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Carter finds himself labeled a dead-end kid

June 24, 2008|T.J. SIMERS

I don't know Gary Carter. Never met the guy until Monday.

I know he's a Hall of Fame catcher, a Dodger for a season, born in Culver City, raised in Fullerton, a local high school field named for him, the most accommodating player to fans and media, but a controversial figure in New York recently and working now as manager of the Orange County Flyers.

Nothing against the Flyers, who are in first place under Carter, but the next step down after games against the Outlaws and Scorpions is out of baseball. There might not be a wider gap than the Hall of Fame and the Golden Baseball League.

And it's pretty hard to explain. It almost makes you wonder if "Kid," as he was known in the big leagues, has been blackballed by baseball.

"Sure does," says Kid.

He has undergone 17 surgeries, and I know this, because I say hello, ask why he's working here, and he launches into "this is my life."

Details, details, and he remembers each one, beginning with his right knee, and what that has to do with managing the Flyers, I don't know.

Eleven surgeries on both knees, he says, and it's on to the thumbs, a little toe, and I'm expecting to learn it's not really a prerequisite to be down on your luck in Fullerton -- as it is to be down for the count.

But he's moving, picking up a case of water and negotiating a flight of stairs in the Flyers' clubhouse that appears aimed to heaven -- back for a second trip on those rebuilt knees for a case of beer. Amazing how folks can push themselves when motivated.

He spent his own money at Costco to fill the refrigerator so the guys who make almost no money playing for the Flyers can get a feel of what Carter is talking about when he mentions "the mountaintop."

He was up there for 18 years, most of them in Montreal, several more in New York before stops in San Francisco and L.A. -- 101 games for the Dodgers in 1991 and then a final year in Montreal. An All-Star 11 times, three Gold Gloves and second in MVP voting one year.

"Baseball has given me my identity," he says, "and everything I could possibly ask for, or dream of having."

But he fibs, and you don't really have to spend much time with Carter to know that, because he's still driven to be a manager in the major leagues, and for some inexplicable reason, he says, his phone is not ringing.

The team he played for most of his career, the Expos, no longer exists, and so much for those opportunities. They became the Nationals, and in Washington they pay homage to the Senators rather than the Expos, so Aaron Boone is wearing Carter's retired No. 8 jersey.

Carter's Expos jersey hangs in the arena where the Montreal hockey team plays. And I thought the last rung of the ladder was Fullerton.

He loves the Mets, but they don't seem to think much of him. A few years back, he managed one of their minor league teams and won, a year later did it again and won a title, but then he didn't go along with the plan -- the one that had him advancing to yet another minor league post.

He won't go, he tells them, unless the Mets assure him it will lead to Shea Stadium. He spends the next year out of work.

He admits now, he misplayed his hand. He also gets a chance to interview with Ned Colletti's Dodgers and manage Las Vegas, but gets the brush-off.

"Still no idea why," says Carter, recruited to play quarterback for UCLA before pursuing baseball instead. "Took them less than 30 seconds on the phone to say they didn't need me."

Mike Scioscia could relate.

Carter sent letters to 29 teams with his resume attached, and got 10 responses. "Mostly form letters," he says, coming home at times to ask his wife if anything had come in the mail only to get the message in the most agonizing way. "Nothing."

He begins ticking off the names of others who have been given the chance to manage, mentioning the "pictures Joe Girardi must have on Steinbrenner," and so a job with the Yankees is also probably out of the question.

He doesn't understand any of it, everything he has to offer, and everyone settling for so much less. He goes to work for the Flyers, 22 players, a salary cap of $83,000 for the year and "Roger Clemens makes that with one pitch," Carter says.

He signs a contract allowing him to leave for a job in the majors, and a short time later a radio station calls to ask him about beleaguered Mets manager Willie Randolph.

It takes only a few minutes with Carter to know how confident he is in his own abilities. And why not? He set out to make the majors by age 20, earn $100,000 by age 25 and is now an honored resident of Cooperstown.

He believes he can do anything, telling the story about his time with the Dodgers, "May 7, and I've got 15 at-bats, one start where I went three for four against the Braves, throwing out three runners, one of them Deion Sanders and Tommy is playing Mike [Piazza]. . . ."

There's more, the Dodgers obviously better off with Carter at catcher as he tells it -- the competitive athlete always driven to be the guy no matter what.

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