Remember The Kid

As you’ve all heard by now, Gary Carter passed away Thursday, losing a long battle with brain cancer. Carter was more than just a phenomenal baseball player; he was the Expos first giant superstar when the team was enjoying its heyday in the early 1980s. His death, although virtually inevitable for some time, has been met with shock and sadness around the country by those who saw him play and even by those who didn’t.

I was just shy of my eighth birthday when Gary Carter retired in 1992 as a Montreal Expo. I remember watching his final game with my grandfather who was an Expos fan back in the 70s, before the Blue Jays came into the league, but always remained interested in the team. I remember him telling me that Carter was one of the best catchers ever to play the game and that one day he would be in the Hall of Fame. Throughout the ‘90s, whenever a hotshot young catcher would cross over into the Big Leagues, the inevitable comparisons to The Kid would start. For a number of years, he was the measuring stick for young catchers like Ivan Rodriguez and Mike Piazza.

Last May, when Carter was diagnosed with brain cancer, I immediately felt a pit in my stomach. Despite not having the kind of connection to The Kid as many in Montreal have, I do have a connection to the illness that inhabited him. My mother passed away two years ago from the same thing. I hoped his circumstance would turn out better, but when it was obvious it was not going to, my thoughts turned to Carter and his family. I felt the familiar burden they must have felt near the end. I know, all too well, that odd feeling; a toxic elixir of relief and sadness that consumes you when you lose someone from an illness that drawn out and vile.

What Carter meant to the city of Montreal, and to Canada, for an entire generation of baseball fans was immense. In the comment section to Dustin’s piece from yesterday, someone said he was as big as Wayne Gretzky. He was a cultural icon. I believe it.

I sent out some e-mails last week asking people that I knew were affected by Carter on a deeper level to reflect on his career and what he meant to them. What follows is what they had to say.

From Rich Terfry, host of CBC Radio Two Drive and a musician by the moniker Buck 65 (also a talented amateur baseball player who was scouted by the Yankees while in high school):

When I was 12 years old, I met the Montreal Expos. I used to watch a TV show every Sunday night (if I remember correctly) called “Thrill Of A Lifetime.” I watched with my parents. On one episode, a woman met Jeff Reardon. This gave me the idea that meeting my baseball hero might be within the realm of human possibility. That hero was Gary Carter. For a few years, my father and I would take a train from Halifax to Montreal to see Expos games. I saw them play the Cubs in 1983. I remember that Steve Trout started for the Cubs and Al Oliver hit a home run that day. The next year, we saw a double header against the Padres. I made my father’s life miserable, telling him I wanted to meet Gary Carter. So he made calls to the front office (or somewhere) and bugged them until they relented. They arranged for me to go down to the stadium early, before practice. They let me hang out in the tunnel leading to the Expos dugout and wait for the players to show up. I met everyone that day – Tim Raines, Andre Dawson, Tim Wallach… That was the summer Pete Rose was in Montreal for a cup of coffee. I met him. And in those days, Duke Snider did color for the Expos home broadcasts. I met him too. A real Hall of Famer! I had the chance to meet Steve Rogers, but didn’t even say hello because I was still burning over Blue Monday.

But the first guy to arrive at the stadium that morning was Gary Carter. I almost fainted when I saw him. Of all the players I met that day, he was the one guy who ran right over to me to introduce himself and ask my name. He was great. I had never had an experience where an adult treated me with such kindness and generosity. He even asked if I wanted to go out onto the field with him and play catch. I was stunned. I hardly said a word. But he did autograph a bunch of stuff for me that day. I still have all of it.

I worshipped Gary Carter for his approach to the game – his defensive skill and his many memorable clutch performances. But he had a profound and lasting influence on my life in another way. I remember he used to do PSAs for “Say No To Drugs”. To this day, I’ve never touched drugs or alcohol and a big reason is because Gary Carter was my role model. If he had’ve said to eat nails, I would have done it. But he shaped my life in a meaningful and positive way.

