Monday, February 27, 2012

The Kid

 Thursday, February 16: I was nothing but smiles during my interview with the Register Guard. A former classmate of mine, Adeline Bash, was doing a great job, asking all of the right questions without me having to drop in bits of information that “I” wanted to get across. We covered a variety of topics ranging from my childhood, through my high school years as a bat boy for a Minor League team, and on up until the point when I decided to get my baseball tattoos. We were just about to wrap everything up when I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket. I pulled it out and looked to see if it was a call or a text. It was a text. I set the phone on the table and picked up where I had left off; telling a story about how I started my hat collection.

Twenty minutes had passed since I received that text. At the time I didn’t think much of it. I figured it was just a friend asking me how things were going in my MLB Fan Cave campaign. Adeline and I completed the interview a little after 3. We caught up a little bit on how things were going in our lives and both of us felt that our lives were going in the direction we wanted. We said our good-byes and we parted ways. A ripple of excitement passed through me as the next day the Guard would be publishing the story. The amount of publicity that I had been receiving was more than expected. Everyday, it seemed, I had more interviews lined up. I was being complimented by my friends and family who were giving me unconditional support. But more importantly, I was feeling wonderful about all of the hard work I had put in to help get the word out about my campaign. Having a free moment I decided to check my messages to see what I had missed during my interview. My inbox had one unread message which came from my friend Ryan Moore up in Portland. I hit “OK” and all that it read was, “Gary Carter has caught his last game.”

My attitude quickly changed. I didn’t want to believe what was being implied on my phone so I rushed out of my seat and got to the nearest TV. Sure enough, my suspicions and fears had been answered. I slowly, but casually turned and walked out of Max’s Tavern and into the February rain that had been falling for the last week and a half. A cavalcade of emotions ran through my heart, but finally landed on sadness. The rain helped mask the tears that began streaming down my face as I walked home and into the baseball haven that is my bedroom. Exhausted and depressed, I collapsed on my bed and broke down. Gary Carter, the man who inspired my love of baseball was now dead.

October 25, 1986: My entire family was watching Game 6 of the 1986 World Series in the family room of our two-story house in Stockton, California. I was three-years-old at the time, and doing my best to keep reverent while everyone else was watching the game. I didn’t have a strong understanding of things, but I could understand the concept of outs and hits pretty well. As the bottom of the 10th inning started up, I really began to understand the emotions and the heartbreak of baseball.

Red Sox pitcher Calvin Schiraldi easily took care of Mets Wally Backman and Keith Hernandez by forcing them to pop out. My mother was on the edge of her seat, being the big Red Sox fan that she is. Red Sox nation was set to celebrate their first World Series title since in 1918. That is, until the Kid stepped up to the plate. This was the at-bat that changed everything I knew about baseball, and to some Red Sox fans, it was the at-bat that kept the “Curse of the Bambino” alive as well. Carter laced a line single into left field after working the count to 2-1, but all of this after legendary Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully had all ready labeled Marty Barrett of the Red Sox as the Miller Lite Player of the Game. With Carter on first, up came Kevin Mitchell, who singled Carter to second base. Then, it was Ray Knight who roped a shot into center field, deep enough for Carter to hustle his way around third to score. We all know the rest: wild pitch scores the tying run in Mitchell, Mookie Wilson Bill Bucknered Bill Buckner and Knight scored the winning run as Carter leaps from the dugout in full catchers gear to greet his teammate. Not a bad game to be your first memory of baseball. There were a few things that I took away from that game at such a young age: Gary Carter was the happiest guy in the world,  my love of baseball was born, Gary Carter caused the Red Sox to lose by starting the rally and the Red Sox were a terrible team. Obviously, my interpretation of those events has changed, as have my opinions slightly. Gary Carter in that moment defined what it means to be not only a clutch player, but a great leader. Carter could have easily faltered to Schiraldi with his back against the wall after seeing his teammates log two outs quickly, but from everything I gathered from Carter’s time in the majors, backing down was not an option.

I never got to see Carter play in the early days of the Montreal Expos franchise, but I did catch one game of his at Candlestick Park when he was with the Giants. Even at the end of his career, Carter lived up to his nickname, Kid. Every play he was involved in he handled with pristine and dedication to his craft. Very few people grow up to do the thing they love, but more importantly, even fewer people continue to play with the same tenacity throughout their entire career. Even as a kid I could see how much Carter loved the game. Like me, baseball never did him wrong, and in return he never let the game down.

Carter made the Hall of Fame in 2003. He was the first Expo to get elected. I was 20-years-old at the time and too strapped for cash to make it out, but I did enjoy his speech later that night on Sportscenter. The quote that caught me the most was when he said, “I have always been a fan of the game first, and a ballplayer second. Maybe that’s why I had the love and passion for this great game so much.”

Not since the first time when I heard Alan Page’s NFL Hall of Fame speech on the values of education had I been so inspired. Carter worked as hard as he could, day in and day out, and with the values he learned on the ball field he incorporated them into his personal life. In 2005, when I was working as a store manager at Just Sports in Woodburn, Oregon, I met man who was just as big of a baseball fan as I am. We chatted non-stop about the early days of the Yankees, the dominance of the Oakland A’s and the Cincinnati Reds in the 1970s and how the game has evolved into modern times. Lastly, we talked about Gary Carter. He and I were both fans of his, and he told me that he was able to go out to Cooperstown to watch Carter get inducted into the Hall of Fame. Needless to say, I was a bit jealous, but happy that he had the chance to take on that journey. He and I gabbed for about an hour and he ended the conversation by saying he was going to bring me something the next time he was in town. I told him he didn’t have to do that, but he insisted that I would appreciate it. I unfortunately wasn’t at work when he rolled through Woodburn, but my co-worker and friend Matt Bressler told me he had dropped by and left something for me when I next worked. I look underneath the computer and sitting there was an inaugural button commemorating Carter’s election. It had been a long time since someone did something so small, yet so powerful for me outside of my circle of friends and family. The small token, today especially, was one of the greatest gifts I could have ever received.

When Carter was first diagnosed with a brain tumor, I couldn’t believe it. How could someone who has done so much good be inflicted with such a travesty? He fought hard and pulled through after rounds of chemotherapy, but not too long later, he was diagnosed again. This time, the cancer had multiplied and he was given a short expectancy. I remember reading about it and I hit up Facebook to vent my feelings, “Gary Carter was diagnosed a second time with brain tumors. Hearing this news is the same as if someone told me that Superman was dying.” My eyes welled up as I typed away, not knowing if my hero was going to pull through. A few weeks ago I had the privilege of watching the MLB Writer’s Awards in which Carter’s daughter Kimmy gave a wonderful speech about her father as she accepted an award in his behalf. In the weeks that followed Carter passed away.

It’s hard now to write this and think of jovial smile that Carter had on his face every time he stepped on the field. There are very few people in this world that I try to emulate based on their character, but Carter is certainly one I’m proud to share. A week before his passing I purchased a photo print from the Chicago Tribune which featured Carter with his arms above his head and the iconic smile stretching ear to ear as he hit a game-winning home run against the Cardinals in his debut game for the Mets back in 1985. Like all of tokens and keepsakes I have collected over the years, I will cherish it just as much.

Gary Carter was more than a baseball player. He was a teammate, a humanitarian, a husband and a father. Although I never had the honor of meeting him in person, I am proud to say that he was truly a king among men, and an inspiration to everyone.