I will be away the next five days or so, hibernating in the back woods of Vermont, with no access to the InterWeb. As we all make our way into this post-Gary Carter world, some thoughts...
The Kid had been sick since May, so his death on Thursday at the age of 57 should not have been a complete shock. Yet for many of us, it felt like a death in the family. I never met Gary Carter and I have no personal knowledge of whether or not that gleaming smile was genuine or masked a dark soul. From everything I have read from folks who knew and loved Carter, he was indeed as pure and gracious privately as his public image suggested.
When people die young and somewhat suddenly (Carter was diagnosed with brain cancer only nine months ago), it is natural to extract some meaning from the tragedy...a pointless exercise but an ancient ritual anyway. How did a clean living, God fearing, family-loving guy meet such an early end?
It got me thinking about Whitney Houston and from there I found an answer. "Kingman has gone mad!" you might say, but I believe there is a Carter/Houston connection worth exploring.
Full disclosure: I am not a fan of Whitney Houston's music. She had a tremendous voice, no doubt, but her tunes were not ever for me. Yet in the mid-1980's, if you owned a radio, you knew every tune Whitney ever sang.
Thus when I think of 1986, I will always think of the Mets World Series, graduating from high school...and Whitney Houston.
That is because when I graduated in May, 1986, some joker thought it a good idea to play "The greatest love of all" as our class marched into the ceremony. I am pretty sure no one in my all-boys Jesuit high school owned Whitney's album or had ever deliberately played that tune on any pre-mp3 device we possessed in those analog days. But for the rest of my life, whenever I hear Whitney Houston, I remember sharing WTF looks with my fellow seniors as we marched into adulthood.
Whitney and Carter. 1986. Leaving home. Heading to college. Coming home for playoff games and the World Series. Carter's clutch playoff hit in game 5 against Houston. His two home runs against Boston in game 4. His single that started it all in Game 6. Why do we not celebrate that single as much as Mookie's dribbler? Carter was this close to being a desultory answer to a bar bet: Who made the last out of the 1986 World Series? Who squashed our dreams? Who squandered our 108 victories? Oh yeah, Carter. He was no John Stearns.
Instead, Carter stood square in the box when everyone else had their heads in their hands...when Keith was cracking open a beer back in Davey's office. Carter came through. He kept hustling. He made those Mets LEGENDS that night.
Yet as kids, who did we worship? Keith, that lovable chain-smoking, crossword puzzler. Strawberry. Always complaining. Frequently producing. And Doc. Chalking up the K's. We cheered and turned our heads as his promising career started making the rehab rounds. Wally. Lenny. Bobby O. They weren't just ballplayers to us. They were rock stars. Those were the guys we latched onto, not Carter. He was home with the wife and kids while, in our teenage minds, Keith and Straw were keeping New York up until dawn.
Carter was just like Whitney's music - safe, sanitized, reliable. Anybody can do that.
Turns out, not everybody can.
Sadly, Whitney Houston's life was not imitating art. Behind that gorgeous smile and those angelic features, a tortured soul fought demons for decades before succumbing. Fans are left wondering, was it all just a mirage? Is anything real?
Yet 26 years down the road from the magic of 1986 and The Bad Guys who Won, it's Gary Carter in the Hall of Fame. Straw, Doc - they were shoe-ins for Cooperstown but The Life got in the way. Keith fell short too. In the hours since Carter passed, both Strawberry and Backman have said that if they could do it all over again, they'd want to be the man Carter was. He had it all figured out before them, they said.
Turns out, Carter wasn't just an act, mugging for the cameras. His hustle, his essence was not a con, but the core of the man. Maybe we were all blinded by his light then but we see it now: Carter was a Player, the embodiment of all those things we fell in love with about baseball before we learned they weren't really true. Ty Cobb? Great player/racist bully. Babe Ruth? Legend/louche. It seems inevitable that our heroes will let us down. Carter never did.
And the way he went out of this world, fighting to the end, only makes his legend more believable. We hope we can be like him when our time comes and make the most of our time while we got it. That's how the game is played. Like the song says, I believe The Kid is the future.
Thanks for the lesson, Gary: