I’m opening up the New Year with a bit of shameful self-indulgence. I’m going to write about something near and dear to my heart. I’m going to reminisce about my favorite player of all time.
A couple of points, just so you know; first, this will not be column devoted to Carter’s Hall of Fame worthiness (or lack thereof). I will not insult your intelligence by trying to prove something that is not. Second, this isn’t about Game 6 of the 1993 World Series, because this goes way back beyond that moment. For the record, what made that moment so special wasn’t just the fact that his blast off Phillies’ reliever Mitch Williams locked up a second straight Fall Classic, but that it was my favorite player who hit it.
Joe Carter came into my life in Bill James’ 1984 Baseball Abstract. There James was discussing two young Cubs prospects: Mel Hall and Joe Carter. James felt that Hall had the higher upside of the two and myself—always being the type that roots for the underdog—felt a sudden affinity for a player who I had never seen play and wasn’t even playing on one of my two rooting interests (the Expos and Blue Jays).
In the interest of full disclosure, I will state that while the Abstracts introduced me to sabermetrics, I was still very much an old school stat head entranced by things such as RBI, ERA, and batting average. It wasn’t until much, much later that I looked into the subject more closely.
My next exposure to Carter wasn’t until after he was traded to Cleveland along with minor leaguer Darryl Banks, Hall (of all people) and Don Schulze for Rick Sutcliffe, George Frazier, and Ron Hassey, and had a couple of average years in in 1984 and 1985.
Then there was 1986, which oddly enough would be Joe Carter’s finest year. He hit, for the first and only time, over .300 (.302), notched 200 hits on the nose, almost went 30/30 for the first time (he hit 29 home runs and stole 29 bases) and topped the century mark in both runs and RBIs. Although he would never top three digits in the runs column he would go on to be defined by the 100 RBI season. The following year he officially became a 30-30 player and silly me, with my rose colored glasses thought I was watching a sure-fire first ballot Hall of Fame career unfolding before my eyes.
Anyway, up to 1989 Carter was a good reason to make Indians-Blue Jays games “must-see TV.” He was settling in to be a consistent 30 home run, 100 RBI hitter, which back then was a pretty big deal. That December tragedy struck. Carter was dealt by the Tribe to the San Diego Padres for Sandy Alomar, Chris James and Carlos Baerga. The Expos weren’t getting near the TV time the Blue Jays were, so I knew that Expos-Padres games would be a rare item indeed … especially when half of their games—when they were televised—would be played on the other coast.
My minor case of angst lasted only a year before it became a major case of angst. Jays general manager Pat Gillick shook off his “stand Pat” label by swinging a colossal deal with the Padres, in which Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez were shipped west for Carter and Roberto Alomar. It was a major case of angst because while I liked Carter, I absolutely adored Fernandez. Remember while Joe was a favorite, he was still a player on another team, whereas I had been watching Fernandez win games for the Jays with both his bat and glove for about a decade. Any joy I had at getting Carter was blunted by the loss of Fernandez … and who the heck was this Alomar kid anyway? We had a pair of young second basemen in Manny Lee and Nelson Liriano.
Suffice it to say, it didn’t take long to warm up to Alomar.
After missing out on the AL East title in 1990, the Blue Jays new acquisitions (along with the Angels’ noted headcase center fielder Devon White and some kid named John Olerud, who was taking over for McGriff right out of college) powered past Boston and Detroit to a 91-71 record to cop the division and Mr. Carter was a big contributor with his both his fifth 20-20 season and his fifth 100 RBI season in the last six seasons.
Sadly, Carter turned his ankle early in the ALCS and pitcher Tom Candiotti forgot he was a knuckleballer and the Jays bowed out meekly to the Minnesota Twins in five games.
