Last week when Gary Carter, the Hall of Fame catcher and catalyst of probably the most famous rally in baseball history, died at only 57 years old, the baseball world mourned the passing of a great and beloved ballplayer. I found myself more saddened than I might have expected by his death. This is partially due to the arc of Carter’s career and life dovetailing so well with my life as a baseball fan. Carter was one of the few, maybe only, Hall of Fame players whose first baseball card came out the year I started collecting. His best years, from the late 1970s to the mid 1980s corresponded with my most youthful and intense period of being a baseball fan. He was not a fully formed star like Johnny Bench or Reggie Jackson when I first became aware of baseball, but he began his career at a time when my infatuation with baseball could still be described as childlike wonder.
Although Carter spent his best years with the Montreal Expos and New York Mets, two teams for whom I did not have strong feeling one way or the other when Carter was playing, throughout his career, I always rooted for Carter. He and, for some reason, Mike Schmidt were my favorite players of that era who played for neither of the teams I rooted for. I am not sure what the reasons for this were, but even though Carter played most of his career on teams a long way from San Francisco, where I grew up, I always liked him as a player and as a person.
My positive disposition towards Carter only grew as he became an older player. I cheered when he started that amazing rally with two outs in the 10th inning of game six in 1986 and cheered even more when Carter joined the San Francisco Giants in 1990 as his career was winding down. Carter managed a pretty good season for a 36 year old catcher that year platooning with Terry Kennedy. My friends and I made too many bad jokes about the Giants catching situation and the 1980 Democratic Primary that year.
I have never met Carter, and only seen him play in person maybe 40 times, including the 1984 All-Star Game, the only one I have ever attended, in which he won the MVP. Nonetheless, by the time he retired I felt genuine fondness for him. I remember getting in an angry email exchange with one of my oldest friends on the eve of the announcement of Carter’s election to the Hall of Fame in late 2002. My friend argued that Carter was a “cusper” while I asserted that Carter was one of the greatest catchers ever and unambiguously deserved a plaque in Cooperstown. Without spending a lot of time reviewing the data now, it remains clear that I was right and he was wrong.
When I heard the news of Carter’s death, I was upset, but also reflective. I realized that although a real person with a family, aspirations for his later years, worries and memories of his own had died, that had not been my loss. My loss was the idea of Gary Carter, something that was much more defined by a page on Baseball Reference, a few of my memories and some old highlight reels. I realized that I did not know if I would have liked the real Gary Carter, about whom I knew very little other than that he, like me, loved baseball, and who in death at least seemed to have a degree of religiosity with which I would not have been comfortable had I known him. However, I also knew how much I had liked the, or rather, my, idea of Carter.
I had a parallel experience recently while watching a program about game seven of the 1991 World Series on the MLB Network. During the program Jack Morris, the star of that game, was interviewed extensively. As I watched that interview, I became aware that Morris, whose candidacy for the Hall of Fame I strongly oppose, and for whom as a player I had not had strong positive or negative feelings, seemed like a decent, friendly, hard-working man who shared my and Carter’s passion for baseball. Although I had never really liked the idea of Jack Morris, I found myself kind of liking the real person.
Being an intense sports fan is, in many respects, an irrational pursuit that often involves a tenuous relations with reality. Using words like “we” or “my” to describe a favorite team; feeling passionate about the success of one group of players from all over the U.S., Latin America and Asia, with whom one has no personal connection, and wishing failure for another very similar group; losing sleep, even feeling sick after a loss; or believing that your own random acts can influence your team’s outcomes are all examples of this irrationality. However, this irrationality does not make the feelings any less real. My idea of Gary Carter was real; and so was the sadness I felt when the real person died.