Friday, February 17, 2012

Nobody Asked Me, But...

Special Get Carter edition
I figure I have about five more of these I'll have to write to cover my sports heroes.
It's hard to believe he was only four years older than I was. In point of fact, it's hard to believe he was older than I am.
Gary Carter, baseball Hall of Famer, perennial All-Star, and former New York Met, died last evening at age 57.
The one thing I remember most about his play and his attitude was, it transported me back to a time when ballplayers had to dig ditches in the offseason, when the game was fun and not dominated by money, when it was still viewed as a child's game. He got a hit, he smiled. Even when he lost a game, it might take him a while, but he could be counted on for a level-headed interview and a smile. It was as if he had been blessed to remain a kid all his life, and he knew it and appreciated every second of it.
Let me get some of the negativity out now about this: number one, Carter was a devout born again Christian. He was arrogant and self-indulgent and self-promoting. And his death from gliobastoma in his brain suggests the possibility that at some point Carter experimented with steroids, probably late in his career.
All that said, he's a hard man to hate. There are very few people in this world, much less professional sport, who combine cheerful positivity with the smoldering intensity needed to compete and win at the very highest level of achievement that Cary Carter managed. He rarely wore his heart out on his sleeve (especially with respect to his faith) and encouraged everyone by meeting them on their map of the world and making them better players, better people.
You saw this on the playing field when he would handle a young pitcher, like Ron Darling or Dwight Gooden in the mid-1980s. Somehow, he made them believe even more in their ability and themselves.
It showed in his own performances, too, that he could will himself to greatness. Take his first game with the New York Mets in 1985. I will never forget his rextra-inning walk off homerun. I was jogging along 30 Street in Long Island City, a few blocks from home, passing a Greek Orthodox church and I remember glancing over as he stepped up to the plate and throwing a quick prayer skyward.
I don't know if God heard either my prayer or Carter's prayer, or if he even cared. All I know is, with one swing of his bat, Gary Carter created a whole new legend in New York Sports.
It seemed to happen over and over: when the chips were down, when the Mets needed a kick in the ass, Carter provided one. In 1986, in the playoffs against the Houston Astros, he had struggled at the plate, until he squibbed a single over second base, and sparked a rally.
In the World Series that year, he really could have been the MVP of the contest between the Red Sox and the Mets. After the Mets lost two games at home, they stormed into Fenway Park in Boston, winning game three, and making Boston remember that they had won 108 games that year and weren't going to go quietly.
And then Carter took the reins in Game Four and unleashed two titanic homeruns that tied the Series and set up one of the most remarkable games in baseball history, Game Six of the 1986 series.
If you say "Game Six" to any baseball fan, they will immediately know the game you're talking about. Carter set up the most memborable inning in baseball history by tying the game on a sacrifice fly in the eighth. He scored the first run in tenth after singling with two out, and down three runs.
All he could think as he stepped to the plate was, "I will not make the last out of a World Series." That spark, that decision to practically will a ball past the infield and to drop into the outfield safely, inspired the next three hitters-- Kevin Mitchell, Series MVP Ray Knight and of course, Mookie Wilson-- to keep the rally going.
The Mets of Gary Carter, after all, "invented" the rally cap. If it hadn't already been a hackneyed and ancient phrase, "You Gotta Believe!" would have been this team's motto.
This is not to take anything away from the great players on those teams, like Keith Hernandez or Darryl Strawberry or Gooden or Darling or Knight, but Carter really was the impact player that a championship is built around.
I had season tickets for parts of the seasons of 1987 and 1988, and so Carter became something of a must-see player. I remember sitting with a pregnant wife, cheering Carter on in 1988 as he sought his 300th career homerun, and every time he came to the plate at Shea, the thundering cheer "Gah-REE! Gah-REE! Gah-REE!" would rise from the stands like a sudden release of skyrockets. Even the fetus that would later become my daughter got into the action, stomping her feet on the placenta.
There were three pregnant women in that section, Mezzanine section 27, that year. It was funny.
Carter's career effectively ended that year, 1988. He hit 11 home runs, and the Mets, the dazzling team that just kept winning, won a hundred games, and met the LA Dodgers in the playoffs.
A team they went 10-1 against during the regular season. In a cold and rainy playoff series, the Mets lost. The crushing blow actually came early in the series, in game four, when Mike Sciosia hit a two run homer in the ninth off Dwight Gooden who was pitching a one hitter up until then, and who was seriously coked up.
What is it about boyhood heroes that cause us to reflect in their glory as if it was our own?
To some extent, Carter's death is a sudden reminder that life does end, sometimes earlier than we expect, and that each day is precious enough to treasure and cherish as tho it all ends tomorrow. Carter was 57. He was the last of my sports heroes that I thought I'd have to memorialize, as he was the youngest. He was also among a handful of men I admired as an adult, as opposed to an adolescent who was still wet behind the ears and hadn't experienced the heartbreak and ennui of adulthood.
Perhaps Carter brought me back to my childhood, where I could spend entire days in my backyard playing basketball or throwing a tennis ball against a wall thirty feet away, trying to take self-batting practice, and pitching to a chalk outline on the same wall, adjusted in height to compensate for the short distance. His nickname, after all, was "The Kid."
Perhaps it's that I foolishly decided to pick up the scraps of a ballplaying career last year and deluded myself into thinking I still have the chops for this game when I took batting practice and was still able to clear fences. I didn't want to believe in mortality, in aging, in breaking down and atrophying, in eyes that can no longer track a baseball into my waiting glove, in legs that can't break twenty seconds around the bases as I nurse a tearing Achilles tendon and a tennis elbow that screams in terror with each throw and swing, in the pain the days after a game, in the sleepless nights of worrying if I can just get that one last hit to get to .500 again, all things I took for granted in my youth.
To see Carter leave this plane means one less hope for a recaptured youth, I guess. We all have totems in our lives, things that mark us as older, signposts that remind us the arrow of time moves left to right and cannot be reversed. You can't make a U-turn, when your favorite childhood actor dies or gets pregnant or becomes a grandmother. You can't bring a favorite aunt or uncle or parent or sister or brother back from the grave. You can't undo the maturation into adulthood and all the responsibilities and duties of life that are thrust upon you, much like life itself is thrust upon you, much like birth is a traumatic experience. 
The cocoon of childhood, the womb of baseball, dries and shrivels as we get older. I see it now not as a game but as a business, Baseball Incorporated. It's hard to cheer a bunch of millionaires to win a championship that stands to benefit a cartel of billionaires, but moreso when you've played the game and fell in love with its beauty and elegant simplicity.
You throw a ball. You catch a ball. You hit a round ball squarely with a round bat and if you're really good, you hit safely three out of ten times. And yet entire industries have been built around exploiting this play, and others and if you're an astute observer as I pretend to be, you begin to realize it's all a fucking joke, that the ultimate extension of all this is baby's first step becomes a market for collectibles. 
I sit here, crying, wishing for one last opportunity to see that smile, to cheer "Gah-REE! Gah-REE! Gah-REE!" once more as he paws the dirt in the batter's box, digging in for one last home run. And one more milestone passed in my own life.