A Writer Apologises to the Kid

It still takes a big man to say he thinks he stuck the needle into the wrong vein.

Jeff Pearlman, the Sports Illustrated writer who seems never to have met a controversial athlete he couldn’t analyse nigh unto death, is proving himself a very big man these days. The news that Gary Carter’s brain cancer has taken a far more grave turn, news his daughter (Kimmy Bloemers, Palm Beach Atlantic’s softball coach, where her father is baseball coach) disclosed several days ago, has prompted the author of The Bad Guys Won, his remarkable retrospective study of the 1986 Mets, to issue a prose prayer with a mea culpa tucked inside:

Once he swung for the fences, now Gary Carter's swinging for his life . . .

It was a celebratory look at a team I loved as a boy, and while I praised the uproarious antics of men like Gooden, Strawberry and Dykstra, I juvenilely needled (OK, mocked) Carter. Why, the first sentence of Chapter 6 reads, “Gary Carter is a geek” — a reference to his Boy Scout ways and Theodore Cleaver goodness¬†. . . Few Major Leaguers appreciated Carter’s gung-ho attitude, and they infuriated (veteran incumbent Montreal catcher Barry) Foote by reminding him that, “The Kid’s sure got heart!” and “Hey, look at the Kid’s hustle!”

Upon arriving in Montreal (and, later, New York), Carter was routinely the butt of jokes, tagged “Camera Carter” and “Lights” for his apparent love of the limelight and scorned for his unwillingness to sleep with groupies on the road. “He rubbed a lot of people the wrong way,” Warren Cromartie, an Expos outfielder, once told me. “Gary was just … different.”

Yet, in hindsight, different wasn’t merely different. It was courageous. With both the Expos and Mets, Carter easily could have drifted toward the dark side, a la Gooden and Strawberry. He certainly had his choice of women and, had he so desired, his choice of drugs. In the confines of a professional locker room, peer pressure looms as largely as it does in a high school hallway. Cool divides itself from uncool, and makes certain to keep its distance. The takes on Carter that he was trying to highlight himself, that he was an over-promoter with a giant ego — weren’t merely hurtful. They were incorrect.

Carter stood out because he cared and he hustled, and because family and the game of baseball were more important to him than finding the nearest strip club. Teammates like Cromartie and Strawberry, both of whom, in immature days, went out of their ways to ostracize Carter, did so out of insecurity. They saw an uncompromised figure and didn’t much care for the vision of it.

This ought to jolt those to whom Pearlman has been something between a snitch and a skunk. He’s had that image, apparently, ever since his notorious expose about once-formidable but sadly stunted Atlanta Braves relief pitcher John Rocker. But he also composed perhaps the single most insightfully revealing biography of Barry Bonds (and a similar tome about Roger Clemens), painting a portrait through some 524 interview subjects of a man to whom talent was a licence to be somewhere between searing and subhuman. (What did it finally say that, when Bonds finally excised himself from the game he’d come to soil, his team began to feel like a place to have fun—and won a World Series within three years of his departure?) On the other hand, his recent biography of Chicago Bears immortal Walter Payton was hammered somewhat for having revealed Payton to have been only too human, never mind that Pearlman’s tone was anything but that of a scolding judge.

Pearlman’s prose prayer for Carter is as humbling to a reader as it must have been to its author, who hadn’t actually been as harsh in reviewing the Carter image as he seems to have feared. He had been a boyhood fan of the 1980s Mets who culminated, in all their randy glory (the sprawling subtitle of Pearlman’s eventual book: A Season of Brawling, Boozing, Bimbo-Chasing, and Championship Baseball with Straw, Doc, Mookie, Nails, the Kid, and the Rest of the 1986 Mets, the Rowdiest Team Ever to Put On a New York Uniform—and Maybe the Best) with an extraterrestrial 1986 World Series triumph. (They’d steamrolled the league in the regular season, yet needed a couple of hair-raisers to win the pennant against the Houston Astros and the Series against the Boston Red Sox.)

Yogi and the Kid at Shea's closing: Two New York catchers whose clean images weren't lies . . .

Carter wasn’t the only member of the 1986 Mets’ clean contingent; he was joined by outfielder Mookie Wilson, infielders Tim Teufel and Howard Johnson, and perhaps one or two others. He was merely the most overt of the contingent (it took quite a guy to make the effervescent Wilson resemble a clinical depressive by comparison), and he offered no apologies for it. He really didn’t drink. He really didn’t do any drug stronger than what a doctor might prescribe for a given illness, and never recreationally. He really didn’t smoke. He really didn’t swear, not in normal conversation. (Carter, believe it or not, is said to have put an inadvertent motivational slogan into his mates’ minds, in the bottom of the tenth, Game Six, 1986 World Series, when he muscled a two-out quail for a single off shaky Boston reliever Calvin Schiraldi, and told first base coach Bill Robinson, “I’ll be damned if I’m gonna make the last f—in’ out of this f—in’ World Series!”) He really didn’t run around on his wife. He really didn’t let his salary just stop to catch a breath in his pocket on its way to the nearest trendy haberdasheries, refer to himself in the third person, or engage a large entourage.

For that, Carter spent most of his major league career as an object of derision. Now, the Hall of Famer fights for his life after a lifetime of living cleanly and without blemish, other than perhaps the standard just-human blemishes to which even the cleanest of men are vulnerable in periodic spells. I only ever knew Carter to make one big public mistake, his apparent lobbying to succeed embattled Willie Randolph as the Mets’ manager a few years ago, while seeming to forget for the moment that Randolph hadn’t yet gotten that close to the Mets’ guillotine. I zapped Carter for that one in an older and now defunct e-journal. If that’s the only legitimate blemish on Carter’s resume, he’s still a far better man than most of those to whom he was something between a nuisance and a virus.

“Gary is a great man,” his ’86 Mets teammate (and World Series MVP) Ray Knight told Pearlman for The Bad Guys Won, “and if a lot of people emulated his lifestyle, they’d be a lot better off.” That’s what whispers from between the words Pearlman deploys now. What also whispers from between those words is what Pearlman can’t bring himself to say outright, even as he’s seized by the need to apologise:¬†Living right, living clean, dying at 57, where’s the justice?

Carter is too modest to say it for himself. His loving daughter is too respectful of her father’s fortitude to say it for him. But right now there must be quite a contingency asking the same question: where’s the justice, for a man who turned a derisively-applied nickname into a badge of courage known as The Kid, and whose clean life is under siege from an insidiously advanced disease for which the prospects of conquest look as small as his critics when faced with a genuinely decent man?

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