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Monday, February 20, 2012

Gary Carter: remembering an individual who did more than play the game

Occasionally we post here about professional athletes who set an example—good and not so good—for our youth.  While there seem to be far too many instances where an athlete is seems to care for themselves and not much else--much less about being a positive "role model" for youngsters, a former baseball player who died last week after a serious illness provided us with a tremendous example that should be an inspiration to all.

Gary Carter made his name as a famous athlete, a celebrated player with the Montreal Expos and the New York Mets.  Without cataloguing his long list of baseball accomplishments, suffice to say he excelled at his position (catcher) such that he was voted in to the prestigious baseball Hall-of-Fame.

My favorite story about Gary Carter was recounted years ago by a former Globe & Mail newspaper columnist by the name of Marty York.  I don’t have the story in front of me but recall that it was published in and around 1993.

Some background is in order.  Carter was a very popular ballplayer, because he played hard, played well and treated those around him with respect.  He smiled easily and wasn’t afraid to show emotion on and off the field.  On a personal level, when I was a young man in the broadcasting field in the 1970s, and not at all well-known, Carter, a true “star” athlete, made the time on several occasions to be interviewed, even though there was nothing I could, as a no-name reporter for a tiny radio station, do in return for him. 

Interestingly, as York told his story, it became clear I had not been alone in being on the receiving end of Carter’s generosity of spirit toward those with a lower-profile than himself.  He was one of those rare high-profile public figures who simply “got it”, as people like to say.

Evidently, back in the early or mid-1980s, when Carter was in his ball-playing prime and very high profile, a young freelance reporter was down in Florida at spring training.  The young man tried to ask several players for a brief interview so he could earn a few dollars as a “stringer”, providing stations with interview “clips” from players.  He was no doubt hoping to make a name for himself.  But he was rebuffed by every player he approached.  Eventually, he summoned up the courage—even after those earlier rejections—to ask Carter if he would mind answering a few questions.  Carter not only said yes without hesitation, but he took the unknown reporter into the team’s dugout, sat down and spoke with him at length.

That young reporter went on to a fine career in the media, no doubt bolstered, in part, by his success in being able to garner interviews with an important ballplayer like Gary Carter.

For his part, Carter went on to become a World Series hero but like all athletes, eventually had to retire—in his case, after 19 seasons as a major leaguer.  Then, when Carter was looking for a career after baseball off the field, one of the things that attracted him was a new job opening up—the role of color commentator/analyst with the expansion Florida Marlins.  And who just happened to be the individual responsible for hiring the analyst?

Well, it so happened it was the same young man who Carter thoughtfully gave time to many years before, when that young man was a “nobody”.  Hundreds of ex-ballplayers applied for that one job, all hoping for their shot at staying in the game, or at least starting a second career.  Many had been dismissive of “the media” in their own playing days, or carried a poor off-field reputation because of their attitude.   But they no doubt thought their “name” would be enough to land them this gig.

You can guess who actually got the job.  Carter.

Most people know the old line about, “Be nice to the people on your way up; you’ll meet them all on your way down…”.  But for me, this “story” is about much more than that.

Carter brought joy to his work.  By all accounts, and by my own personal experience with him, he treated others with respect, simply because it was the right thing to do—not because he was going to get something “back”. But far more than a job, or a Hall-of-Fame achievement, what he got back was the admiration and deep respect of former teammates, friends, family and fans across North America. 

The attitude he consistently displayed is one that he carried with him through the rest of his too short life.  A touching story on the Carter’s passing can be found here:

A life well-lived is always a great life lesson for young people—but not just for them.