“Gary Carter Showed Me How to Play the Game”
by Andrew Klavan
I never met baseball Hall of Famer Gary “Kid” Carter, but his death last week from brain cancer at age 57 moved me deeply. Some 25 years ago, his life and his style of play spoke to me and inspired me in a moment of terrible need. It was an example of what celebrity can do when it’s done well.
The second half of my life has been so bright with blessings that it’s difficult for me to think back to the 1980s, when I could see no end to my emotional pain. Personal demons left me blind to the gifts that God had showered on me so generously. I began to think my beautiful wife and baby daughter would be better off without me.
I can’t really say how serious I was when I began to contemplate suicide. But I remember one night, sitting alone in my room in darkness, smoking cigarette after cigarette as I considered the ways in which I might put an end to myself.
The radio was on, playing a Mets game. I’d been trying to listen before the dark thoughts took over. By the time the ninth inning came around, I wasn’t paying attention at all.
One sentence ran through my mind again and again: “I don’t know how I can live.”
Before I knew it, the game had ended and Carterâ€”who apparently had beaten out a grounder to reach first baseâ€”was giving a postgame interview. The interviewer asked him how he managed to outrun the throw when his knees were so bad from years of playing catcher, squatting behind home plate.
Carter was a devout Christian with just the bright, inspiring Tim Tebow sort of personality our media can’t stand. He was forever thanking Jesus Christ in postgame interviews. He once remarked that he could see the smiles curdle on the faces of unbelieving journalists when he did it, but he felt he had to tell the truth.
I was not a Christian thenâ€”not yetâ€”and if Carter had preached religion at that moment, it would have gone right past me. But he didn’t. He said something else, something much simpler but also true. I don’t remember the words exactly but a fair translation would be this: “Sometimes you just have to play in pain.”
Carter’s words somehow broke through my self-pitying despair. “Play in pain?” I thought. “Hell, I can do that. That’s one thing I actually know how to do.”
I had been looking for answers but I didn’t know the answers. I had been looking for solutions, but solutions were for another day. It hadn’t occurred to me that maybe, for now at least, the only way to go on living was to do like the great athletes do and just tough it out.
I did tough it out, and I got therapeutic help, and I abandoned lifelong self-destructive habits and thoughts. And had I known in that moment how very close I was to genuine mental health and happiness, I would have slapped myself stupid for ever thinking to end it all.
Gary Carter didn’t save my life. He was just a ballplayer I’d never met. He didn’t have that power. But because he was how he was and played how he played and spoke with a brash, sunny optimism that made journalists hate himâ€”well, let’s say he lit a candle when a little bit of light made all the difference.
Celebrities don’t owe us entry to their personal lives in payment for their fame. They have the same right to fail and sin and learn that the rest of us do. But when I see athletes behave like thugs on the fieldâ€”when I hear pop stars romanticize alcohol and drugs and cheap sex with hummable tunes that make self-destruction palatable to the young, or when I see actors star in films that make recklessness and stupidity look cool and admirableâ€”I think they are throwing away a precious opportunity to be something better than they are.
No one can demand that celebrities live well, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask them to behave well and be a little bit careful about what they say and represent. They are role models whether they like it or not. And someone might be listening to them in the dark.
So goodbye, Kid. And thanks. You did it the way it ought to be done.
Mr. Klavan is a novelist, screenwriter, and contributing editor to City Journal.