It was the spring of 1990. Back then you could pull your pickup truck up to the fence of old Scottsdale Stadium, unfurl a lawn chair in the bed, pop open a cold beer from your Igloo ice chest, and watch a spring training game for free with an ideal spot to go home with a home run ball.
(Or if you were a smaller fan, you could just peer through the knotholes in the wooden fence.)
It was my first spring as a sportswriter for the old Scottsdale Progress, and the Giants were the defending National League champs, having played in the 1989 World Series more famous for the earthquake than the fact that the Giants were swept by the cross-Bay Oakland in four games.
I spent more than an hour in the tiny, breathless Giants locker room trying to get interviews with the stars of the previous season.
But it wasn't going well. Will Clark, Matt Williams and Rick Reuschel, all looked at my press pass, saw I was from the local paper and broke me off in mid-introduction, saying things like "Hey, I've got to get my work in, man." (To be honest, Clark wasn't nearly that nice.)
It was time to regroup. I squeezed out of the room in search of a breeze and headed up the dugout steps, where I stumbled into Gary Carter. The 11-time All-Star was now in the twilight of his career and strapping on his catcher's gear. And before I could say anything to him, he was already in mid-conversation with me about the heat.
I said something about, "You should come back in July." Without missing a beat, Carter had picked up my name off my pass stuck out his hand and said, "Hi Jerry, I'm Gary, how's it going today?" He invited me to sit down. Within 30 seconds, I was in the middle of an interview asking about his first year as a Giant, the 1986 Mets championship teams and the countdown to his breaking Al Lopez's long-standing record for the most games caught by a National League catcher later that year.
I knew Carter's long-standing reputation for being media friendly, but this was beyond that. The more we talked, the more things went beyond baseball. I mentioned being a native New Yorker and a lifetime Mets fan, and we spent what seemed like 10 more minutes after I'd closed my notebook talking about New York food, catching Dwight Gooden and Game 6 of the '86 World Series. He's the one that started that incredible 10th inning rally with a two-out, clean single to left center. Four batters later, Mookie Wilson's grounder trickled through Bill Buckner's legs and the Mets were headed to a championship.
"I couldn't make the last out," he said. "And everyone who came up after me had the same mindset. We just kept grinding."
He asked me who else I was talking to that day and I mentioned I was having a tougher time with some of the other Giants. Not 10 seconds later, Clark headed up the stairs and Carter verbally blocked him like a runner coming to the plate from second base on a single.
"Hey Thrill, did you talk to Jerry today?" Carter said, shaking his head. "This guy knows his stuff. Come on. You've got five minutes."
Clark forced a half smile. He looked at Carter, then me. "Catch me after (batting practice)," he said.
The next day, I got my interview with Clark. And Williams. Reuschel didn't budge. Can't win ‘em all.
I ran into Carter a few more times after that. The first time was seven years later in Los Angeles at a charity event and he was just as open and accommodating. I reminded him of our meeting and what happened and he smile and nodded. The second time, a few years, he called me by name and retold the story himself.
Here is baseball's biggest asset: For every Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and Jose Canseco in baseball, there is a Gary Carter. Big smile. Big heart. A big man, playing a kid's game and savoring every minute. And when he told you he was glad to meet you, he really meant it. He wasn't a fake. He wasn't trying to win you over or ensure a good story. He was just being himself.
Carter died Thursday, just 57 years old, from brain tumors discovered last May. The overwhelming tributes that pour in from friends, teammates and others he touched make it obvious that my encounter with him was just another day in a life lived well, one with purpose and passion.
That day in 1990 wasn't anything special or unique - except to me.
Hey, "Kid:" Thanks. God Bless.
Jerry Brown is a contributing columnist who appears every Sunday in the Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.