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Saturday, August 23, 2014

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Gary Carter remembered

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Gary Carter in the Baseball Hall of Fame

Former Montreal Expos great Gary Carter’s death from cancer Feb. 16 at only 57 was not unexpected, but the news still rattled Jewish fans, friends and those who were ardent followers of the “Kid” during his decade in Montreal.

Including this one.

At the time of his diagnosis last May, Johnny Elias, a friend for 35 years from the time Carter was a fixture at Elias’ long defunct Grand Slam Baseball School in Cote St. Luc, expressed shock at the news.

Now, according to Cote St. Luc city councillor Mike Cohen, fellow councillor Allan Levine is considering tabling a proposal to have a field in CSL’s Kirwin Park, where Grand Slam was located, renamed after Carter.

“I mean, 57 years old,” Elias said last May at the time of Carter’s diagnosis. “It’s frightening.”

Right. That’s my age, too, and if there’s one thing you get to know in life, it’s that you never know.

Elias, who attended Carter’s 2003 Baseball Hall of Fame induction at Carter's invitation and received annual greetings from the former all-star catcher, told The CJN on Feb. 17, a day after Carter’s death, that he had seen his old friend and chatted with him just one month earlier at a fundraiser for autistic children in West Palm Beach, Fla.

“I considered him, a good, good friend,” said Elias, who also spent years pitching batting practice for the Expos.

“We spoke, but he did not look well or feel well at all,” Elias said in a call from Hallandale, Fla.

Elias recalled how at Grand Slam, Carter took the trouble to go over to, and speak for a full five minutes with, a young boy who seemed unhappy.

“I just couldn’t believe how he went over to someone he had never met before to do that,” Elias recalled. “Gary would bring bats, balls, equipment to the school. He was there every summer for 11 years.”

Carter also never let Elias forget that Elias left Shea Stadium in New York to return to Canada late in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series between the New York Mets and Boston Red Sox, when Carter played a decisive role in helping the New York Mets come back to win one of the greatest World Series games of all time. Elias said that Carter and Andre Dawson, the two Expos in the Hall of Fame, “were definitely the two greatest players the team ever had.”

Like everyone else, I remember Carter vividly, because during his decade in Montreal (1974-84), plus one more season in 1992, when he was 38, Carter was ever the exuberant, gung-ho player, always grinning and friendly.

He had a bullet arm from the plate, he had power, he had swagger. And he had the numbers. But then-owner Charles Bronfman reportedly never liked the fact he allowed Carter to sign a multi-year contract paying him more than $1 million per year – chump change by today’s standards.

Carter competed 1,000 per cent, even when his knees were so ground down from the catcher’s crouch that they seemed to buckle beneath him.

Critics, however, thought he was a bit of a hot dog, and Elias said some teammates resented him for “never saying no to a media interview request.” “But that was the real Gary Carter,” Elias said.

And it’s true:  what you saw was what you got. Carter was always his authentic self, the real deal.

“He was Mr. Baseball,” Mark Routtenberg, who was part of a local consortium of Expos owners during the 1990s, including during Carter’s last year, told The CJN from Florida.

Routtenberg got to know Carter fairly well, and they played golf together occasionally, but they didn’t really socialize. Routtenberg remembered him as a man who never refused a request from a charity, who went to hospitals or schools any time he was asked, to meet fans and speak about the game he loved.

“I was just a fan in those days, and French-Canadians loved him,” Routtenberg said. “He learned [some] French. He was the star. He never wanted to leave Montreal and was just a great guy.”

Routtenberg said he last chatted with Carter a few months before his diagnosis. For me, Carter’s death also hit home for personal reasons.  In 1981, when my older sister had a recurrence of cancer that would take her life a little more than a year later, it was Carter, upon request, who with his teammates autographed a baseball for her. She had a major crush on Carter, and I still have the baseball she cherished, with his signature standing out – just like he did.

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