When we were following baseball in the late 1970s, three National League catchers stood above the rest. No. 1 was Johnny Bench, the standard-bearer for catchers who hit with power and shut down the opposition’s running game. The third-best catcher was Ted Simmons, a terrific hitter who deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.
In between Bench and Simmons was Gary Carter, who died Thursday at 57. He was a power hitting force of energy who knew how to massage struggling pitchers and who knew how to lead a clubhouse.
So as a catcher, Carter ran second to Johnny Bench, at least for awhile. But when it came to human qualities, Carter didn’t have to run second to many other people.
In the past, I’ve heard cynics accuse Carter of being less than sincere in the way that he talked to the media, especially during his days as a player. They said Carter was putting on “an act” so that he would receive favorable press and publicity from writers and broadcasters. If it was merely an act, then Gary Carter must have been the finest actor this side of Laurence Olivier, or in a more contemporary sense, Robert DeNiro. The notion that Carter was some kind of “phony” is nonsense.
I met Gary Carter five or six times and was blessed with the opportunity to interview him the day after he received news that he had been elected to the Hall of Fame. Each time I met Carter, he behaved the same way: He was friendly, full of energy, charming, upbeat, optimistic and legitimately interested in what I had to say. Some act, huh? It all seemed very real to me.
In January of 2003, I interviewed Carter in a suite at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City, exactly one day after the press conference that announced him as the newest elected member of the Hall of Fame. The interview was videotaped by the Hall of Fame’s multimedia department for two reasons, so that it could be used in creating a celebratory video for Carter‘s induction, and then so that it could be added to the Hall of Fame’s video archive.
Moments before the interview, Bruce Brodersen, a friend of mine who heads up the Hall’s multimedia efforts, was talking off camera to Carter. Bruce eyed Carter’s 1986 World Series ring. So Gary took the ring off his finger and gave it to Bruce, telling him that he could wear it for the duration of the 20-minute interview. Bruce is a diehard Mets fan; I’d have to think wearing that ring ranks as one of his top memories of working at the Hall of Fame.
I cannot imagine too many players, Hall of Famers or otherwise, allowing a near-stranger to wear his World Series ring. But that was the kind of guy Gary Carter was. He didn’t do it because he wanted publicity, or was hoping that some sportswriter would pick up on his charitable act; there were no writers in the room with us. If I had to guess why Carter did that, why he allowed the ring to be “borrowed,” I’d have to say that it was simply because he cared. He cared about other people and what they might be feeling.
There’s nothing phony about that. Gary Carter was a good man — for real.