Thursday, February 16, 2012

Gary Carter, Former Expo

[Originally posted June 2, 2011]

The sad news of Harmon Killebrew's passing and the happy posthumous celebration of his admirable life in and out of baseball is now followed by a discouraging report about Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter's medical prospects. This has not been a good season for legends.

Gary Carter, of course, led the famously rowdy 1986 New York Mets, World Series champions and touchstone heroes for a half-generation of Mets fans, from behind the plate. Not since the 1969 Miracle Mets had New York's second squad ridden in the ticker-tape parade; not since 1973 had they won a National League pennant. His larger-than-life, charismatic grin and in-charge demeanor served as tonic for a pitching staff as diverse as New York itself; four Mets starting pitchers received Cy Young Award votes in 1986. That Carter was also the best hitting catcher in baseball since Johnny Bench was more than a bonus; it was essential to the Mets' success. When Mets' closer Jesse Orosco struck out the last batter, photographers captured Carter's exuberance as he charged the mound and embraced the pitcher. They and the rest of the Mets became the toast of New York.

Following the 1986 championship, Carter was named Mets co-captain, along with Keith Hernandez. They were chosen ahead of New York icons Darryl Strawberry, Lenny Dykstra, Mookie Wilson, Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez, and the youthful phenom, Dwight Gooden. The role suited Carter perfectly; the catcher is and has always been the de facto field captain in baseball, and Carter's baseball talents, leadership qualities, and charisma made him an exceptional choice. By 1986, Gary Carter had cemented his role as a Mets team leader and his status as a New York sports hero for the ages.

And yet...and yet. When I saw the online articles reporting Carter's terrible illness, I was taken aback at the prevalence of three words in their headlines: "Former Mets Catcher". It's true, but it's far from the whole story.

The year is 1969, or perhaps 1970. New baseball curtains are purchased for my bedroom, the same room in which a 2-D Bob Gibson pitched to a 2-D Harmon Killebrew in perpetuity. The colorful team logos of the expansion Montreal Expos, San Diego Padres, Kansas City Royals, and Seattle Pilots adorn the cotton-poly fabric along with those of the twenty legacy teams. Montreal, in particular, was special for several reasons: it was almost as close to the Capital District of Upstate New York as were New York City and Boston; it was the first Canadian team in Major League Baseball history; and it had just come off a World Exposition in 1967 that inspired the team's name and lent a cosmopolitan air to the franchise. The expansion drafts prior to the 1969 season were events of fascination for Little Leaguers and adult sports fans alike -- how could you cobble together a major league team out of cast-off players, unprotected from the draft by their respective franchises?

How indeed. Just as the expansion Mets had set a modern era record for futility in 1962, the expansion teams of 1969, playing in six-team divisions, finished 4th (Royals) and 6th (Expos, Padres, Pilots). Yet by the mid-1970's, the Expos had outgrown their l'enfant terrible phase, along with their expansion roster full of Coco Laboy's, and approached respectable .500 season records. A few team stars had emerged: Rusty Staub ("Le Grand Orange"), Bob Bailey, and Ron Fairly at the plate; Steve Renko, Bill Stoneman, and Mike Marshall on the mound.

Into this mix of rag-tag irregulars arrived Gary Carter as a rookie call-up, in 1974. From 1975 to 1984, Carter became a recognizable face of the Montreal Expos: a seven-time All-Star; second in the 1980 National League MVP balloting; the league's RBI champion in 1984. But Carter was far from the Expos' only star player in franchise history; Andre Dawson, Larry Walker, Dennis Martinez, and Randy Johnson all played large portions of their All-Star careers in tiny Jarry Park or the oversized Olympic Stadium. You may have heard of one or two of them. Montreal career lifer Steve Rogers won the NL ERA crown in 1982. Tim Raines led the National League in steals four times and led the league in batting in 1986. Vlad Guerrero is still driving bad pitches into the corners. Maury Wills, Tony Perez, Al Oliver, "Mudcat" Grant, "Spaceman" Bill Lee, "Oil Can" Boyd, and Jeff Reardon were all hailed by the Expos' French-Canadian P.A. announcer at one time or another. Even Pete Rose spent a season in his 40's hustling out singles at "The O". Reaching a bittersweet pinnacle for the franchise, outfielders Walker, Moises Alou, and Marquis Grissom led the Expos to a surprising first place in the strike-shortened 1994 season.

So, yes, Gary Carter is a "Former Mets Catcher", and that great part of his career and 1986 World Series ring are worthy of celebration. He also played briefly with the Dodgers and Giants in his later years. But when Carter returned to Montreal for a ceremonial end to his 19-season career in 1992 and entered the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2003 as a Montreal Expo, that, mesdames et messieurs, was as it should be. Like the storied Expos franchise itself, it's a part of baseball history that should never be forgotten.

* * *
Epilogue: Baseball Hall of Fame Catcher and World Champion Gary Edmund Carter of the Montreal Expos, New York Mets, San Francisco Giants, and Los Angeles Dodgers died peaceably from cancer on February 16, 2012. Here's a link to an Expos-themed montage of photos and videos from Gary Carter's illustrious career and retirement ceremony, set to a hokey but fitting tribute song (tip of the script-M cap to Annakin Slayd). Here's looking at you, Kid!

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