A catcher is by nature a garrulous sort. His very accessibility inclines him toward chattiness; he is, after all, the only player on the diamond who can converse at will with the plate umpire, the batter, the pitcher, the infielders, the coaches, and the players and managers in both dugouts. If he puts his mind to it, a fast-talking catcher can sustain a running patter with all of these parties at once. As the anointed leader of his team's defense and the caller of pitches, the catcher is also obligated to hold "conferences on the mound," and even when he is not meeting with his pitcher face-to-face, he must continually exhort and lecture him. It's an unusual catcher who can hold his tongue under these circumstances.
Catchers have been chirping away for the better part of a century, from the time of Wilbert (Uncle Robbie) Robinson right on through Gabby (what else?) Hartnett, Birdie Tebbetts, Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella and Johnny Bench—Hall of Fame talkers all. Still, it's unlikely that in this long and honored history of loquacity there has been a catcher the verbal equal of Gary Carter, the brilliant Montreal receiver and monologist. Carter's nonstop commentary behind the plate has been known to drive even the most single-minded and level-headed hitters to distraction. Ted Simmons, then with the Cardinals, once stepped back from a Carter soliloquy, leaned on his bat and inquired with more than a trace of irritation, "Look, are we going to talk or are we going to play?"
Carter doesn't confine his garrulity to the ball field. He's beloved by fans for his willingness to converse with them at length outside the ball park. At the Expos' spring training camp in West Palm Beach, Fla., Carter set aside time each day to chatter with the multitudes who lined the fence along the leftfield foul line. He posed for scores of amateur photographers, happily embracing the cameraman's wife or children, talking all the while. He estimates that he signs somewhere between 75,000 and 100,000 autographs a year.
With the press, he makes even Reggie Jackson seem taciturn. He's the interviewee ideal, one who gathers up a head of conversational steam whenever he sees a tape recorder or notepad about to be activated. He's what is known in the trade as a "self-starter." His less voluble teammates are sometimes scornful of Carter's readiness to consort with the enemy. And they never cease to be amazed. Carter was in full sail at the approach of the Los Angeles Times' Bill Shirley once last year when fellow Expo Warren Cromartie cried out, "Gary, at least wait until the guy asks a question."
Carter even talks to his car, a Chrysler. The automobile is equipped with a computer device that informs the driver in one of those eerie monotone robot voices heard with such annoying frequency in airports these days, "Your door is ajar" or "Your seat belt is not fastened." Carter talks back to it, saying, "I know, I know, you don't have to remind me." Because the car was purchased in Quebec, the voice at first spoke only in French—"Votre pone est entre ouverte." Carter had taken some Berlitz courses in the language but was not yet adept enough to reply in kind. He had the dealer replace the French computer with one conversant in English, so that a proper dialogue might be joined.
Carter is so dismayingly cheerful, so relentlessly positive about all things, so uncompromisingly friendly that the more cynical of his contemporaries in baseball question his sincerity. He has been painted in some clubhouse circles with the same broad brush that darkened Steve Garvey's otherwise snow-white image. Carter is sure that there are those who consider him, in his own words, "too good to be true." It bothers him not a whit. "I've always had this personality," he says. "I've always been smiling. I might get ridiculed for it, but it's just me. You can't fake being nice, you know." Naturally, Carter considers Garvey a friend—which is also what he considers most everyone else—but he feels that any comparison between the two Jack Armstrongs is off-base. "We're both clean-cut individuals," he says, "but we're different. Steve's more laid-back and more political. His emotions are all at one level. I'm much more demonstrative." Those who know Carter best agree. "They're not at all alike," says Expos Pitcher Steve Rogers. "Gary wears dirty underwear."
Although he will turn 29 on April 8 Carter is still called The Kid by his teammates, even those who are years younger than he. His telephone answering service assures the caller, "The Kid'll get back to you," and he wears T shirts labeled KID. The nickname dates to his rookie year, 1975, when indeed he was, at 21, a kid who was not afraid to act like one. There was no phony sophistication masking rookie terror for him. Carter came on to the older Expos as an Andy Hardy, effusing boyish ardor for everything from batting practice to calisthenics. Some found his gee-whiz manner grating. "I thought I was all grown-up," says Rogers, who was then 25 and only a few years out of the University of Tulsa. "I was at the point where I considered all that youthful enthusiasm misguided. But with Gary, it was as genuine then as it is now. Sure, he had a major league ego, but no great talent comes up from the minors without that deep-seated belief in self. All that enthusiasm was simply a personality trait. We couldn't see that then."
Carter may be that rarest of humans—a truly happy man. And with good reason. He's at the top of his profession and still climbing. He's tall (6'2"), powerfully built (215 pounds) and handsome, with a dimpled smile and acres of curly light brown hair. He is surrounded by loving females—his wife, Sandy, who was his high school sweetheart ("Ron Howard can play me, Cindy Williams her"); his daughters, Christy, 4, and Kimberly (Kimmy), 2, who greet his arrivals home with a round of applause; and his golden retriever, Tina, 6, "the first baby in the family." He's extremely close to his father, Jim, a Fullerton, Calif., aircraft parts inspector, and his brother, Gordon, 32, a former USC and minor league outfielder, who's now in the restaurant business in Southern California. He lives in a house on a golf course—golf is a favorite pastime—in Palm Beach Gardens and he's planning a new and larger house nearby. He loves to play baseball—"I heard about a survey that said 93 percent of Americans don't like their jobs, so that makes me part of the fortunate seven percent."—and he's well compensated for playing it. His current contract guarantees him approximately $1.7 million a season through 1989, when he will turn 35. And in the opinion of Expos President John McHale, he's worth it. "He's a franchise-type player," says McHale. "If you can ever justify paying that kind of money, he's one who earns it."
Carter does back up his words—numberless though they may be—with deeds. He is generally conceded to be the best catcher in baseball now that Bench has packed up the tools of ignorance, a master finally of the subtleties that distinguish the great catchers from the merely good. "I get a feeling of confidence just by seeing him behind the plate," says Scott Sanderson, one of his pitchers.
Carter works harder and more often at catching than anyone else. Since 1977, he has caught 838 games, setting a National League record by leading the league in games caught six consecutive years. Even including the strike-shortened 1981 season, when he was the receiver in 100 of the Expos' 108 games, he has worked an average of 140 games a season for those six years. Take away '81, and he has averaged an amazing 148. Because of this back-breaking schedule, Montreal's new manager, Bill Virdon, plans to spell Carter this season in the outfield and perhaps at first base.