Gary Carter fought brain cancer with the same grit and optimism that he employed as an all-star catcher with the Montreal Expos.
Sadly, the ebullient Hall of Famer lost his battle with the disease on Thursday at age 57.
“Gary was just a fun person. He always had a smile on his face,” recalled Jerry White, who played with Carter for 10 seasons in Montreal, in a phone interview in late January. “He was a well-rounded guy and a solid player.”
In May 2011, Carter announced that four small tumours had been discovered on his brain. The tumours were later deemed malignant and inoperable, but Carter vowed to fight the disease. His daughter, Kimmy Bloemers, blogged about his battle and disclosed on Jan. 19 that an MRI had revealed four new tumours on Carter’s brain.
In that entry, Bloemers also divulged that her dad had fallen twice in recent weeks, including a tumble in the hallway of his doctor’s office that resulted in a torn rotator cuff.
Born in Culver City, Calif., in 1954, Carter was an all-American quarterback in high school before suffering a knee injury that would wipe out his senior season. Despite the injury, however, Carter would receive numerous football scholarship offers.
But baseball was Carter’s passion and he would sign with the Montreal Expos as an 18-year-old in 1972, and after just two and a half seasons in the minors, he would make his major league debut on Sept. 16, 1974.
Though it’s hard to fathom now, Carter was used primarily as an outfielder for his first two big-league seasons, before Expos manager Dick Williams made him his everyday catcher in 1977.
From 1974 to 1984, Carter evolved into not only the most popular Expo, but one of the most popular athletes in Canada. Nicknamed “The Kid” for his boyish enthusiasm for the game, the upbeat catcher was adored by fans and was a go-to player for the media.
Carter’s love for the camera sometimes rubbed his teammates the wrong way, as did his clean-cut image and business savvy, which helped him land several lucrative endorsement deals.
He was also a deeply religious man who spoke openly about his faith. And as Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow can attest, religion is often ridiculed in testosterone-fuelled clubhouses where profanity reigns and conversations often revolve around women and alcohol.
But no teammate would question Carter’s efforts and productivity on the field. Carter would club 20 or more home runs in six different campaigns for the Expos. He also captured three Gold Gloves and was named the team’s player of the year four times.
“Gary was not your typical home run hitter,” recalled Bill Atkinson, a relief pitcher from Chatham, Ont., who was Carter’s teammate from 1976 to 1979. “He was a line drive hitter. The big thing was, Gary was consistent. If he went 0-for-3 one night, he’d go 2-for-3 the next night.”
Wallace Johnson, Carter’s Expos teammate from 1981 to 1984, admired the Kid’s tenacity and defensive skills.
“You knew it was going to be a fight to play the Expos with Gary Carter behind the plate,” he told CBCSports.ca recently. “He was just a gamer. If you look up the definition of a gamer, it was Gary Carter.”
The enthusiastic backstop was also a leader on the Expos club that advanced to the playoffs in 1981. In 10 post-season contests, Carter would rack up 15 hits.
'He was always full of spirit and full of fight and he led us to war.' — Wallace Johnson, Carter’s Expos teammate from 1981 to 1984
“Gary would get you all fired up and he was just a rah-rah guy in the clubhouse,” remembered White. “We’d do something and we’d score a run or something great would happen on the field and he’d throw his fist up and say, ‘Yeah!’ He’d be snapping high fives and all that stuff.”
Johnson has similar recollections of Carter.
“I think what I remember most was Gary’s unabashed enthusiasm,” he said. “He was always full of spirit and full of fight and he led us to war. He was just a great guy.”
In a blockbuster trade that sent shock waves through the Canadian baseball community, Carter was swapped to the New York Mets on December 10, 1984 in exchange for Hubie Brooks, Mike Fitzgerald, Floyd Youmans and Herm Winningham.
Over the next five seasons in New York, Carter would compete in four all-star games and help the Mets win the 1986 World Series. His two-out single in the 10th inning of Game 6 of the 1986 Fall Classic sparked the legendary Mets’ rally that eventually led to Mookie Wilson hitting the ground ball between Bill Buckner’s legs.
After one-season tenures with the Giants (1990) and Dodgers (1991), Carter returned to Montreal for his final big league campaign. Although a shell of his former shelf, Carter contributed 62 hits in 95 contests, including a game-winning double against the Cubs on Sept. 27 in his final at-bat.
In all, in parts of 12 seasons with Montreal, Carter played in 1,503 games (second in franchise history) and belted 220 home runs (third in franchise history). His No. 8 was retired by the club in 1993.
In 19 big-league seasons overall, Carter socked 324 home runs and drove in 1,225 runs. For his efforts, the 11-time all-star was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2003, becoming the first player to be featured in an Expos cap on their plaque.
Following his playing career, Carter served as a TV analyst for the Marlins and Expos, before coaching and managing in the Mets organization and later in the independent leagues. His final coaching stint was with the NCAA Division II Palm Beach Atlantic University Sailfish.
Carter, who lived in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., leaves behind his wife Sandy and his three children Christy, Kimmy and D.J.
“Gary would give you the shirt off his back. He was a great Christian guy that I was just blessed to know,” said Johnson.