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He's Hunkered Down and Worthy of Being the MVP

Jim Murray

September 12, 1985|JIM MURRAY

If the New York Mets win the pennant--and this book makes them 4-5, no worse--the most valuable player in the league may well be Gary Edmund Carter, who bats cleanup for them and tells their young pitchers what to throw.

If the Mets don't win it--baseball being baseball--the MVP may be Willie McGee, if the Cardinals win it, or Pedro Guerrero, if the Dodgers do.

Catchers don't usually win the league MVP. They belong to the stoop labor division of baseball. They make their living on their knees. It's the athletic equivalent of scrubbing floors.

And yet, a catcher could win it every year. Catchers usually have power. Gabby Hartnett, Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella, all were fence breakers. Carter has hit 26 home runs this year and 241 in his lifetime. He is the newest sultan of squat.

Catchers also have character. As a class, they are studies in baseball dependability. The catcher is the rock on which the successful team is built.

Gary Carter didn't even have to be a catcher. He could have been anything he wanted, if you believe his high school coaches. To hear them tell it, he was the nearest thing to Frank Merriwell ever to hit an Orange County high school.

He was captain of his baseball, football and basketball teams in both his junior and senior years at Sunny Hills in Fullerton. He was a prep All-American quarterback two years in a row. UCLA wanted him for football, USC wanted him for baseball.

His grade-point average was 3.4. The suspicion was, he dressed in a phone booth and went home at night by cape. He was one part Captain America and two parts Eagle Scout. He made Steve Garvey look like a cutup.

But, you go a long way toward understanding Carter if you go back to a terrible time in 1966, when Gary was only 12 years old and groping for a life role.

That was the year his mother, Inge Charlotte Carter, went into a doctor's office for a routine checkup on her 37th birthday. She had been feeling unaccountably tired and low in spirits.

That was not like Inge Carter, who had always been what a mother should be, cheerful, upbeat, busy. She had made home a happy, ordered place where everyone laughed a lot and blessings were counted. Sports were a way of life in the Carter household, but so was life itself.

Mother had been a champion swimmer, and Gary believes he got his athletic talent from her--"although, funnily, enough, I'm a terrible swimmer."

The news couldn't have been worse that day she paid a birthday visit to the doctor's office. One of the most dreaded diseases, leukemia, showed up in the scans. Gary's mother had six months to live.

Carter was remembering that terrible day as he sat in a Dodger Stadium locker room the other day, packing ice on a swollen knee, getting ready for a pennant drive against the Dodgers.

"It was a watershed time of my life," he recalled. "I couldn't really comprehend it at the time. It was confusing. You think, 'How can this be?' My father looked as if somebody had pulled the plug in his life, too."

The Carter family closed ranks that day. It was the mother's wish that the nightmarish aspects of her final days not be visited upon the children. Gary remembers his mother going in for transfusions twice a week. The pain grew worse. The time ran out.

But, when she went to the hospital for what she knew was the final time, she comforted her youngest son. "It's only for tests," she lied.

"Hurry back. I love you, Mom," her son told her.

Gary was on a Little League field the day she died. That's where Inge wanted him. She didn't want deathbed scenes etched in her children's memory.

"My father was devastated," Carter told columnist Jerry Izenberg of the New York Post. "One day she was alive and healthy and so happy and the next the doctor told her she had so little time left to live.

"But, after she died, he never let us know the way he suffered. Every morning before he went to work, he would make our lunch and make sure we were ready for school. Then, he'd drive an hour to Long Beach to work (at McDonnell Douglas procurement).

"Every night he was home by 5 p.m. And I mean every night. He didn't date. He didn't go out with the guys. My brother and I would pitch in and clean the house and start dinner before he arrived. He filled our lives."

Gary Carter, the son, became honorary national spokesman for the American Leukemia Society. James Carter, the father, became father of the year in Little League at Williamsport this year.

If Gary Carter wins the league MVP this year, maybe it should rest in James Carter's trophy case. If a catcher can win an MVP, so can a father.

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