piazza and I have a beer together? I don’t know.
No, to the adult fan it was always Keith who I felt I could have a beer with, or a glass of expensive cabernet. We both had the checkered past, we’d both made mistakes, decisions we’d regretted. He was the player you bonded with now, with his late-night rants on SNY, his appearances on Seinfeld, mustache days at the stadium.
And then you read about Carter, something I was loath to do, wanting to be in NYC with my people, my fans, when my hero passed. Well, Gary Carter was born not too far from where I sit now, in Culver City. He grew up in Fullerton, pride of the city. (Tip of the cap to Chris Dufresne’s excellent article here.) He married his high school sweetheart and reared children. He tried to do everything on the field in a complete, thorough and classy way, and he did what he did because his mother passed– of cancer– when he was 12.
And that was Gary Carter. Then, you understand. While we (including his adapted city, NYC, and his time, the Eighties) were all off being Nails and Dirt, Straw and Doc and Mex, that rowdy, “The-Bad-Guys-Won” bunch, he was being… Kid.
It pains me to type this, as an adult, about my childhood team, but man, the real rap on that Mets teams of the ’80’s ought to be how they were never the dynasty they should’ve been. Can you imagine if you’d had a ball club full of Carter’s? (Okay, you need a little Mex and Ronnie in there, too.)
There are a million memories: That first home run in ’85. The blowout games in the summer of ’86. The opening to this cheesy and wonderful video, which I wore out on VHS! Kid and Mex trying to figure out how Mike Scott was cheating during one of the greatest championship series, Mets-Astro’s ’86. Game 6. And being there, in the upper deck of Shea as it rocked, as Kid tied the game in the sixth, then running, jumping, joyously into the arms of Orosco when they– we– won it all! Is there a more iconic image than that one that you’d want to remember forever? Who Gary Carter tried to be and was has never shone through more pure than that moment. Maybe he stuck around the game too long. The great ones do, don’t they? I mean, how do you come down from that? Of course at the end of any highlights reel is a day I got to attend, Gary Carter Day at Shea, when he was presented with a replica of his Cooperstown plaque, with a Mets hat. Hey, we’re New York City, we were saying. He’s ours, and besides, we make our own rules. The Carter foundation T-shirt my sister Francesca surprised me with at the office last year– now a prized possession.
There was a death in the family yesterday, of an original good guy, at the age of 57. It makes you think of fellow fans who have left us far too soon, whom we think of every day; of countless hours spent in those ‘Metmaniac’ seats at Shea, cheering M0-0-0-0-kie and Mex, watching Doctor K toss to Kid; of the afternoons on the beaches of Nantucket listening to Gary and Murph calling games on The Fan. We thought it would last forever.
As Terrance Mann speaks in Kinsella and Alden Robinson’s Field of Dreams: “The one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: It’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again.”
There was a death in the family yesterday. When Murph died one of my great regrets was not getting to write him; not getting to thank him. I wrote to his widow, but… This time, several weeks ago in late July, I sat at my parent’s kitchen table and wrote to Mr. Carter, and his family, at their foundation. Of course he probably didn’t read it, but in the thank you letter, amongst other things, I wrote: “In [that letter] I described my childhood soundtrack of Bob “The Murph” Murphy calling a home run by my all-time favorite baseball player, Gary “Kid” Carter (I’m 34), and what Bob Murphy’s voice meant to me, game after game, night after night. A nurse from the hospice called to tell me that not only is Gary Carter her favorite player, he’s Ms. Murphy’s too. And he’s mine.” I got to say goodbye on my own terms, just a little, to a childhood hero.
At the end of Calvin Trillin’s lovely book About Alice, he writes about losing his wife Alice, about how Alice would’ve been fine with any deal that let her grow up and see her two daughters marry. And I’m sure Gary “Kid” Carter would’ve been fine with leaving us, at age 57, with a deal that let him marry his high school sweetheart, be a Hall-of-Fame ballplayer on the field and a Hall-of-Fame human being off, rear two daughters and a son, and meet three grandchildren.
It’s the rest of the us who aren’t fine, isn’t it? In this world of Madoff lawsuits and Vince Colemans, of ‘Did-the-reigning-N.L.-MVP-take-steroids?’ and Albert chasing the dough, it’s we baseball fans who lost one of the real great– well, yes, great, but far better than that, good– ones.
My favorite quote about baseball comes from the late Bart Giamatti, writing in Green Fields of the Mind: “It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.”
God bless you, Kid. God bless your family, and thank you to them for letting us share you. # 8, in our hearts, forever.