Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Kid

I grew up around baseball. My dad had been scouted by the White Sox and invited to training camp. An invitation he turned down to sign with a different team taking on some guy named Hitler.

After the war, getting on with life took precedence, but he still played for hometown teams and coached my brother and I in Little League.

He was a Yankee fan through the DiMaggio, Mantle and Maris years, so I became one too. 

One winter, he got us through the long wait for Spring Training with a record that featured the Voice of the Yankees, Mel Allen. Somehow the vinyl skipped the needle back and forth, making Mel call random plays you played out on the baseball field game board on the cover. Remarkably, you could go a whole nine innings without Mel ever repeating himself.

When the Minnesota Twins came along, they were the geographically closest Major League team so I tried rooting for them for a while. But it didn't take.

Late nights, the ionosphere would beam Detroit Tiger games in perfectly clearly on my transistor radio, so I tried them on. Again, it didn't take.

In 1967, I went to Montreal for Expo67, where everybody I met seemed to root for the Red Sox. That almost took. But not quite.

My love for Montreal did take hold, however, so when they got a Major League franchise two years later, becoming one of their first fans just seemed the right thing to do.

The Expos, like all expansion teams, mostly stunk. But they were on television enough to really follow. And a couple of years later, they drafted a player who would become their first real star -- Gary Carter.

Carter entered the minors as a shortstop and got his ticket to the Show two years later as a catcher. By the time he made his Expos debut, he was mostly known as "The Kid" because he played the game with all the joy of a boy who'd skipped school to get in a game on some sandlot.

Gary would be an All-Star seven times with the Expos and elevated them to a team worth watching almost single handed. But after a couple of years, I started cheating on he and the Expos for the expansion team that had moved into Toronto. That fan relationship stuck and probably will for life.

But I still got a few kicks from watching The Kid. I finally got to see him play live in one of the semi-exhibition "Pearson Cup" games the Expos and Jays played during the late 70's or early 80's before he was traded to the Mets.

Those were games that meant nothing but Carter gave them his all. And he never stopped smiling.

Then in 1986, he came to bat in Game Six of the World Series with the Mets one out from elimination. Determined not to be the last out, he managed a base hit and was the Met player standing on first when Mookie Wilson's ground ball dribbled through Bill Buckner's legs to guarantee a game Seven and set up the Mets first World championship.

That's how The Kid played. He just never quit. He never stopped smiling. And he had class.

So much class, he returned to Montreal for his final season. Hit a double in his final visit to the plate. Went into the Hall of Fame as an Expo despite his history in New York and even made his Cooperstown acceptance speech in both French and English.

I hadn't thought about Gary Carter for a lot of years when I saw his picture in the paper about a week ago. He looked worn and gaunt and far older than his 57 years. The Kid was down to his final days, brought low by an inoperable brain tumor.

But he was still smiling.

And he'd vowed not to let death chalk him up as an out until he shepherded the University team he now coached through their opening day. 

He kept his word.

The Kid died today. And while losing someone so young and with so much still to give is sad, those who watched Gary Carter play are left with hundreds of great moments and great memories.

They're also left with a vision of one of the world's greatest smiles. A smile filled with the joy of doing what you love and loving what you do and never giving up.


Win said...

Thanks for this Jim.

Once again you walk us down memory lane to a simpler time.

Listening to those signals bounce into my bedroom at night also gave me a much wider view of the world.

How the time has flown.

Joel Scott said...

Gary Carter was more than a baseball player with talent. He was a true loving soul who never missed an opportunity to do charitable work and random acts of kindness. 20 years ago, when Gary retired from baseball, he would take speaking engagements to raise money and profiles for children's charities and hospitals.

I received a call from my sister who worked in administration at the Regina General hospital. She was breathless. She recounted how she had been leaving work that day when a cab pulled up and out the back window hung Gary Carter.

"Excuse me, do you work at the hospital?" he inquired.

"Yes" she said stammering "I d.d,do."

"Would you mind showing me where the children's ward is?". My sister could not refuse and said lets rock.

Gary said "well you'll have to help me as I bought all these Montreal Hats and Jerseys at the sports store and let's get them inside for the kids."

What followed was one of the most joyous times my sister has ever spent in that workplace. Two hours of unabashed fun, laughter and memories that would last a lifetime for those kids.

And my sister's crush still exists today. She described the 2 million watt smile he had and how kids, no matter how gravely ill, knew who he was and couldn't believe he was standing at their bedside spreading pure happiness.

She said that after he was finished dispensing the sports loot, he then spent another 1/2 hour signing autographs with the staff and generally lighting up the whole damn dour grey hospital.

As quickly as he appeared, he slipped off into a cab and was gone. The mystery was, he wasn't even scheduled to be in Regina for an event. He just showed up!

Now that is a man with a soul, a heart and one huge dose of empathy and humility. Man crush, Jim. Man crush!