Friday, February 17, 2012

Remembering Gary Carter

         By Ross Newhan

         My last, lengthy conversation with Gary Carter took place about a month before his 2003 induction into the Hall of Fame.

         We sat in the Palm Beach office of his Gary Carter Foundation, which he founded and helped fund, providing books, computers and hope to schools in underprivileged areas of South Florida.

         He was, as always, The Kid--laughing in the retelling of baseball stories, tearing in remembering his parents, excited in regard to his imminent induction even though it came in his sixth year on the  Hall ballot, as if his statistics had changed in retirement. It is true that some of his career was played amid the long shadows of Johnny Bench and Carlton Fisk, but he would find his own spotlight in a 19 year span of catching endurance and craftsmanship that ended as a backup to Mike Scioscia with the Dodgers, the team that he hoped would draft him as a football and baseball star from Sunny Hills High in Fullerton.

      Carter, on that day in Florida, smiled broadly as he recalled being a high school classmate of Laura Lasorda, whose father, Tom, was then managing the Dodgers triple-A farm club and clearly too busy to pick up on his daughter's recommendation that he scout the hot young athlete at Sunny Hills, a development, Carter said with a wink, that he didn't let his manager forget when he finally joined the Dodgers under Lasorda.

    "I told Tommy that I guess he didn't think that much of his own daughter's scouting eye," he said, laughing.

    It is sad to think that The Kid and his vibrancy is gone too soon, Carter having died of brain cancer on Thursday at 57.

    In that long career, predominantly with the Montreal Expos and New York Mets, with whom he won a World Series title, his talent and heart are measured by some of the numbers.

    Consider this: He would endure nine knee operations, average an improbable 148 games per season during an eight year span early in his career, set the National League record for catchers of 2,056 games, a figure surpassed only by Fisk's 2,226, and a plateau, he said during our Florida visit, that he doubts any catcher will "play long enough or be crazy enough" to attain, particularly "the way they're protected" now from overuse.

    He was also an 11 time All-Star, a two time Most Valuable Player, a three-time Gold Glove winner and one of only four Hall of Fame catchers (Fisk, Bench and Yogi Berra being the others) to collect 2,000 hits, drive in 1,200 runs, slug 300 homers and score 1,000 runs.

   Carter recalled on that warm afternoon in Florida how Bench "befriended" him at the 1975 All-Star game, giving him an autographed picture with the inscription, "In a few years it's all yours."

   "I think what he was saying is that he saw a little bit of him in me," Carter said, "and since he was the icon of catchers, I just wanted to follow in his footsteps. I ultimately felt that if he was the catcher of the 70s, I was the National League's catcher of the 80s."

   In the process, there were moments of clubhouse derision from teammates, similar in some ways to what Steve Garvey experienced at times in the Dodger clubhouse.

   Was he really that nice, that sincere? Might he be a little too good to be true?
   "It was just something I had to live with," Carter said, looking back during our two hours together. "I loved baseball and what I was doing and I felt that a large part of it was being accommodating to the fans and media. The game wouldn't be the same without them, and I always tried to be there for the media whether I had a good game or bad game.

  "I wasn't kissing up and wasn't trying to steal the headlines, as some teammates occasionally suggested. I simply thought it was part of my responsibility. The other players had the same opportunity and responsibility but didn't always act on it. I was just trying to live up to the way my father was and the way he taught me to act."

  As a journalist who had already spent 40 plus years in hundreds of clubhouse I thanked Carter for being the way he was when I left his Florida office.

  And now I'm quite sure The Kid will receive a hug from his dad and remain the way he always was when prematurely welcomed to that biggest clubhouse of all.                   

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