SI Vault
 
His Enthusiasm Is Catching
Ron Fimrite
April 04, 1983
One reason for National League superiority is Montreal's Gary Carter, who talks a good game and plays a better one
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
April 04, 1983

His Enthusiasm Is Catching

One reason for National League superiority is Montreal's Gary Carter, who talks a good game and plays a better one

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4

"I've been a positive guy most of my life," he says quietly, "but there was a bad time. It's been almost 17 years since my mother died. That was on May 21, 1966. I was 12. I've spent a good portion of my life without her, and I'd give up my contract now to have her back. It's still hard for me to believe. I was devastated at the time. I remember when she went into the hospital, I said to her, 'Mom, I love you and I'll see you soon.' Six months later she was dead. Leukemia. She was only 37.

"After that, my father became my father and my mother. He was also my first coach. He was always ready for us kids—to play catch, go to ball games. So sports became my outlet and my older brother was my motivator. Whatever he did—and he was a good athlete—I wanted to do better. I was a member of the Fuller-ton Boys Club from the second grade on. We had great facilities, great coaching and great weather. My first coach there was Pete Liapis in basketball and flag football. He'd drive that team bus right up to my front door to make sure that I got on it. I've always wanted to give something back to that Boys Club, so now I have a benefit golf tournament for it. I'm also involved in the Leukemia Foundation of Canada. I'll always have a place in my heart for anybody who loses a parent."

Carter was a magnificent all-round athlete at Sunnyhills High in Fullerton—captain of the football, basketball and baseball teams, a high school All-America quarterback and a star pitcher, shortstop and third baseman—and a student who finished in the top 50 in his class of 600 and was elected to the National Honor Society. In short, the All-American Boy. On graduation, he pored over nearly 100 college football scholarship offers, eventually signing a letter of intent with UCLA. But a serious football injury, torn ligaments in his right knee, in his senior year convinced him that baseball should be his sport. "Dr. [Robert] Kerlan looked at my knee," he says, "and told me that if it got hit again, it would be the end of my athletic career." On June 23, 1972, he signed for bonuses totaling $42,500 with the Expos, who had drafted him in the third round. To his immense surprise, the Expos wanted him as a catcher, a position he had played perhaps a half-dozen times. "The scouts thought I could do it," he says. "They thought I had the athletic ability and the leadership qualities. But at first I was the worst catcher you've ever seen, a real joke. It was very frustrating and discouraging."

Carter spent 2½ years learning the rudiments of catching in the minor leagues and in winter ball in Puerto Rico. He was so raw that his Double A manager, Karl Kuehl, charged him a quarter for every ball he dropped, "and I dropped 10 to 15 a game, which added up to pretty big money for a guy making $600 a month." Carter was still something of a novice when he joined the Expos full-time in 1975, but he was already being acclaimed by the front office as the catcher of the future. Declarations of this nature didn't sit well with the team's veteran pitchers, who were quite content with the catcher of the moment, Barry Foote, a rookie in 1974 who had played like a veteran. "I was one of the more staunch pro-Foote men," says Rogers. "What's most important to a pitcher is someone who can call a good game. So now we have a converted infielder, and none other than Gene Mauch, the manager, is quoted as saying that the Expos will never win without Gary Carter behind the plate. He was touted as our savior. He was being portrayed as the guy who could do what none of the rest of us had been able to do. There was a certain resentment, not with Gary as a person but with the reputation they were giving him. And Gary wasn't ready. He had to grow up in the major leagues. The organization's talent was so shallow that he was forced to come up too soon." And the gabby, sometimes boastful, rah-rah Carter personality only added to the gathering resentment.

Carter felt it. "I could hear them talking in the clubhouse. Then I'd come in and it would suddenly get very quiet. There was no sense fretting about it. I just had to prove myself on the field." But not, immediately, as a catcher. "Lo and behold," says Carter, "I'm a right-fielder." The Expos had decided to stay with Foote behind the plate and use Carter as a backup there and as an outfielder. They wanted his bat, not his glove.

Carter played 92 games in the outfield in '75 and caught in 66. Foote caught in 115 games, but his batting average slipped to .194 while Carter hit .270 with 17 homers and was elected the Expos Player of the Year, the first of three such awards he would receive. He finished second to Giants Pitcher John Montefusco in the Rookie of the Year balloting and played in the All-Star Game—Carter calls it "the mid-season classic."

He was stricken with the sophomore jinx in '76. In spring training, he banged his head into an outfield fence, and in the regular season, he broke his left thumb in a collision with Centerfielder Pepe Mangual and his right hand in a run-down play at the plate. His batting average dropped to .219, and he played in only 96 games, 60 of them as a catcher. Carter spent the winter putting that dreadful season behind him and plotting for a rosier future. "In 1977, Mr. Dick Williams took over as manager, and our general manager, Charlie Fox, announced that Gary Carter would never play the outfield again," he recalls cheerfully. "I was healthy again and ready for a challenge. That spring, I went head-to-head with Barry. I had a phenomenal spring, and he just kind of curled up and died. In June, he was traded to the Phillies."

Pro-Tips (Les Secrets du Baseball in French) are shown during televised Expos games as a sort of refresher course for Canadian fans on the U.S. national pastime. Carter will film his segments with two of the Montreal broadcasters, in English with his old boyhood favorite from the Dodgers, Duke Snider, and in French with Claude Raymond, a native of Quebec who pitched in the big leagues for 11 seasons. In addition to those Berlitz courses. Carter and his family lived year-round in Montreal for five years, so French is not entirely unfamiliar to him. "I can address an audience in French," says Carter, "for three or four sentences."

One segment is filmed on the main diamond of the Expos' West Palm training facility. In it Carter will demonstrate how a catcher fields bunts. This is a taxing exercise because Carter must show how bunts are handled on the right and left sides of the infield and how throws are made to first and third. He hustles on camera with game-face zest—"I don't do anything halfway"—and gets a real workout over the next hour. When the last bunt is dropped and filmed, a now perspiring Carter gives the crew a thumbs-up gesture. "Nice going, guys," he says, in all sincerity.

Another Pro-Tip has Carter in the on-deck circle, ad-libbing glibly about the uses of the rosin bag and the weighted bat and about how he sizes up the pitcher while awaiting his turn at the plate. "This is an integral part of the game," he tells the camera, smiling. "This mental preparation before your time at bat." Big smile. "Forty-five seconds on the button," shouts the director. "And in one take. Perfect, Gary. Just perfect."

Continue Story
1 2 3 4