Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
February 16, 2012
BASEBALL: RIP Gary Carter
Age 57. The brain tumors got the third strike past him that Calvin Schiraldi never could. A good man and a great ballplayer, gone too soon.
Gary Carter carried the heaviest catching workload of anybody whose prime spans eight or more years - a staggering 144 games caught per 162 team games (and this for a team, in Montreal, that often stacked up doubleheaders in August due to April snow-outs). If you watched Carter at the tail end of those years and the seasons that followed, you saw what a brutal toll the workload took on his body, as every aspect of his game unraveled. Carter is the classic guy whose numbers make more sense when you extract his prime from the wreckage that followed. Besides being a devastating power hitter, Carter was a very tough guy to run on until his last year in Montreal, and in an age when base thieving was running rampant in the National League. In New York he also mentored a talented young pitching staff, or rather shared that role with Keith Hernandez.
As I noted in that column, over the decade of his prime from 1977-86, Carter caught 38.5% of base thieves, while facing an enormous volume of opposing stolen base attempts. And while carrying that heavy defensive load, Carter averaged .274/.347/.474 with 26 HR and 92 RBI. I'd rank Carter behind Josh Gibson, Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra, and Mickey Cochrane, and maybe Mike Piazza given how much better a hitter Piazza was than Carter or any other catcher. But you'd have a hard time finding anybody else with a good case to rank above Carter (I'd put him ahead of Campanella, Dickey, Fisk, Pudge Rodriguez, Simmons and Posada), which in my book makes him the 5th best catcher in MLB history (given that Gibson never played in the majors).
Carter was baseball's Tim Tebow before there was a Tim Tebow - a cheery Christian off the field, tough as nails on it. Carter was the ultimate guy who never backed down, never gave up, never begged out. I loved, loved John Stearns as a kid; Carter had Stearns' toughness with more talent. He battled Stearns to a draw in home plate fight around 1978 or so. In the famous 1986 Mets-Reds brawl, after Ray Knight clocked Eric Davis, Carter took Davis out of the fight by tackling him with his mask under Davis' ribs, knocking the wind out of him.
Carter, of course, arrived with a bang in New York. His first game as a Met, April 9, 1985, he caught the whole game and hit a game-winning walkoff homer in the 10th inning against the Cardinals. His second game, two days later, he caught all 11 innings of a 2-1 win against the Cards. His third game, the next day, he homered in a 1-0 win. He caught the next day (another win), then homered and drove in two runs while catching a 4-0 win the following day. And yet Carter would get better: the last 62 games that year, while catching a young staff including the incomparable season by Dwight Gooden, Carter hit .300/.367/.599 with 21 HR and 59 RBI, while striking out just 18 times (this included his 5 homers in two days rampage in San Diego in September. This after a 1984 season when Carter became one of just four catchers (the others being Bench, Campanella and Darren Daulton) to lead the league in RBI.
By 1988, Carter was a shell of his former self, with his months-long home run drought stuck at 299 career homers a sad joke. But he still had one last great moment left, when he doubled in the winning runs in a 3-run rally in the ninth inning of Game One of the LCS, the Mets rallying to win after Daryl Strawberry snapped Orel Hershiser's scoreless streak earlier that inning.
Rest in Peace, Kid. Thanks for the memories.
SECOND UPDATE: An emotional Keith Hernandez breaks down on air. Keith's a cool customer by nature, but this is what we're all feeling.
How tough was Carter? People forget exactly how many doubleheaders the Expos played in those days because of early season snow. From 1977-83, Gary Carter caught both ends of a doubleheader 40 times in 7 years (I counted games in the game log where he entered the game as a catcher and caught a few innings). In 1978, Carter caught both ends of ten doubleheaders. Ten. In September 1979, Carter caught both ends of a doubleheader 6 times in 13 days. In September 1981, Carter caught both ends of doubleheaders on consecutive days.
Carter drove in 101 runs in 1980 batting behind tablesetters who hit .257/.337/.363 and .224/.307/.293. In 1984, he led the league in RBI hitting behind a guy with a .301 OBP, on a team whose leadoff hitter was 43 years old, slow, and hit .259/.334/.295.