“And listen to the sound of a new beginning
Oh, this is where the old is ending
Listen to the sound . . . .”
We arrived at the ballpark early, my sister and I. Very early. Two weeks ahead of pitchers and catchers. Few people walked the neighborhood. No one rehabbing or laying down bunts on the practice fields. No vendors selling beer and popcorn in the stands.
It was early February and I couldn’t wait to see a game. Any game. How blessed we were to see much more.
Roger Dean Stadium, Jupiter, Florida. When spring training begins, the Miami Marlins and World Champion St. Louis Cardinals will share this facility and its strikingly ordinary ballpark built with such comfortable, inviting human proportions in mind. Tonight belongs to a different team, however. It’s the season opener for the NCAA Divison II and NCCAA Palm Beach Atlantic University Sailfish. Their coach: Gary Carter, onetime Expo and New York Met, winner of five Silver Slugger awards, three Gold Gloves, 11-time All Star, HoF inductee 2003, proud family man, dying tonight of brain cancer. A pitcher named Darling paid tribute to Carter on the MLB Network recently, holding a simple sign while remembering the strong, vibrant man who once squatted behind the plate.
We arrive to find a remarkably peaceful place. No noisy throngs of snowbirds hungrily seeking autographs of big-leaguers and future stars. No well-groomed broadcasters on the sidelines. Four young men in camouflage stand at the entrance to the field, ROTC students from PBA, serving as color guard for the evening, readying the flags. Young men in orange jerseys stretch and sprint on the field, loosen their arms. A broad-shouldered catcher dons his mask, outfielders play catch, parents and girlfriends find their seats.
Country ballads blend with Christian music in ways that make this experience more powerful and real. The game is free. Hundreds of seats all for the taking, no questions asked. I find mine and snap a picture of it, feeling both pleasure and sorrow. I was born on November 8th. Eight is my favorite number. A big bright jersey hangs in the home dugout tonight, but no one will be wearing it. Number 8.
All the young players sport blue wristbands inscribed with the words Team Carter and Isaiah 40:31, referencing their Coach’s charitable foundation, together with his favorite passage of scripture:
“those who hope in the LORD
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.”
Just before 7 p.m. the crowd grows quiet as a few family members enter the ballpark through a small gate out in left field. They take a long, unhurried walk across the grass. Moments later, a golf cart approaches through an opening in right field. Everyone in the crowd stands up. About 500 of us.
Gary Carter greets his team of players one by one, while his daughter Kimmy (PBA’s winning head softball coach), his wife Sandy, and tiny granddaughter watch from just a few steps away. “Let’s get a win tonight!” Coach says to all his boys.
“He wanted to be here for his guys,” his daughter Kimmy will say.
Earlier today I read about Gary Carter in The Palm Beach Post. I read about how he’d showed up at his team’s first official practice back in January, walking with the aid of a cane yet celebrating the beginning of a new season: “Guys, the day’s finally here! It’s spring! Let’s get after it!” That’s how 6’2” Logan Thomas, tonight’s starting pitcher (who will soon throw a first-pitch strike), remembers it.
Carter’s life has already become a story.
Fans honor Gary Carter lovingly with applause and silent prayers. And then the formal part of the evening begins. It starts in a way I’ve never seen before. We don’t hear anyone cry, “Play Ball!” Instead, a campus pastor – standing just behind the neatly-painted lines of home plate, very near the catcher’s spot – delivers a prayer for all to hear. “Give him peace,” he says, “and give him power.”
Power. While all the fans bow their heads in prayer, I think about power.
Bottom of the 10th. Boston 5, New York 3. The Mets are down to their last out on October 25, 1986. Everyone remembers this as the Bill Buckner game. I have always viewed it as the Gary Carter and Mookie Wilson game. Everyone remembers ’86.
The count stands at 2-1, Carter at the plate. In a show of relentless grit and determination (more than power, it seems to me), he singles to short left field, and I stare at the cube television in disbelief. Then I behave idiotically. I run around our California bedroom screaming, pumping my fists, jumping up and down on a full-sized bed where my baby sits gazing at the television from his bouncy seat. He is but four months old, and he’s watching the game. I pull him out of his canvas lounge chair and twirl him all around the room. I just want to share the game with him.
On February 1, 2012, Gary Carter views the PBA home opener from the press box with family members and close friends Tom Hutton and Jeff Reardon. “His whole life is baseball and the Lord, and of course his family,” Reardon has said. An ailing Carter watches three innings of Florida baseball, and then it’s time to go home.
The PBA Sailfish trail Lynn University 3-2 as they head into the bottom of the ninth. Let’s get a win tonight. It’s spring! Let’s get after it! With two outs, Travis Murray – who majors in biology and envisions a career in medicine – delivers the game-winning RBI single. Travis is a catcher.
Despite a battle with aggressive brain cancer, Gary Carter remains a smiling inspiration to his players and fans. This is what we will read in the morning paper tomorrow while we eat breakfast on the patio.
The team stands in a circle of prayer in deep right field. Remaining in Seat Number 8, I replay a scene from three hours earlier. Gary Carter moves toward the home dugout from that same corner of the field, riding in the rear of a golf cart, traveling slowly along the first base line, facing backwards as they appoach home plate from first, circling around the catcher’s box and heading inevitably yet curiously toward the bag at third – not in the counter-clockwise way that baseball usually moves - then down the left-field line, far away from us, and disappearing through a small opening in the wall. As that cart makes its gentle turn around home plate, I press my right hand against my heart, and with the other I wave goodbye.
His Grace is reaching for us
His Grace is reaching out
Listen to the sound, listen to the sound
Wherever you are.
Please click here to view Gary Carter’s final home opener.
Click here to watch Hall of Fame acceptance speech.