Canadian baseball community mourns Gary Carter

The first image you saw when you visited Baseball Canada’s website on Friday was a photo paying tribute to Gary Carter.

It’s a testament to the legendary Expo’s enduring impact on baseball in this country that our national baseball body has chosen to honour Carter, who played his last game in the big leagues in 1992, so prominently.

No, the man nicknamed “Kid,” who passed away on Thursday after a valiant battle with brain cancer at age 57, was not Canadian, but the way he embraced the city of Montreal and its culture made him, at the very least, an honorary Canuck.

And for those of us who grew up watching those exciting late ’70s and early ’80s Expos teams, no player was more captivating than Carter.

“Due to the bond he had with Canadians, his legacy as one of the cornerstones of the Montreal Expos franchise will live on through his tens of thousands of fans in Montreal, throughout the province of Quebec, and all the way to each coast,” said Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame president & CEO, Tom Valcke, who befriended Carter when the Expos great was inducted into the St. Marys, Ont.-based ball shrine in 2001.

Montreal native, Daniel Plamondon, who served as the Expos bat boy from 1976 to 1978, shared similar feelings about Carter.

“When you think about the Expos, you think about Gary Carter. It’s as simple as that,” he said in an interview in early February.

A teenaged Plamondon would help Carter learn French, while the catching star would assist him with his homework.

“I think Gary was the only Expos player that I would see take a French newspaper and read it,” he said. “Gary took the time to learn the language. Gary loved the people in Montreal and the people loved him.”

Aside from immersing himself in the culture and signing countless autographs, Carter was also an all-star on the field. In parts of 12 seasons in Montreal, “Kid” would club 20 or more home runs in six different campaigns and capture three Gold Gloves. And during the Expos’ lone post-season appearance in 1981, Carter would hit .429 in 10 contests to propel the club to within one win of a National League pennant.

“Gary was not your typical home run hitter,” shared Bill Atkinson, a relief pitcher from Chatham, Ont., who was Carter’s teammate from 1976 to 1979, in a late January interview. “He was a line drive hitter. The big thing was, Gary was consistent. If he went 0 for 3 one night, he’d go 2 for 3 the next night.”

Atkinson, who Carter once said had the best curve ball he ever caught, also enjoyed throwing to the Hall of Fame receiver.

“Gary and I used the hook (curve ball) a lot,” said Atkinson with a chuckle. “We had a lot of things set up so that we didn’t even have to put a sign down.”

Toronto Sun columnist Bob Elliott, who will receive the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s J.G. Taylor Spink Award this July, has been covering baseball for more than 30 years and he says that Carter was the best catcher that he ever saw on an everyday basis.

In an article in Friday’s paper, Elliott, who was on the Expos beat from 1979 to 1986, shared a clubhouse exchange between Pete Rose and Carter.

“In the spring of 1984 at West Palm Beach, Al Oliver was entertaining writers and saying how he was headed for Cooperstown since he had more hits than Yankee great Lou Gehrig,” wrote Elliott. “After Oliver headed for the field, Pete Rose, rolling his eyes listening to Oliver, yelled (to Carter) across the clubhouse: ‘Hey Kid, there’s a difference between you, I and Al. He thinks he’s going. We know we’re going.’ Well, Rose was right about Carter.”

In a blockbuster deal that broke the hearts of Expos fans, Carter was traded to the Mets on December 10, 1984. In five seasons in New York, Carter would participate in four all-star games and help the Mets win the 1986 World Series. His two-out, two-strike single in the 10th inning of Game 6 of that Fall Classic ignited the Mets’ rally that led to Mookie Wilson hitting the ground ball that dribbled between Bill Buckner’s legs.

Carter was welcomed back to Montreal in 1992 for his final big league campaign. In all, in parts of 12 seasons with the Expos, Carter suited up for 1,503 games (second in franchise history) and walloped 220 homers (third in franchise history). For his efforts, his No. 8 was retired by the club in 1993. And 10 years later, just as Charlie Hustle had predicted, Carter was enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, becoming the first player to be featured in an Expos cap on their plaque.

Throughout his 19-year career, Carter was renowned for the strong relationships he developed with the fans and the media. A deeply religious man and model of clean living, the curly-haired catcher’s combination of ebullience and athleticism helped transform him into one of Canada’s most popular sports figures. It’s no wonder then that so many tributes have poured in from the Canadian baseball community since his passing.

Yankees catcher Russell Martin, who grew up in Montreal, offered his condolences on Twitter in both French and English.

“Lost one of our very best, RIP Gary Carter,” tweeted Jason Dickson, vice-president of Baseball Canada and former big league pitcher.

Former Toronto Blue Jay Paul Hodgson, who hails from Marysville, N.B., offered his thoughts about Carter on his Facebook page.

“RIP Gary Carter; Played against Gary. Didn’t know him well. He played hard and was nice to people. A fine ambassador for Major League Baseball. Today, they make 5 times the cash, live like royalty and are out of touch with people who pay their salary. That wasn’t Gary Carter. He was something special for baseball and it’s fans,” wrote Hodgson.

Carter will also be remembered as a man who always made his family his priority. Atkinson, who maintained a friendship with Carter long after his playing days, says there was nothing that Carter wouldn’t do for his wife, Sandy, his three kids Christy, Kimmy and D.J. and his grandkids.

Plamondon has similar recollections.

“Gary was always family,” he recalled. “When he left Jarry Park, Sandy was always out there waiting for him. So after a game, he would go straight home. He was a family man. He was never out in the bars. He was never in the hotels. On the road trips, you never saw him in the hotel bars.”

So while thousands across Canada mourn the loss of a great player and baseball ambassador, Carter’s most important legacy might be what he was away from the field – a devoted husband, a loving father and a doting grandfather.

“Gary Carter took the tough hops and thanked God for the compliment. He was an inspiration to Canadians and fans beyond our border, on the field, off the field, and throughout his final battle in our world against the demon of cancer,” said Valcke. “No matter what pitch was thrown at him, it was like ‘Kid’ just kept fouling them off, refusing to give in, a hundred times over. He was a class act, a gentleman, a gamer, a leader, and a role model for youth who desired to play the game the way it should be played, with pride, passion, unbridled enthusiasm and pure joy. We are proud to have inducted Gary Carter into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, along with Dave McKay, in 2001, and we are thankful that he now rests in a place where he no longer suffers. Due to the bond he had with his precious family, his legacy will live on through his amazing children, Christy, Kimmy and D.J.”

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