The recent passing of former Met and baseball Hall of Famer Gary Carter pushed me to finish this post. I started it when Carter was diagnosed with brain cancer and with his death Thursday, I figured now was the best time to complete it.
(Note: this was pretty tough to write.)
February 15th is my least favorite day of the year. That part of February is tough for some people because of the pressure of Valentine’s Day, but for me the woe of February is much more family-based. On February 15th, 1991, my brother Eric passed away from a brain tumor. He had undergone several surgeries and treatments for the malignant disease from the age of 6 to the age of 10 and unfortunately, even after his long fight, cancer got the best of him.
According to the National Cancer Institute, there were an estimated 22,070 new cases of brain cancer and 12,920 deaths in the US for 2009. For some unexplained reason, the malady of brain cancer has woven it’s way into almost every aspect of my life, both at the family level and at every step in my professional and academic life. It has even permeated my hobbies and the things I like to follow. I don’t know why, but the disease that affects only 6.4 of 100,000 people has effected people in every aspect of mine.
First and foremost, I lost my brother when I was 13. He was almost 10. There is no doubt his death played a huge part in my social development as a teenager, which for most people is already the most screwed up time of their lives. Although I had friends, I wasn’t the most social kid and was especially bad with the ladies. Being in a relationship is about giving to someone, and that wasn’t even an option when I had just lost someone. Although I was generally an outgoing kid, my brother’s death kinda set me back a bit, and it wasn’t until I joined the Army that I re-acquired the confidence to be outgoing and extroverted, which are the personality traits I think fits me best.
After I signed the dotted line to commit four years of my life to Uncle Sam, the powers that be sent me to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. Coincidentally, and I found this out long after the fact, the namesake of the fort, General Leonard Wood, died of brain cancer in 1927. Although he was originally diagnosed with brain cancer in 1910, he was one of the first recipients of brain tumor surgery. Without him, or rather without the surgeries done on him, I would have lost my brother years before he actually passed.
My four year stint in the military ended in 1999. That year, cyclist Lance Armstrong conquered testicular and brain cancer won his first Tour de France. When I was a kid, my father was really into bike riding. When I could, I joined him on quite a few shorter stints. I think the Armstrong victory meant a lot to my Dad, as I think he thought of my brother’s plight when he saw Armstrong raise the yellow jersey. Personally, seeing someone who meant a lot to my Dad advocate so much for cancer research made Armstrong one of my favorite athletes, even if I was only a cycling fan in passing at best.
Later in 1999, I began my academic career at Florida State University. As a big baseball fan, I immediately noticed the home stadium of the Seminoles baseball team was named after former Kansas City Royals manager Dick Howser. I quickly learned Howser was twice named an All-American in the 1950s and is one of the first of many great baseball players to begin their careers at Florida State. After leaving FSU and having a distinguished career in professional baseball, Howser died of a brain tumor in 1987.
Living in New York at the time of Howser’s death, I remember reading the extensive coverage of Howser’s death in New York Newsday. Prior to being the Royals manager, I learned Howser was a key part of the Yankees organization for over a decade. On a personal level, Howser was the first baseball personality whose card I had who was no longer alive. I started collecting baseball cards the year before and had Howser’s ’86 and ’87 Topps issues. I remember looking at his 1987 card and realizing I was holding Howser’s last baseball card.
Brain cancer drifted out of my life for a few years while I was in college. In 2003 however, the same year I graduated with my bachelors in Creative Writing, brain cancer’s horrible head re-emerged when former Mets relief pitcher Tug McGraw was diagnosed with brain cancer. When I started following the Mets, my Dad told me about Tug and the other the legendary heroes of the 1969 and ’73 Met teams. They were a big deal in Mets lore and history. It was Tug, for example, who coined the “Ya Gotta Believe” slogan that became a part of Mets lore. And it was Tug who hosted Baseball Funny Side Up, one of my favorite baseball blooper films of all-time and a video I watched repeatedly through the late ’80s and early ’90s.
Like Lance Armstrong, Tug McGraw’s cancer had an effect on my father. Not only was Tug a member of the Mets teams he followed during his teens and early 20s, but by the time of Tug’s death in 2004, my Dad was a fan of Tug’s son, country star Tim McGraw. I remember my dad telling me about Tim McGraw’s tribute to his father in Citizen’s Bank Ballpark before Game 3 of the 2008 World Series, which was coincidentally against the Tampa Bay Rays and only one game removed from the Phillies-Rays contest in St. Petersburg that my dad and I attended. It was the first World Series game my father had been to since Game 5 of the 1969 series.
On February 16th, 2012, a day removed from 21 years since my brother’s passing, former Mets catcher Gary Carter succumbed to a malignant brain tumor. While Tug McGraw was the emotional leader of the 1973 Mets, Carter was one of the leaders of the 1986 Mets, the first baseball team I followed closely. Although I was more of a Darryl Strawberry fan, I appreciated Carter as one of the key pieces of what made the Mets World Champions. He was the best catcher in the National League and he was a Met, which automatically made him my favorite catcher.
I remember attending a Mets game with my Dad at Shea Stadium in 1989 (possibly July 25th) and seeing one of the 50 games Carter played that year. Whereas he had played over 130 games in the six years since, injuries and knee pain had caught up to Carter and severely diminished his ability to contribute to my favorite team.
As Carter came to bat after a lengthy stay on the disabled list, most of Shea Stadium stood in applause. If I remember correctly, the Mets had already stated that neither Carter nor Keith Hernandez would be returning the next season. So for many fans, Carter’s return from injury was a great time to show “The Kid” their appreciation. The many fans, however, did not include me. As they stood and cheered, I booed Carter. In all honesty, I was only 11 years old and I wasn’t so much booing Carter the man, but Carter the baseball player who was hitting far below .200 and struggling to play the game that came so easy to him a few years earlier.
When my Dad heard me booing Carter, he turned to me and said, “I thought you liked Carter. Why are you booing?”
I looked at my Dad and said, “I’m not booing him, I am booing his knees.”
It made sense to me at time.
In closing, I would like to let out one more very hearty boo. A boo not directed towards any of the people mentioned in this post, from those who were family to those I followed as a fan, but to brain cancer. Brain cancer that took away fellow Florida State Seminole Kimmy Carter’s father, Tim McGraw’s father, a former Royals manager and one of the best baseball players in FSU history, a prominent US Army general, and thousands of others.
Including my brother.
(Image from mymetsjournal.blogspot.com)