On a Thanksgiving Friday, walking along Queens Boulevard I looked up and saw an advertising billboard of baseball catcher Gary Carter shaving or putting on aftershave or combing his hair–I can’t remember what he was advertising. I said to the friend I was with, “My mother had to make the boys let him play ball with them in elementary school.”
My mother worked in the home all her life–I had eggs and bacon or had pancakes or waffles or oatmeal before I left for school every morning, and while I was gone my bed was made. But Mother began part-time work as a playground proctor as soon as all five of us children were in school. She needed to get out of the house, I think, although she never said so. She did say things like, “You kids are always in he kitchen” and, “Why don’t you go out and play?”and every now and then looked apoplectic, as a house-bound mother of five is apt to.
I was six years older than Carter and in high school when he was in elementary school with my sisters. I came home from Sunny Hills High one afternoon, and Mother mentioned that, at lunch hour at Pacific Drive School, she’d had to make the boys let Gary Carter play baseball with them. “If either team chose him, the other team wouldn’t play because he’s so good.” My teenage male habit was to abuse myself in front of the bathroom mirror as soon as I got home from school, so I was probably only half-listening–desperate to get to my business and embarrassed about what Mother thought I did in the bathroom everyday after school. But I remember that she added the prophetic words, “Gary Carter should be a ballplayer when he grows up.”
During college I arrived at La Palma Stadium, in Anaheim, to pick up a younger sister at the end of a Sunny Hills High football game early in the season. In my four years at the school, they’d never had a winning season, in fact in two years had lost every game but one. Moseying into La Palma Stadium, where Sunny Hills was the visitor, I saw the score–Home 6, Visitor 41–and thought they had the score sign backward for some reason. But they didn’t. Gary Carter was a quarterback on the varsity team, and for the next couple of years, Sunny Hills was a football powerhouse. What a difference one kid can make.
In February 2012 I felt disbelief that someone so athletic, so physical, and six years younger than I, should die at 57 of brain cancer. Apparently the incidence of brain tumors among concussion-prone ballplayers is no higher than in the population as a whole. I have wondered if Carter sustained a concussion as a kid quarterbacking the Sunny Hills High Lancers. I have no knowledge of it, purely a curiosity. In any case, whatever can be done to protect players from concussions should be done, however mild or severe the long-term effect of concussions.
I’ve said before on my blog that it’s strange where life takes us. Who could have known when my mother said “Gary Carter should be a ball player when he grows up,” that twenty-odd years later, three thousand miles removed from my boyhood home, I would be walking along Queens Boulevard and look up to see Carter’s face, monumentally-sized and towering over the road, as he shaved himself.
(The photos above of Carter are on many sites on the web, so it’s difficult to attribute to a source, but the lower one is, I’m almost certain, from the Sunny Hills High School yearbook, The Helios, probably his senior photo, 1972.)