Gary Carter and the Meaning of Memories

I wrote a Gary Carter obituary for Grantland.

As you might expect, I was at that game when Carter hit the game-winning double to end his career. Seemed like I went to every significant game between 1982 and 1997. Always for just a couple bucks, always on walk-up tickets, and always sneaking into the good seats when ushers’ backs were turned.

My three favorite in-person Expos memories:

3) Sept. 27, 1992: The Carter Double Game. This was a tough time for me. My grandfather Max, my earliest influence as a baseball fan, the man who cheered for Andre Dawson and swore at Rodney Scott (“The Woodchopper,” he called the second baseman with the ugly swing), was gravely ill. Papa Max passed away less than three months later.

My other grandfather, Alec, also helped shape my baseball fandom, taking me to many Sunday afternoon games at the Big O. When news of Carter’s death broke yesterday, I noted the date: February 16, 2012. Papa Alec would have turned 90 one day earlier.

2) July 10, 1994: The Moment I Knew…that the Expos were going to win the World Series. Final game of a road series in San Diego, I was visiting my girlfriend (future wife) and her parents (future in-laws). The Expos were riding high, and we’d snagged good seats for the game.

It was a bloodbath. Moises Alou blasted two homers. Wil Cordero hit a grand slam. I was beside myself. Cackling. This is what fans of the ’27 Yankees must have felt like.

As the Expos wrapped up their fifth straight win and headed into the All-Star break with the best record in the league, I had no doubt in my mind that I’d be attending a victory parade three-and-a-half months later. With the benefit of deeper thought, we know that anything can and does happen in short playoff series. But at the time, I knew without a sliver of a doubt that the Expos were finally, FINALLY going to win the big one.

Oh well.

1) Sept. 17, 1993: The Curtis Pride Game. On the day the Expos announced they were finally moving to Washington, D.C., I wrote a long and mushy goodbye note to the team of my childhood. In that piece, I also reminisced about some of my favorite in-person games, including the Curtis Pride Game. Let’s just re-post what I wrote:

Riding an unbelievable comeback, the Expos surged from also-rans to contenders in a span of a month, setting up a summit with the Phillies at the Big O. In another testament to their ability to pack the stadium given the right circumstances, 45,757 crazies showed up for this game. Trailing 7-4 entering the seventh inning (this may not actually be true if you examine the data, but ask any Expos fan in this era which inning was Magic Time, and invariably they’d say the seventh), the Expos tried to mount a rally, putting two on for rookie pinch-hitter Curtis Pride. Pride responded by smashing a double to the gap, scoring both runners as the Expos tied the game that inning. They’d go on to win 8-7, though their quest for the division title would eventually fall short.

What made the moment unforgettable was the crowd’s reaction. As the Phillies made a pitching change, the delirious fans — myself one of them — stood and cheered. And cheered. And cheered. Pride stood at second watching the crowd. At the first-base coach’s urging, he tipped his cap. Pride, who is deaf, would later say that he couldn’t hear the crowd’s thunderous cheering — he felt it through the turf.

Sometimes I wonder if all my obsessing over a team that skipped town eight years ago is silly and immature. That I might be a caricature of the adult sports fan who cares too much — about a team that’s deceased, no less. When my editor Paul approached me about writing a book about the Expos, my first thought wasn’t, “Awesome!” It was, “Who the hell wants to read about the Expos?” More than that, it was, “Geez, I’m already that pathetic Expos fan, should I really write about this godforsaken team any more than I already have?”

Before signing on to write the book, I’d met maybe a handful of former Expos, ever. I never actually knew these people. Maybe caring that much about total strangers was pointless. Maybe writing a whole damn book was a waste of time.

Then you remember what fandom means.

There’s no way to separate my experiences as an Expos fan from all the cherished memories of my Papas. There’s no way to think about Friday nights in Montreal without remembering all the good times with my idiot friends. The lengths we went to for a shot at getting on the scoreboard and winning the Guess Fan of the Game contest — with big cash prizes for actually wearing Guess Jeans, which only one of us did (what’s up, Bri?). Or the homemade signs we brought to the stadium — “Maple Ridge Boys” as a takeoff of the Oak Ridge Boys and a nod to Larry Walker’s home town of Maple Ridge, B.C. was pretty good; “Delino DeShields DeRookie of DeYear” was better.

It cuts both ways. When my old buddies and I get together, we still talk about pestering Dave Van Horne in a Cincinnati hotel lobby; or staying all 22 innings for a random weeknight game and nearly getting stranded at the stadium; or throwing strawberries at Darryl Strawberry. (We were mentally unbalanced.) When I think of my Papas, I think about all the sacrifices they made to take me to games and make me happy.

And when I think about my children, it’s still there. One of the first purchases we ever made for the twins was a matching set of Expos caps for their tiny baby heads. I’d like to tell you they’ll know Tim Raines’ career stolen base success rate off the top of their heads when they get older (84.7%, best in baseball history for someone with anywhere near that many attempts). It’d be fun if they became Expos fans when they come of age, rooting for an even more defunct team, for players they’ll have never watched play.

But that’s not it. I want them to know about the Expos because I want them to know what their great-grandfathers were like. What life in Montreal was like once upon a time. And what their dad was like when he a boy: a crazed, screaming mess of a fan who hucked fruit at right fielders, and loved his team unconditionally.

That’s why I still care about the Expos. And that’s why I still care about Gary Carter. Why I cried when I heard the news yesterday. Again at the breakfast table this morning. And one more time, as I finish this post.