The late Gary Carter never played a game for the Yankees, a fact that should be regretful for any Yankee fan who remembers the 1980s. If Carter had played even one season in the Bronx, the Yankees might just have won a World Series title that proved so elusive during that decade of frustration.
The winter of 1984-85 brought me some of the most difficult times of my life. My mother was dying from abdominal cancer, a horrible experience under any circumstances but particularly difficult for me as I was trying to muddle through a challenging sophomore year at Hamilton College. One of the few diversions that helped me forget about my mother’s terminally ill condition involved the winter meetings that December. Both New York teams made blockbuster trades at those meetings, the Mets acquiring Carter for a package of Hubie Brooks-plus, while the Yankees nabbed Rickey Henderson for a group of young players headlined by Jose Rijo. The news of those two trades, which happened within five days of one another, made that December and that January, when my mother finally passed, a little bit more bearable.
The Yankees ended up with a good team in 1985, a 97-win club that finished only two lengths behind an exceptional group of Blue Jays. Led by Billy Martin, who replaced Yogi Berra after a handful of games, the Yankees came within whiskers of matching the Blue Jays for the AL East title, even with little contribution from their starting catcher, Butch Wynegar. A two-time All-Star, Wynegar was well past his prime at the age of 29, and would later undergo treatment for debilitating depression. What would have happened if the Yankees had added Carter for the 1985 season? Carter, buttressed by a strong left-handed hitting backup in Ron Hassey, would have given the Yankees one of the missing links to an otherwise sterling lineup.
Sure, it would have been a lot to ask Yankee GM Clyde King to swing blockbuster deals for both Carter and Henderson in the same winter, but the Yankees had both the minor league resources and the major league talent to make it happen. They could have centered a package for Carter around Dan Pasqua, who at the time was a top-tier hitting prospect coveted by numerous teams. They could have included a young Doug Drabek (whom they would eventually trade in a regrettable deal for Rick Rhoden) and tossed in a young infielder from among a group of Rex Hudler, Bobby Meacham, and Andre Robertson.
Not only would have Carter solidified the chronically weak catching corps that plagued the franchise in the mid-1980s, but he also would have given the Yankees exactly the kind of rah-rah leader that would have perfectly complemented guide-by-example types in Don Mattingly and Dave Winfield. With Carter behind the plate, improving both a potent offense and perhaps coaxing more from a thin pitching staff, the 1985 Yankees could well have leapfrogged over the Blue Jays into the postseason. And then who knows what might have happened?
Of course, all of this is wishful thinking, and more than 25 years after the fact. Perhaps the Expos would have preferred an established infielder like Brooks, who had the ability to play both shortstop and third base while hitting with game-changing power. Maybe the Expos foresaw that Pasqua would fall well short of the stardom forecast for him. But the idea of Carter-as-a-Yankee was just one of the thoughts that has gone through my mind in the aftermath of his premature death at the age of 57.
I had the privilege of meeting Carter several times; he never failed to deliver the goods with his friendly nature, boyish enthusiasm, and sincere regard for the concerns of others.
Back in 2003, I interviewed Carter at the Waldorf Astoria, exactly one day after he had been elected to the Hall of Fame. Bruce Brodersen, a friend of mine who heads up the Hall of Fame’s multimedia department, arranged and oversaw the interview. Bruce, a diehard Mets fan like few others, immediately took notice of Carter’s 1986 World Series ring. Noticing the interest, Carter told Bruce that he could wear the ring during the duration of our 20-minute interview. I cannot imagine many players, Hall of Fame or otherwise, offering to let a perfect stranger wear a cherished world championship ring. But that was Carter.
Gary Carter as a Yankee? It’s nothing more than a dream. But imagine if it had happened. Any Yankee fan who cares about integrity, character, and winning would have been proud to watch the man known as “Kid” wear the pinstripes.
In contrast to yours truly, Yankee hitting coach Kevin Long is legitimately excited about the addition of free agent Raul Ibanez, whom he calls an “RBI machine.” For the Yankees’ sake, I hope Long is right; batting in the lower third of the Yankee order, Ibanez figures to have plenty of RBI opportunities batting behind the likes of Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and Nick Swisher.
Of course, while Long drools over the RBI possibilities, he doesn’t mention Ibanez’ relative lack of power in 2011 (as evidenced by a slugging percentage below .450) and an inability to draw walks or to reach base in any kind of consistent manner. These could be concerns for the Yankees, whose collective offense will be one year older and will have to hope for bounce back seasons from A-Rod and Tex. At the very least, the Yankees will have a capable offense in 2012, but will they have a dominant one? If they don’t, Ibanez will be exposed as a less-than-effective DH.
Having said all of that, I’ll be rooting for Ibanez. He visited Cooperstown last summer, accompanying his son during his week-long participation in the Cooperstown Dreams Park. According to my sources, Ibanez made a good impression with his friendly and receptive manner. That jives with what baseball people have said all along, that Ibanez is one of the game’s good guys, a man of character and a powerful presence in any clubhouse.
So this is no Elijah Dukes here. It will be easy, if somewhat frustrating, to root for Raul Ibanez. I just hope that Joe Girardi uses Ibanez with caution. He cannot hit left-handers anymore, so his at-bats against southpaws should be restricted as much as possible. Furthermore, Ibanez needs to be kept out of the outfield. A brutal defender with little arm, Ibanez should only the play the outfield if the game is a blowout–or if the Yankees simply run out of outfielders. If Girardi follows this plan, he can minimize the damage that Ibanez can do, and allow his other role players to pick up the slack.
[Picture Credit: Aya Francisco]
Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.