With all due respect to the thousands of well wishers, reporters, editors, professional athletes, and media pundits who have paid tribute to baseball great Gary Carter, the coverage of his passing (on February 16, 2012) comes up short of getting to the heart of this great man.
Gary Carter was one of the best catchers and baseball players to ever pick up a ball and bat. He played hard, played hurt, achieved legendary success, and is remembered for many great achievements on the diamond. The tributes in the media are quick to point out that he was never without a smile on his face, would go to great lengths to please the fans, was a fierce competitor, and that he played through great physical adversity (ultimately nine knee surgeries) with unparalleled enthusiasm. He was lambasted at times for being an energetic goody-goody, and skeptics doubted that anyone could genuinely be that happy. His 18-year professional career included MVP honors in two All-Star games, a World Series title, Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards, and all the rewards that go with that kind of performance. Gary was unquestionably one of the best clutch performers in all of sports. He was enshrined in Cooperstown in 2003.
Marion, David, Neil and I were there to hear his induction speech, and were impressed with how he used this opportunity to acknowledge his Lord and Savior. We knew he would, but were nevertheless somewhat surprised at the degree to which the news media cut out his God statements. Through the advent of Google News, we can follow the thousands of articles and videos that have been posted on the Internet in his honor this week. While they have been overwhelmingly kind in pointing out what an amazing, beloved athlete and humanitarian he was, very few articles have gone beyond mentioning that he was a man of strong faith.
Gary’s battle with cancer was chronicled by his adoring daughter Kimmy Bloemers on her CaringBridge blog, which now contains thousands of guestbook tributes. If you want to understand Gary Carter, it won’t take long reading this blog to figure out what made him tick.
Over the past few days I’ve read much more than I care to admit about his passing. He is finally pain-free, and in Heaven where he belongs. Reading the online postings elicited a flood of family memories. Going to a cousin’s Ontario wedding in 1981 during the playoffs and seeing lots of radio earplugs in use during the service—that’s when it started for me. I caught the fever. So many games watched with Mom, Dad, Pete, Marion, Neil and David (we often had family dinners for special games). Seeing Gary play in Norfolk on a rehab assignment and having to listen to his game-winning home run on the radio driving home because Neil was young and overheated. All of the 1986 season. Jumping out of bed in the mornings (in pre-Internet days) to read the box scores to see how Gary Carter did. Going to work at my father’s office and having Dad tell me gleefully as soon as I walked though the door that Gary Carter had just hit five home runs in two consecutive games. Putting a Mets World Series commemorative baseball in the neonatal isolette when David was born. Cheering the two home runs he hit in Game 4 of the World Series against Boston (the one that left the park and bounced down Lansdowne Street was my personal all-time favorite). There are many, many Gary Carter baseball memories woven through the fabric of our family. But there is a lot more to the impact he has had on us than baseball.
Gary wrote in his books about not wanting to be vague or wishy-washy about acknowledging Jesus Christ as his Lord and Saviour. The man used the ‘J’ word on air, naturally, and without fear of how it would be received during the greatest moments of his career. He wasn’t the slightest bit intimidated to thank Jesus Christ when the microphones were on (after all, whom did Gary Carter have to impress?).
I had the pleasure of meeting Gary in 1993 and inviting him to speak at our Williamsburg Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast. I spent time with him on three occasions, and introduced him at the breakfast. He was the real deal, as gracious as anyone could ask, while being mobbed for autographs everywhere he went. I was able to relay to him a great compliment that he hadn’t yet heard. In a 1990 game playing for the Giants, Gary got five hits including a home run, and was named the player of the game by the announcers, who included Ray Knight, his former Mets teammate. Ray made the statement on air that Gary Garter and Johnny Bench would be counted among the best catchers to ever play the game, and that he (Ray) had played with both of them. “Johnny Bench did it all on natural ability and Gary Carter did it all with hard work,” Ray said during the telecast. What struck me most was how comfortable and genuine Gary was. His Bible was worn from use. While sitting in the Norfolk Airport terminal I remarked about the ink all over his hands and asked how many autographs he had signed that day. “A lot,” he sighed, but pleasantly added, “If you brought something I’ll be happy to sign it.” I said I thought it was rude to ask for autographs and hadn’t brought any memorabilia. He had a special card printed that contained his testimony, and would stuff them in his Bible to sign and hand out when people asked for an autograph. He was down to his last one, asked for the names of my sons, and signed it to both of them. Two days later a large package arrived in our mailbox with signed cards and 8×10 autographed glossy photographs. And as impressive as all that was, there was one comment from him several months later that speaks to what this man was all about.
A couple of months went by while we finalized the arrangements for the breakfast. Gary flew up from Florida and met Marion, Neil, Mom, Dad, and about 450 others at the breakfast. Upon meeting Marion, he immediately remarked that he too had married his high school sweetheart. He had absolutely no reason to remember that Marion and I met in high school, but ordinary people really mattered to him and he listened carefully to what they had to say. You can find countless stories like this in the online tributes. Gary made people feel special by caring about them.
Ironically (or not), a Montreal rapper has captured the essence of Gary Carter, and I think I know how he feels. All I can say is “God bless, catch ya later, and merci beaucoup!”
P.S. Bill Warrick drove Gary to the airport at breakneck speed to catch his flight home. We were running late because of all the autograph requests, so we grabbed the remaining unsigned books and ran for the airport. Gary finished every last autograph while they loaded his plane. Even airport security personnel came over with napkins for him to sign. He graciously and energetically made the time count.