However 1992 and 1993, as you all remember, turned out pretty well for the Jays. Carter added two more 30 home run, 100 RBI campaigns to his resume and hit two home runs in both World Series, including the memorable one off the Williams (“Touch ‘em all Joe, you‘ll never hit a bigger home run in your life”—Blue Jays’ radio announcer, the late Tom Cheek). However in 1992 he became a free agent and it looked for all the world that he would go home and play for the Kansas City Royals. Those fears were allayed when he re-upped with Toronto. In addition, what made 1993 especially sweet was that after a slow start, when the Jays were mucking around .500 in June and looking nothing like defending World Series champs, Toronto shipped off disappointing Darrin Jackson, who came to Canada in exchange for Derek “Operation Shutdown” Bell to the Mets, and Fernandez came home and it was like he never left. Fernandez provided his usual spark with both his bat and glove, and the Jays were on course for Carter’s date with destiny.
Then came 1994, the strike, closer Duane Ward’s tendonitis (he’s still three weeks away), 55-60 etc. Adding to my general state of misery was the Expos’ magnificent season being detonated. Watching the Jays struggle was hard, but tolerable, thanks to Nos Amours looking like world beaters for the first time in 13 years and after Rick Monday had been safely retired for a decade.
I had to take solace in Carter’s sixth straight 100 RBI season … and the fact he did it in just 111 games.
Little did I know that Joe would be my sole bright spot for the next few years … or so I thought. To me, Carter equaled 100 RBI seasons. Nothing else mattered, not his strikeouts, his low OBP, nothing. In my mind all would eventually be well with the world and the Jays as long as he was there contributing his 100 RBIs.
All that came apart in 1995. The Jays sucked. There’s no kinder word for it. Carter’s RBI total fell to 76 and alarm bells went off. I started looking more critically at his performance. I began to notice how many outs he was making; his sudden maddening tendency to pop up with men on base—suddenly his normally low OBP became more significant. He rebounded a bit in 1996 with another 30 home run 100 RBI campaign at age 36; however his final 100 RBI season the following year couldn’t overshadow his .234/.284/.399 line in my mind. His struggles at the plate were painful to watch. Frankly, when the Jays let Carter leave as a free agent I was relieved.
I knew he was done as a ballplayer and I didn’t want to watch his death throes. Carter signed with Baltimore and his slide continued. He was subsequently dealt to the San Francisco Giants for their stretch run and he acquitted himself well. In 41 games, he hit .295/.322/.562 and looked like he might just have a bit left in the tank. However he retired on a high note instead.
Joe Carter, in my opinion was overrated because of his RBI yet underrated because of his low OBP (.306). Carter was more just than a slugger. There were other aspects of his game which rarely got any press. He was a heady baserunner and base stealer, successful in 77% of his steal attempts, with 231 career thefts. Carter was also a good defensive right fielder. He didn’t have a cannon out there, but he had a quick release and rarely missed the cutoff man or threw to the wrong base; his reads and routes were good, and he always hustled. He added to the team in other ways. Carter was willing to play left field, first base, and designated hitter. He would even fill in in center field when asked.
Then there was the smile. The man loved to play and it showed. I’ll always remember Carlos Delgado’s red hot April in 1994 (eight home runs). Carter got on base and Delgado launched yet another bomb off Window’s Restaurant. He waited for Delgado to circle the bases, and after Carlos crossed home plate he put his arm around the young slugger, looked up at where Delgado’s rocket landed and smirked as if to say, “Not bad kid.” What struck me about that moment is it appeared that the torch had been passed. It would take Delgado awhile to fully assume the mantle, but Carter knew the kid was the future and he would soon be the past.
And he seemed OK with that. No professional jealousy. He just seemed happy to be there to witness it. Ultimately, Delgado would go on to eclipse most of Carter’s Blue Jays records and I’m guessing Joe would say, “Good on ya kid,” about it.
I had a chance to meet Carter once, but I choked. Back in 2000 I was covering a series at SkyDome against the Yankees, and was hanging around the batting cage enjoying batting practice up close. I had successfully chatted up folks like Cito Gaston, Don Zimmer, Bernie Williams, Alex Gonzalez, and others without any problem. However Carter—since retired—strolled up to the batting cage to talk with Gaston. I was hoping to go up and strike up a conversation, but just couldn’t.
Regardless Joe—thanks for the memories and being better than Mel Hall.