Occasionally I use this space to write about stuff that matters to me, not just hockey or the Canadiens. Today is one of those days. It's a sad day for me and millions of other baseball fans -- but I'm finding happiness in it too.
And although this blog is called HabsFan in LeafLand, my avatar picture from which you can see has never been the typical shot of me in a Habs jersey, and is instead a caricature of myself as a smiling child, swinging for the fences in a Montreal Expos uniform. That should tell you something about who I am and where I come from.
I may have been wearing Ellis Valentine's #17, but the smile is all Gary Carter.
That drawing was done in the summer of 1980 when I was 8 years old and it means a lot to me for many reasons. It marks a part of my life where I lost some of my innocence... my father had passed away that previous winter and my mother and brothers were on the ropes emotionally. But my mother's strength and guidance allowed us to continue and she followed through on my father's promise to take us on vacation to the Nevele Country Club in the Catskill Mountains, where they had their honeymoon years before. This caricature was drawn there.
I remember struggling to decide over which number to include on my jersey. It was between Ellis Valentine's 17 and Gary Carter's 8.
I chose Valentine's number. And I regretted it ever since. But the smile -- it's all Gary Carter.
Gary Carter passed away at the age of 57 on Thursday and I did shed some tears for him. As I did when the Expos left Montreal.
The Expos feted Gary Carter's election into Baseball's Hall of Fame by putting him on their Official Schedule for the 2003 season -- their second to last in Montreal.
A part of my life, one of my two childhood idols -- the other being Guy Lafleur -- gone before his time. It's funny, I was visiting an investment advisor late Thursday afternoon who also happened to be from Montreal originally and as I was leaving asked if he still followed the Canadiens. Sure he did. The Expos too, he said. I then mentioned Carter, that he wasn't well, probably wasn't going to make it.
I came home and heard the news. RDS' "5 a 7" dedicated their entire show to him. Then a friend called and asked me if I had heard the news. That when he found out, he thought of me. Because he knew how I would feel. That made me feel a bit better, actually.
Carter showing the ball to the umpire in a classic pose. The Expos finally beat those pesky Phillies in '81 to go on to the National League Championship. That was the best!
I have no hesitation or hang ups to say this very clearly: I love Gary Carter.
He never knew me, but I knew and loved him as did so many others in Montreal and New York. He was loved -- not just cheered -- and that's what made him so special and unique. Because in the modern era of sports which is chock-full of overpaid, egotistical and selfish athletes -- Gary Carter stood apart.
His enthusiasm, his generosity, his hustle, his work ethic, his charms, his genuineness -- let alone his clutch hitting and howitzer of an arm -- it's all what made him special and endeared us to him that much more.
I will always have a special place in my heart for Gary "The Kid" Carter. I know it's true for my brothers as well, even though they may not express it as much.
As kids watching the Expos, he was bar none our favourite player. The chant of "Garrrry" a familiar refrain in our den. To this day we still exclaim it to eachother. Even this past December, when I was organizing a trip for us to Sawgrass to play the Stadium course there, my older brother replied "Garrrryyy" in an email response because the guy organizing our arrangements at the resort was named Gary.
Gary Carter's signed "game worn" batting jersey, circa 1982-84. From Gary to Ari, I will hold this jersey dear. We all wanted a piece of "The Kid" and I have one.
Gary Carter was the heart and soul of the Expos teams of the mid-to-late seventies and early eighties and I will always cherish the memory of him leaping into Steve Rogers' arms after the Expos clinched the National League Eastern Division in 1981.
He gave me thrills and chills as a child rooting for my hometown team. I loved it when he was named All-Star M.V.P. twice and the fact that he was finally getting league-wide recognition that Johnny Bench and Carlton Fisk obtained solely for playing in Cincinnati and Chicago. I loved watching him gun down base runners or catch pop ups behind home plate. The guy never missed. He was money. I loved watching him being introduced and watching his joy and enthusiasm. I loved seeing him raise his glove high, showing the home plate ump the ball after tagging out a runner at home. And I loved trying to copy his swing, hitting balls behind a high school with my brothers: right side of the plate, weight on the back right leg, open stance, hands upright with bat pointing straight up.
Sure I have many memories of the Expos from my childhood and liked a lot of players like Valentine, Dawson, Cromartie and Steve Rogers. But Gary, he was it. He was special. He was there, living in Pointe Claire making an effort to speak French, selling 7UP and other stuff on t.v., whatever.
Gary wearing the jersey in spring training. It's in good hands, Kid.
He was a class act all the way, and even if some of his teammates and others around the league thought he was a show-off and camera-hungry, it's only because they were jealous of his raw talent and charisma. At least that's what my mother would say.
Baseball was my father's favourite sport and he even had aspirations to play pro until he was injured as a teen prospect. He passed his love of the game on to me. I played hardball every year as a kid up to age 14... and when I was twelve I strapped on the pads and played catcher -- just like Gary. I mowed 'em down the best I could when they tried to steal second, just like Gary. And just like Gary, I was an all-star that year.
The day he was traded, I found out early in the morning. Back then, I was delivering the Montreal Gazette newspaper before going to school. The trade to the Mets was on the front page. It was also a sad day. But the team was moving on, and so did he. It's funny how in '86, the Habs won the Stanley Cup and later that year, Gary finally realized his dream of winning the World Series. Just not with the Expos unfortunately.
Gary Carter's book "A Dream Season." In it, he candidly discusses why he was traded from the Expos. Namely because owner Charles Bronfman thought he was making too much money. He also mentions how he would have liked to have played his entire career with the Expos and be a "franchise player -- like Ernie Banks."
Carter was always clutch. And true to form, he lined a single to left. Without Gary, Bill Buckner would just be a normal, former ball player instead of being known for letting a grounder dribble through his legs allowing the Mets to win. It took me awhile, but eventually I was very happy and proud of Gary. He just never quit. He'd never be the last out.
And in that spirit, it should also be remembered that Gary Carter wasn't the last out in the '81 Championship Series against the Dodgers on that fateful "Blue Monday." Carter got on base. But unfortunately for the Expos, someone else on that squad made the last out. Just wasn't Gary. Carter was at his best that post-season, batting .429, clubbing 2 homers, 4 doubles and 6 RBIs.
My 1982 All-Star Game ball, with the entire signatures of the National League team -- including Duke Snyder, who was the team's honorary captain. We all wanted Carter to be the game's M.V.P. but that eventually went to Dave Concepcion of the Reds. Gary's signature can be seen right below Snyder's signature in the picture on the right. Played in Montreal, I remember watching the game on ABC and listening to Howard Cosell say how bad the Olympic Stadium's artificial turf was. He was right!
The guy had the flair for the dramatic. So when Carter at age 38 played his final year with Montreal, everything seemed to be right again. His last at-bat in his career was classic Gary -- slamming the ball to the opposite field and over the extended arm of -- how fittingly -- Andre Dawson -- who was playing for the Cubs. Maybe Dawson didn't want to catch that ball!? Whatever. Carter's double scored Larry Walker. The crowd went nuts. And there was a pretty good crowd too. Expos win 1-0. Gary Carter got the game winning RBI. What a way to end it all.
Gary's spirit will live on in those who knew him; it will live on in the hearts of Expos and Mets fans alike; it will live on in Baseball's Hall of Fame and it lives on with me.
It took 6 years before he was finally elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, the first to go in as an Expo. But he was already a Hall of Famer in our hearts.
It's not just that he was "The Kid." Gary Carter was the kid in all of us.