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Carter, who rarely complains, is prepared to accept a lighter work load, citing Bench's experience—a record 13 seasons of 100 or more games—as an example of catcher's burnout. "I'm on that burnout pace," he says. "I'm not old, but John was burned out at 33. I don't want to cripple myself. I don't want to be just hanging on at 35.1 feel it in the mornings. Sometimes, it takes me a half-hour to get out of bed. There are days when I can't walk down the stairs without stretching and popping my legs back into shape."
Bench, who played a not particularly adept third base for the Reds last season, diagnoses burnout, a popular disease these days, as both a mental and physical disability. "For two years in a row, Gary's been in a tight pennant race," Bench says. "He knows that every pitch he calls can make a difference. That sort of pressure can exhaust you mentally. And then, suddenly, it's your turn to hit and you haven't had time to think about that. Physically, the telltale signs are in the knees and the arm."
By dint of those old reliables, determination and hard work, Carter has developed into an approximation of the compleat catcher and a winner of three consecutive Gold Gloves for defensive excellence. "There's no question now about his all-round ability," says San Diego Manager Dick Williams, who was Carter's skipper at Montreal for 4½ years. "He's established himself as the premier catcher in baseball." Adds Pete Rose, "I don't think he has any weaknesses defensively. He's worked on his game. Like me, he thinks he's the best."
Carter has a strong arm and an extraordinarily quick release. "The [Omar] Morenos get their 70 or 80 stolen bases somewhere else besides Montreal," says Expos Pitcher Dave Palmer. Backup Catcher Tim Blackwell says Carter "frames the ball," that is, catches it with such a smooth movement of the mitt that every close pitch appears to be a strike, a technique he learned from former Expo Coach Norm Sherry. Though Carter realizes how important his continued health is to his team, he will fearlessly block the plate, surviving over the years thudding collisions with such giants as Dave Kingman and Dave Parker. "If I get that baby in my glove," he boasts, "very seldom will you see me drop that puppy."
Through experience, he has learned to call pitches so well that Rogers, a onetime detractor, can now say, "He's like my twin out there. He's calling exactly what I want. He's thinking what I'm thinking. If I throw six changeups in a game, he's called five of them."
Carter himself rates the importance of calling a game well "nine-plus on a scale of 10. It takes a worry away from the pitchers. It leaves the mental side of pitching with me. I don't want my pitchers to think too much. I really study the scouting reports. I now know every hitter in the league, what pitches he can hit and what he can't. I think I have great rapport with my pitchers. Scott Sanderson, for example, is proud of his fastball, but for it to work, the hitter must be set up with the breaking ball. That's my job."
Such talk ordinarily comes from a catcher who hits about .210. But last season, Carter came within a homer, three RBIs and four base hits of becoming only the fourth catcher in history—after Hartnett, Campanella and Walker Cooper—to bat .300, hit 30 or more homers and drive in 100 or more runs in a season. Carter would probably have done it easily had he not been stricken with tendinitis in his left elbow the last month of the season, an injury so painful, he says, "that I couldn't pick up a carton of milk." At the end of August, he had 27 homers and 88 RBIs. He finished with 29 and 97, and with a batting average of .293, numbers that would gladden the heart of an outfielder, let alone a catcher.
Carter is the Expos' career home-run leader with 171 and Montreal's single-season record holder with the 31 he hit in 1977, a year he also batted .284. His batting average in five All-Star Games is a cool .444, and in the '81 game he tied a record with two homers and was named the Most Valuable Player.
Carter works as hard on his hitting as he does on his catching. He has reduced his strikeouts from a high of 103 in '77 to only 66 last year, the second straight season his strikeouts have not exceeded his walks. "I've learned to be more disciplined," he says. "If you want a sacrifice, I'll do it. If you need someone to go to rightfield on the hit-and-run, I'll do that. Sandy makes videotapes of our televised home games, and I study them at home. I'm trying to be the best at this game. I like being called the best catcher in baseball. Nobody remembers Number 2."
Rain clouds scud across streaky Florida skies. It's windy and humid in West Palm Beach, and Carter, taking a breather from a three-hour spring workout, is awash with sweat. It's a rare break in his day. In a few minutes, he will film a series of Pro-Tips, baseball instruction spots for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The spots are the idea of Carter's agent, business partner and friend, Jerry Petrie. For a full 20 minutes after the practice, Carter cheerfully signed autographs for and posed for pictures with adoring onlookers. Now he's strangely in repose, this hyperkinetic, talkative man. He's off stage.