From Jamestown to Montreal to HOF, Carter recalled by Fanning
*Gary Carter (above) is remembered by former Montreal Expos beat reporter Danny Gallagher, who covered the team for the Ottawa Sun ….
By Danny Gallagher
Gary Carter showed in Jamestown, N.Y. in the summer of 1972 for a short-term, rookie season in the Montreal Expos’ organization and he couldn’t believe what he saw.
“This is pro baseball?’’ the kid from the other side of the U.S. in California muttered to himself. “There was hardly anyone in the stands and they had horrible facilities. It was a rude awakening.’’
It was in that quaint upper state New York town that then Expos general manager Jim Fanning witnessed something special in the budding catcher and it was intangibles moreso than offensive and defensive prowess that stood out at first.
“My first impression of him came that first day I saw him in Jamestown where we brought in a lot of our young drafted players,’’ Fanning, 84, said in an interview this week. “I saw hustle, enthusiasm, zest. He was all over the place, running here and there. I saw great ability, all of the good stuff in a player you have signed. He was really exciting plus he had the size and strength. He was something special.’’
Jamestown aside, Carter’s outlook on a potential career improved as he made his way up the ladder in the Expos organization. In only two years, he got a glimpse of the majors when he was called up by the Expos for a cup of tea in 1974.
Then in 1975, he was up for good, securing 503 at-bats and he responded with 17 homers and 68 RBI, sometimes platooning behind the plate with Barry Foote, a guy very much admired by Expos skipper Gene Mauch, Carter became the No. 1 catcher in 1977, especially after a jarring spring training injury he incurred when he slammed into a brick wall.
“Carter was running for a fly ball and he hit the brick wall hard and I mean really hard. He split his head open and there were a lot of stitches,’’ Fanning said. “It wasn’t long after that we decided that Carter would be catching only.’’
Thus, the beginning of a Hall of Fame career that saw him star on those talented Expos teams from 1978-81, particularly the 1981 squad that lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL Championship Series. He played 10 full seasons with the Expos before being traded to the New York Mets after the 1984 season.
Carter, who died of brain cancer Feb. 16, was a work of art and showmanship. In the batter’s box, one saw Carter’s persona at work: he would tug at his left-shirt sleeve before each and every pitch, an unconscious, subtle flaunting of his muscles and of course, to try and get himself relaxed., the way New York Yankees star Derek Jeter does in putting his right hand back to tell the umpire that he’s almost ready to face the pitcher.
“Doing that was just something to get comfortable at the plate,’’ Carter told a Montreal writer in the 1990s. “It got you into a comfort zone and got you mentally prepared. I didn’t realize all those things in the batter’s box until I bought a video-play machine for $1,200 in California in 1980. That’s when those machine started coming out. I would see myself on the machine tugging on my sleeves.’’
Some of his Expos teammates thought he was hot-dogging with his sleeve pulling, omni-present smile and his eagerness to go out of his way to talk to the media. One teammate once said, “You couldn’t put enough mustard on that hotdog.’’
He would earn the nickname Kodak Kid and some called him Camera.
“Gary was the most personable player the Expos ever had,’’ Fanning said, laughing about the nickname Camera. “He had more personality than anyone on the team ever had. He was a great interview. He would do so many interviews before a game that we had to cut him down a lot because he had to get ready to play the game.
“Carter satisfied more fans than anyone else on the team put together. On the road, when we were leaving the ballpark to go to the hotel, he was the last guy on the bus because he was signing autographs. He had to tell the bus driver to wait a few minutes.’’
Carter would talk the talk and walk the walk and he backed it up with a stellar offensive and defensive career. He played one of the dirtiest positions in baseball, an almost thankless task. He played hurt, participated in more than 2,000 games, hit 324 homers and drove in 1,225 runs and was an all-star 12 times. He also a key figure in the New York Mets drive to a World Series win in 1986.
And as much as Carter wanted to be inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown wearing a Mets’ hat, hall officials advised him that he would have to wear an Expos hat. Carter would gradually take this snub in stride.
“People will remember me as an Expo,’’ Carter said years ago. “My identity is with the Expos, not anyone else. I’ve had the luxury and the pleasure of coming back to the organization where I started. Not many players can say that. The happiest day for me was signing with the Expos in 1972 and then coming back for the 1992 season. The saddest day was when I was traded to the Mets in 1984.’’
Expos majority owner Charles Bronfman decided to jettison Carter after the 1984 season because he regretted giving Carter an eight-year contract worth $16-million after the 1982 season.
“I was Charles’ scapegoat,’’ Carter told this writer years ago.
In exchange for Carter, the Expos received pitcher Floyd Youmans, infielders Hubie Brooks, outfielder Herm Winningham and catcher Mike Fitzgerald. Carter spent five years with the Mets and then played single seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants before returning to the Expos for the 1992 season. By then, he was a figment of his former self, batting .228 with five homers and 29 RBI.
In his last plate appearance, Carter uncorked a flyball over the head of former teammate and Chicago Cubs outfielder Andre Dawson for a double to score the only run of the game. He would not play again. He wanted to say he finished his career with a hit.
But there were other reasons for quitting then. He wanted to spend more time with his family and his body was hurting big-time after all those years behind the plate.
“My body was crying out to me. I didn’t want to hang on. I didn’t want to be remembered for hanging on,’’ Carter said.
“Carter had a fantastic career,’’ Fanning said. “He was an excellent, accurate thrower, a great catcher, who loved to play more than anything else. He was a money player just like he did with the Mets in the 1986 World Series. If you needed a big hit, he got you one. If you needed a big play, throwing somebody out, he could prove that.
“He was a crowd pleaser. He hustled all the time on very single pitch the whole game. His presence was seen by everybody in a game. All of the pitchers loved pitching to him. When a team came into town for a series, he’d look at the scorecard and tell the pitchers off the top of his head about the opposing players without any notes.
“To boot,’’ Fanning said, ‘’he was a tough guy, a man’s man.’’
(Danny Gallagher was a former Expos’ beat writer for the Ottawa Sun.)