Gary Carter: The World Loses a Smile

I am too young to have followed Gary Carter. I never met him, never read any books about him, and I can’t claim to have any specific connection with him. I knew he was a great ballplayer and somewhat of an iconic figure, but up until yesterday, that’s around where my knowledge stopped and began.

So I’m not about to attempt to write an obituary for Carter; if that’s what you’re looking for, there are numerous touching obits out there. I can’t stop reading them myself, and I recommend you at least read one in remembrance of Carter.

I suppose I could use this space to do a career retrospective. To look at how Carter stacks up against other all-time great player. To celebrate some of the finer moments of his career. Matt Klaassen had one of these earlier today, but for some reason, I’m feeling very un-FanGraphs-y right now.

We spend a lot of time here focusing on facts. Statistics. Data. Scouting reports. Things that can help us better evaluate players and teams, and make judgement calls about how they will do in the future, if they belong in the Hall of Fame, etc etc. We analyse, we parse, we dissect. Whether our motivation is for improving our fantasy baseball skills, becoming a more knowledgeable fan, or gaining a more pure understanding about this childish game, we’re all here searching for a higher Truth.

But on moments like this, statistics get thrown out the window. Heck, baseball gets thrown out the window. And it’s in these sort of moments where I’m reminded why I first started following baseball to begin with.

This may come as a shock, but sabermetrics isn’t how I first fell in love with the game. I’d be willing to bet it isn’t how anyone out there became a fan. I turned to the numbers to sate my thirst for baseball and to better connect with the game, but my true first connection with baseball came through the human side of the game. My dad was a huge Yankees fan, and I grew up being indoctrinated into the Church of Baseball — learning all the rituals and customs (don’t step on that foul line!), partaking of the daily game, and memorizing the names of all the past and former “saints”. I firmly believe that baseball has its own mythology, and it’s difficult to understand the allure of the game if you didn’t grow up as a believer.

More to the point, I became a full-fledged baseball addict when I started reading about the human side of players. About how Yogi Berra used to read comics in the clubhouse and get teased for it. About how Joe DiMaggio grew up as the son of a San Francisco fisherman, sneaking away to play baseball whenever he could manage. About how Mickey Mantle’s father spent his days in the mines, and his nights playing ball with his son.

From all reports, Gary Carter was a fantastic human being. He was a gentle, good-guy ballplayer in an era where his behavior was far from the norm (or necessarily always appreciated). He didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, was hopelessly devoted to his wife, was open to everyone and rarely said no, and never had a smile far from his face. He was, quintessentially, The Kid.

Maybe I’m romanticizing Carter. Sure, he must have had his warts as well; he was human, and none of us can be the best version of ourselves every minute of every day. But despite that, I keep coming back to this: it’s worth celebrating a life like Carter’s. And I’m not talking about his statistics or baseball-related feats; I’m talking about his life.

I’ve been lucky enough to know two people that embraced life — both the good and the bad — with open arms and undaunted smiles. My grandfather was one; my former Cubmaster was another. No matter how old they were when they died, I couldn’t help thinking that both left this world too soon. These days, I find it’s all too easy to forget the larger picture — to get sucked into the day-to-day minutia and stress, to obsess over Twitter, to forget to greet people in the store with a smile and kind word, and to spend my hours worrying about stats, analysis, and my various insecurities. The world needs more people like my grandfather, my Cubmaster, and Carter — people that wouldn’t just ask how you’re doing, but would actually want to know the answer.

Despite not following Gary Carter as a kid, despite not knowing much about him until 24 hours ago, I found myself shedding a few tears for him this morning. Yes, he was a great baseball player, but I hope his legacy will end up being more than his home run total or WAR chart. He’s a player I could see teaching my (future) children about one day, beginning their indoctrination to baseball by learning about one of the all-time great players and human beings.

Later this weekend, I’m planning on going to the grocery store, looking the cashier in the eye, and asking them how they’re doing. And you know, really asking, complete with a matching smile and interested eyes. It may not be much, but I like to think that’ll be a better tribute to Gary Carter than anything I can write.

We hoped you liked reading Gary Carter: The World Loses a Smile by Steve Slowinski!

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Steve is the editor-in-chief of DRaysBay and the keeper of the FanGraphs Library. You can follow him on Twitter at @steveslow.

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Navin Vaswani

Great piece, Steve. Thanks.