From Montreal musician Annakin Slayd, who wrote and recorded a song called “Remember” dedicated to the Expos, and just released a special tribute to Gary Carter as well (embedded at the end of this post):

Gary Carter was baseball to me. I was at his last game at The Big O in 1992. I spent the whole night before drawing a portrait of him on a sign (I was a better artist than a ball player). I drew it on fluorescent cardboard because I thought maybe by some chance he’d see it. I managed to sneak down to the seats by the dugout during the pre game warm up, which you could often get away with at the Big O. Gary saw me flashing the sign and took a second to give me thumbs up and shoot me one of his classic grins. I yelled out “can you sign it!?” and he said “after the anthem, ok?” So they played the anthem and Carter stood there with his cap over his heart.

All the cameras were lined up in front of him snapping photos and I could tell I was right behind him. So I just held up the sign. The next morning on the cover of the Montreal Gazette there was a photo of Carter with my sign in the backdrop. I was thrilled that I got to be part of a moment that was so big in his career and in the history of Montreal sports.

Six years later, Kid attended the Save the Expos rally downtown at Complexe Desjardins. I went up to him while he was signing some autographs and reminded him of that moment. He laughed and told me he had the newspaper cover in a frame in his office. It was fitting to me. Carter wasn’t the kind of superstar that inspired you at a distance or with some sort of barrier up. It’s like when you see those teenage girls screaming for Justin Bieber; they bawl and cry because they’re so in love it hurts. Because they know in their hearts that they’ll never be able to express their passionate feelings to him and he can never possibly give them a big enough piece of himself in return. It seemed like Gary always gave a piece of himself back.  It seems that everybody has a story about Gary and how they’ll never forget an act of kindness he performed for them. It was as if every individual Expos fan has a place in their heart for him as much as he has in ours.

Finally, from Dave Kaufman, host of TSN 990’s The Kaufman Show in Montreal:

The last 2 days have been very difficult. We had all prepared ourselves for the news, yet when it happened it felt like none of us were ready to accept it.

Gary Carter was too young. He suffered too much at the end. That picture of him at his college team’s opening day two weeks ago was heartbreaking. I hated seeing him bloated and unrecognizable. And yet, I held out hope for a miracle.

After all, miracles happen in baseball all the time.

I’m not at all religious, but have prayed for Gary Carter and his family in the last year. I know that a lot of you have, and I know how important that is to the Carter/Bloemers family. To know that The Kid had his faith to lean on is a great comfort.

I have taken a lot of calls on air from Kid fans from across North America in the last month. Many shared extremely personal stories that I can’t stop thinking about. When we did our tribute show last month, a gentleman named Roy from Dorval, Quebec called in, and with a lump in his throat told us that the “greatest times of his life were watching Gary Carter play baseball.” I’ve thought about Roy a lot since Thursday. I hope he’s holding up.

One thing that people have talked about almost to a man is how much Carter’s sweetness was admired. Being sweet isn’t often the trait associated with professional athletes, but so many people have used that adjective to describe Carter’s nature. Role models, take note. This was a real man. Real men are supposed be sweet and kind and gentle and thoughtful. Carter was all that and more.

Losing Gary Carter has brought me back to the emotional state I was in when the Expos left in 2004. Losing ‘Le Club de Baseball de Montreal’ was very hard, but it was a company, a uniform, a stadium. Now we are losing our individual Expos, and it is ripping away the last pieces of our innocence.

I miss baseball with all my heart. And Gary Carter represented everything good about baseball in Montreal.  His loss is profound, and my city is in mourning.

To know he won’t be around to inspire a next generation of baseball fans is devastating.

Merci, Kid.

We will never forget you.

Gary Carter had an ego, and it showed at times, of this there is no doubt; but he was also a man who cared deeply about the sport he played and those who watched him play it. I’ve talked to a lot of Expos fans and non-Expos fans and the sheer influence Carter had on them is astounding. Dave Kaufman spent several hours, both on his tribute show a few weeks ago and again after he died, fielding calls from heartbroken fans who wanted to express their sadness over the loss of a very important person in their lives.

I guess what’s most striking to me, as someone who was at most a peripheral Expos fan living in Ontario, is just how much Carter’s death has exposed the gaping hole that exists in Montreal. That city loved their Expos. And they loved Gary Carter. Probably more than any of us on the outside could possibly understand.