By In Stuff

The Kid

There have been more than a dozen big league baseball players through the years who were called Kid … but I suspect that the name didn’t fit any of them quite the way “Kid” fit Gary Carter.

He got the Kid nickname the way most young ballplayers get nicknames … from veteran players, and complete with derision and sarcasm. Carter was in spring training in 1974, barely out of Sunny Hills High School — really, just a kid — and he was running sprints like mad and acting like each drill was more important than the national debt. He was responsible for getting ice cream for teammates, and he did this happily. They started calling him Kid. Well, sure they did.

“Hey, settle down there, Kid.”

“It’s a long season, Kid.”

“Watch out, the Kid’s going to take your job.”

“You don’t want to hurt yourself on your first day, Kid.”

That’s how it began, but here was the difference: Gary Carter really never stopped being Kid. Sure, they called Ted Williams Kid, but that really never fit and it eventually sounded so ridiculous that they gave him a bunch of other nicknames — Thumper, Splendid Splinter, Teddy Ballgame and all that. They called Ken Griffey Jr. Kid, but that too wore off after a while, after the years had taken their toll, after playing baseball no longer seemed to be as much fun. Kid Gleason, Kid Nichols, Billy DeMars … as they grew older the nickname seemed ironic. That’s how it goes. Kids grow up.

But Gary Carter didn’t grow up. Oh, he got older, that was noticeable. His body changed. His swing changed. His game changed. But he didn’t grow up. He never seemed to lose his enthusiasm, his zeal. He seemed to love playing baseball to the end — and not love it in some vague, distant way but love it the way a kid does, all out, like it was the first day of spring training. He called his book ‘Still a Kid At Heart.” That seemed right.

He had never expected this baseball journey. He was the younger brother of a baseball phenom. Gordon Carter was a remarkable high school baseball player, and the Angels took him in the second round of the 1968 Draft. He spurred them to go play for Southern California — this was in the time of Vietnam — and soon after that he was drafted in the secondary draft by the Giants. “You’ll be back for my kid brother,” he told the scout who signed him.

The scout did come back but not with any real hope. Everyone assumed Gary Carter was going to play college football. He had twice been a Punt, Pass and Kick finalist — he would always say that he should have won the second time, but he slipped on the ice in the bitter cold of Green Bay — and he had a scholarship and holding place waiting for him at UCLA. He looked the part of the star quarterback; he would say that his dream was to be the next Joe Namath.

But legendary scout Bob Zuk — who had signed Willie Stargell and Darrell Evans and so many others — saw Gary Carter play baseball. He was blown away. It wasn’t just the talent; anyone could see Carter’s strong arm and hitting power. Zuk was an old-time scout, the sort who believed that he could see beyond talent, beyond tools and peer deep into a player’s soul. Carter’s soul was there on the surface — he played baseball with so much energy and life and excitement. Zuk told the Montreal Expos management they had to see this guy. The Expos drafted him in the third round. Soon after he went to training camp and was called Kid. Soon after that, he finished second in the Rookie of the Year balloting. And in time, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Carter was a fabulous player in Montreal, and a very good good one for a while in New York. He hit with power — nine times he hit between 20 and 32 homers, this in times where those home run numbers meant something. He was a smart, tough catcher who could really throw — three times he led the league in caught-stealing percentage. He might have been the best player in the National League in 1982. He led the National League in RBIs in 1984. He made every All-Star Game for 10 years. And, of course, he refused to make the last out of the 1986 World Series, and was one of the key players in one of the most jolting and memorable comebacks in the history of the game.

But, for some reason, it always seemed to me, he never was never quite as big a star as he should have been. The Montreal teams he played on seemed to underachieve annually — he took blame for that. His clean-cut image and personality did not quite fit in with those wild New York Mets teams — he took blame for that too. He played years past his prime — and for four different teams his last four years — which probably led people to forget and undervalue his greatness. His relatively low batting averages (Carter never hit .300 for a full season) played its role too.

Then there was just this too-good-to-be-true thing going with Gary Carter — he didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, seemed to be happily married to the same woman, studied the Bible, gave good quotes, smiled for the camera, smiled for everybody, reached down to pick up garbage he happened to see anywhere near the field. Teammates, many of them, just didn’t quite get him. Strangers, many of them, were suspicious. There he was, in late August, still smiling while their bodies ached, still going full speed when the temperature was scorching 100, still the Kid long after most of the others had grown up.

I remember something someone once wrote about the late Johnny Carson — wrote that everyone thinks they know Carson, but we really don’t. We know the persona of Johnny Carson, the comedian, the improviser, the late night host with impeccable timing and the unique ability to express warmth through a television screen. But, the author wrote, that isn’t the REAL Johnny Carson, who was very private and distant, married four times, had few friends and all that.

The point was forceful, but I’m not sure it was entirely right. The author assumed that the private Johnny Carson was the real Johnny Carson, and the public Johnny Carson fake. Maybe that’s true. Then again, maybe it isn’t.

During his playing days, I remember, people in and around the game often wondered who was the REAL Gary Carter. There would be a lot of talk about that around the game. I saw him live his last year — I was still a kid reporter, and the Expos had come to Atlanta — and he went 0-for-4 and looked old and everybody talked about him. No, there were never a shortage of people who wondered what was in the heart of this person who seemingly never stopped smiling, never had bad days, never stopped playing baseball with all that fire and devotion?

Maybe we saw a little bit of that real Gary Carter in the last few months, when he courageously faced the brain tumors that would kill him. He was there for Opening Day for the Palm Beach Atlantic college team he coached. He told people not to feel sorry for him. He stayed close to his family. I remember watching my friend Dan Quisenberry die of brain cancer, and how strong he was in the last months. Gary Carter was like that. He died Thursday. He was three months from his 58th birthday.

And, so, what is real? Of course, the people who knew Gary Carter — his family, his friends, his teammates — knew a Gary Carter that we didn’t know. But over the years I probably watched at least part of a couple hundred games of Gary Carter’s career on television or in ballparks, maybe more. I saw him doing something that he so obviously loved to do. I saw him throw out base runners, and I saw him hit home runs, and I saw him lash that single off Calvin Schiraldi with the World Series on the brink. I saw him play with such apparent joy, all the time, he was infectious and alive and so many times he made my day just a little bit better. He was the Kid. That Gary Carter was real too.

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