I grew up on Long Island, brainwashed early by my mom to be a Yankees fan. As even a little kid, I knew baseball - so much to the point that I can remember my uncle showing me off to friends of his and how I could carry on conversations with them about player movement, team strengths and weaknesses, and overall "bar banter". I can remember an adult asking me what I thought of Reggie Jackson getting traded to the Angels. I corrected him, telling him that Reggie wasn't traded but that he left as a free agent.
Jackson signed with the California Angels in January of 1982. I turned seven the month prior.
Through the 80s, I went though the highs and lows of the Steinbrenner-helmed, Billy Martin-firing machine, always seemingly being one player away from a championship, watching as a new team every season managed to one-up the Yanks in the East - Baltimore in '83, Detroit in '84, Toronto in '85, Boston in '86, until everything eventually blew up. While I struggled with that, I had to also deal with the Mets, who were the "in" team to root for, so every idiot (in my 10-year-old-or-so eyes) that barely knew anything about baseball suddenly became a Met fan, and couldn't understand why I wasn't. "They're from New York and so are you - why don't you root for them?"
Sigh. People don't understand rivalries.
It's funny, but if it weren't for the rivalry and the bitterness towards the new "fans", I probably would have been a pretty hardcore Gary Carter fan. Like "The Kid", I caught (and loved it), and would have worn an "8" on my back had our Little League put numbers on our t-shirts. Then again, we didn't even have team names - just colors - so I guess I should have been thankful we actually had teams. But Carter rubbed me wrong for whatever reason back then. Maybe it was the Met thing, but I think - oddly enough - it was due to his demeanor, something that endured him to fans through his career.
See, my catching idol was Thurman Munson. When you're 10 or 11 and you're looking for someone to emulate on the field, you generally look towards the person who plays your position on your favorite team. As a Yankee fan in the mid-80s, that wasn't easy. They said the position was cursed once the Yanks lost Thurman. Indeed - I wasn't exactly eager to pattern my catching style to Rick Cerone, Butch Wynegar, Ron Hassey, or Joel Skinner. I looked to the past, and adopted "The Captain" as my catching idol.
Now picture Thurman, then picture Gary Carter. Can you think of two more seemingly opposite players from appearance, at least from a 10-year-old's eyes? Thurman was badass - burly beard or mustache, never smiling, always down to business. Thurman looked like the guy who wouldn't bother just blocking the plate, but instead would charge down the third base line to bowl you over for thinking about it.
Gary Carter smiled. He was friendly and clean-shaven. He didn't smoke or drink heavily. In contrast to Munson, if Gary Carter had someone charging home, it seemed like he'd step aside, shake hands with the runner, and ask how he could have made the trip easier.
It just seemed wrong. And now that I'm older and have learned to look past the squeaky-clean personality and see him for what he was - a great catcher and as much of a leader as Thurman was - it seems silly how I felt back then. But when you're 10, that's just the type of thing you think.
Later, I remember Christmas shopping with my mom and learning that the "toughest" gift she had to get that year was for my cousin, whom she got an autographed 5x7 of Carter (my cousin's favorite player) for. I didn't get why it was hard to get that when you can get autographs in any store, but she told me that Gary didn't just sign autographs - you had to send a check (I think like $25) in order to get his, which I thought was stupid. When I learned why he did it - the money went to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, a disease that took his mom when he was young - I softened my stance on "The Kid". Sure - he was still a Met, but maybe while no one was looking, I could cheer him on too.
We lost Gary Carter to cancer yesterday. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2003, and was an 11-time All Star, 3-time Gold Glove winner, and member of the 1986 World Champion New York Mets. But more importantly, he was a hell of an ambassador for baseball; someone who kids and fellow players could look up to and emulate.
Goodbye, Gary Carter. Sorry about all the things I said in the 80s. You were a hell of a man.