This site may be a blip on the sports blog landscape, especially when it comes to the Habs. So when friend and reader Paul Branchaud asked to share his memories of Gary Carter posted for all Expos fans to read, I was honoured and happily obliged. Paul’s stirring homage to the hall of fame catcher is certainly one of the most heartfelt and honest tributes you’ll ever come across. Please have a read, and let Paul know your thoughts by leaving a comment below, contacting him via twitter (which you should have done already anyway), or connecting with him on facebook.
It was a little after 5pm, February 16, 2012, I was steps away from my home as I returned from work when my cell phone buzzed, informing me of an incoming text message. The TSN text alert read: “Former Montreal Expo and Baseball Hall of Famer Gary Carter has passed away at the age of 57.” It stopped me in my tracks.
Not so much because I was surprised. Anyone who has seen the devastation that cancer can do to an individual and their family is never truly surprised when they learn that cancer has claimed another victim. In fact, the January news that new tumours had been found on Carter’s brain was (to me, at least) unspoken code that Gary’s time on this mortal coil was drawing to a close.
When I read the text, my reaction was a mixture of obvious sadness and a bit of surprise. Surprise, because, even though I consider myself well acquainted with the speed with which cancer can claim a life, there was a part of me that held out hope that Gary Carter, of all people, would be able to beat his cancer. Picking it off like so many opposing teams’ failed attempts to steal second base. That hope was fed by the young boy inside me who can make the old exterior set aside the cynicism and look at the world of sport with wide-eyed amazement.
My sadness at the news that Gary Carter was no longer with us was different, however. There was something about this death that affected me deeper than any other professional athlete’s passing previously. I’d never met Gary Carter, yet I felt as if I’d known him for most of my life.
Gary’s smile, his obvious joie de vivre and kind demeanour were intoxicating, you couldn’t help but feel a little happier on the inside when you saw how he conducted himself on and off the field. From all accounts, it was genuine, never a put on. Carter’s love of the game and the fans stood out.
Some teammates resented his popularity and the attention he received from the media, but Carter reaped what he sowed: he gave of himself to the game and the fans and he was rewarded with a Hall of Fame career and a city that adored him.
I went to my first Expos game on a weekend afternoon in 1974 against the San Francisco Giants. It was Carter’s rookie year. I have few memories of that afternoon; I don’t remember if he played in that game, but I did return home with a poster of Carter making a running catch in the outfield, wearing his batting helmet. It stayed on my bedroom wall for close to 15 years.
It wasn’t until Carter moved behind the plate full-time and the Expos moved into the Olympic stadium that my infatuation with the Expos and Carter got into high gear. I went fairly regularly to games as the Expos developed into a contender. I remember going to the first Pearson Cup pitting expansion Canadian MLB cousins, the Toronto Blue Jays against Nos Amours.
As a young baseball fan, I knew the Expos had a good team. The roster contained names like Scott, Cromartie, Valentine, Speir, Parrish, Rogers, Lee, Fryman, and Carter. The Kid’s star rose along with the team’s popularity. With all the talent on the field, I’d always focus my attention to the guy behind the plate, and how he controlled what opposing hitters could do.
Carter was easily my favourite Expos player. Looking back on my youth, I can identify 3 professional athletes I looked up to and admired: Bernie Parent, Ken Dryden, and Gary Carter. Two hockey goalies and a baseball catcher. It must have been the extra gear they wore compared to their teammates that drew my attention long enough to appreciate their incredible athletic talent.
As much as I admired Parent and Dryden, I idolized Gary Carter. I spent hundreds of hours in the basement, swinging at imaginary pitches while wearing my plastic batter’s helmet (on which I had painted a number 8). I wasn’t dreaming of me being at the plate one day and stroking the game-winning homer, I was Gary Carter, down in the count 0-2 with 2 out in the bottom of the 9th. Game 7 of the World Series. I don’t need to tell you how that fantasy would always end.
Despite baseball being a team sport, where different people get their time to shine, Carter was the face of the Expos. His smile and good humour perfectly fit the city of Montreal, and his ease with the fans and their requests for autographs and pictures were crucial in the team’s emergence through the late 70s, when capacity crowds in the Big O were the rule rather than the exception.
When Carter was traded to the Mets in 1984, I was sad. I felt as if the Expos, by trading The Kid, had betrayed the fans, ignoring how important he was to the team in general and the city as a whole. It felt as if the Expos didn’t care about the players that the public adored. I was old enough to understand it was economics, but it didn’t diminish the pain. When Wayne Gretzky was traded to the Los Angeles Kings in 1989, I could totally sympathise with the emotions Edmonton Oilers fans were feeling. I knew their pain.
When Carter and the Mets won the World Series in 1986, I was happy for Carter but was rooting for the Red Sox (an affliction I have since cured myself of). He may not have been an Expo, but The Kid deserved a championship, and I was genuinely happy for him when he got his ring.
I sometimes wonder if Montreal baseball fans fully appreciated that Carter bookended his remarkable career by wearing an Expos jersey. All I have to do is re-watch his final career hit, a game-winning RBI double, and the crowd’s reaction in an otherwise meaningless game, and my concerns evaporate. The added beauty of that final hit was that Carter appreciated the crowd’s reaction and how beloved he was in this city.
The only time I ever felt any kind of anger or frustration with Carter was when he lobbied to go into Cooperstown as a New York Met. Baseball got it right, even if Gary disagreed. The pinnacle of his career may have come in New York, but his lasting legacy on the game of baseball was with the first non-American major league team.
I was happy to learn that the Canadiens would honour the memory of Gary Carter prior to their game against the Devils on February 19. They had done a good job of keeping the Expos’ flame burning since the team left after the 2004 season. I’d been to other Habs games where the team observed the passing of a significant personality, so I expected that they’d do a good job.
This was also going to be my youngest son’s first professional hockey game. He was enjoying our pre-game dinner at the restaurant, telling me, between mouthfuls of complimentary popcorn, that he didn’t mind if we were late for the start of the game. I had to explain to him that it was important for ME to be there before the start, because the Canadiens would honour Gary Carter, and he was my favourite athlete when I was young. Shoving a few more handfuls of popcorn into his mouth, he accepted that it was time to head for our seats.
We caught the very end of warm-up, with the Canadiens all wearing Carter 8 jerseys. Before the ceremony started, I thought back to all the games I had seen Carter play in, I felt sympathy for his family who’d seen him suffer, I felt sadness that he never got to manage a team in the majors, but most of all, I thought back to that poster on my bedroom wall and how much I wanted to be Gary Carter.
As the ceremony started, I felt more sadness than I had since I first learned the news of Carter’s death. I managed to keep my emotions mostly in check throughout all the images, videos, and strains of The Eagles’ “New Kid in Town”. That is until Youppi came out in an Expos jersey. That’s when I completely lost it.
I couldn’t control the tears or keep the sadness in check any more. My childhood idol had died, and with him went the face of Nos Amours. The pain and sadness of his death doubled for me in that moment, because without Gary Carter, the death of the Expos was now irrevocable.
Les Expos, Nos Amours. Gary Carter, Le Grand Amour de Nos Amours. Godspeed, Gary. Thank you for a lifetime of wonderful memories.