SABR

Joe Carter

This article was written by Joseph Wancho.

The scene has been played out in every backyard, schoolyard and makeshift ball diamond across the country. If not on a ball field, then the scene certainly unfolded in a child’s dreams. Hit a game-winning home run in the World Series. Better yet, make it Game Seven, bases loaded, full count, a packed stadium. Then go yard. We have all been there, albeit metaphorically. Joe Carter was no exception to these fantasies as a young boy in his native Oklahoma City. But he had a different twist in this imagery. He stepped to the plate with his team down a run or two, and he was the last hope of the team, the fans, and the city.

On October 23, 1993, Joe Carter lived his dream. The Toronto Blue Jays were trailing the Philadelphia Phillies 6-5 in Game Six of the World Series. Toronto held the advantage, winning three games to two at that point in the series. But Lenny Dykstra’s fourth home run of the series, a three-run shot, lifted the Phils to a five-run frame in the top of the seventh inning.

Phillies manager Jim Fregosi brought in his closer, Mitch Williams, to face the Jays in the bottom of the ninth inning. Williams, who registered 43 saves during the regular season, was having an up and down series. The veteran left-hander earned a save in Game Two, but also gave up three runs in a 15-14 loss in Game Four.

Carter stepped to the plate, base runners on first and second and one out. Carter was known to be a low-ball hitter. Williams knew it full well too, and realized he made a mistake. The count was 2-2 when he threw a down and in fastball toward the plate. Carter made him pay, driving the ball deep into the left field bleachers of the SkyDome. The crowd of 52,195 erupted into euphoria, as Joe rounded the bases, arms stretched, fists clenched, leaping as he loped towards home plate. The Toronto Blue Jays were World Champions for the second straight year!

Unfortunately, it was Williams who garnered most of the attention. Many viewed the winning homer as a result of a bad pitch from the lefty, rather than Carter blasting a mammoth home run. “The pitch was not a bad pitch, it had to be down and in, and it was going further down and further in. So it wasn’t like a hanging fastball or a hanging breaking ball that was left out over the plate; this was a pitch that was down there right at my knees. Why not give Joe some credit and say that he hit a great pitch, instead of saying ‘Mitch made a bad pitch.’”1

Williams had just blown a slider past Carter to even the count. When catcher Darren Daulton flashed the sign for the breaking ball again, Williams shook him off and went with the fastball. Williams knew it was a mistake as soon as he let go of the pitch. “I knew that if I had gone with my full leg kick and actually rushed because I know how to elevate a fastball, and throw a fastball up and away, he either swings through it or hits a fly-ball out,” said Williams. “Almost as soon as it left my hands, I knew it was a mistake.”2

Carter admitted that had he been looking for a fastball, in all likelihood he would have swung and missed or fouled the pitch away. “The only reason I kept it fair was that I was looking breaking ball the whole time.” 3

Joe felt that it was a shame that it took a game-winning home run in the World Series to bring him some recognition. It was something that he felt he should have earned by now in his major league career.

Joseph Chris Carter was born on March 7, 1960, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. He was one of eleven children born to Joseph and Athelene Carter. The elder Carter owned a Conoco gas station in downtown Oklahoma City, the first in the city owned by a black person. He later drove oil trucks for the company. Athelene worked nights at Western Electric.

Joe Carter was a four-sport star at Millwood High School. On the gridiron, he was the Knights’ quarterback and he possessed a strong arm. “He was probably the best all-around athlete to ever come out of this neighborhood,” recalled head football coach Leodies Robinson. “He has a rifle for an arm. In football, his teammates would run 40 yards down the field before looking back to catch one of his passes.”4 He played shortstop on the baseball team, his home runs sometimes found their way to the trailer park adjacent to Millwood, some 375 feet from home plate.

After high school, Carter enrolled at Wichita State with the intention of being a dual sport student-athlete in football and baseball. Even though he was ticketed to be the eventual starting quarterback for the Shockers, Carter gave up football and channeled his energy to the baseball diamond. Coach Gene Stephenson molded Carter into a solid outfielder, working on the accuracy of his strong arm. In 1980 and 1981 Carter was selected to the Sporting News NCAA All-American first team. Carter was honored as the Sporting News college player of the year in 1981 after setting a then collegiate record of 120 RBIs in a season, to go with a .411 batting average and 24 home runs. “I knew he was a player the first time I saw him,” said Stephenson. “When you see a guy of his speed, with that size, it’s only a matter of time. He was very raw in high school, but anyone who saw him play could tell he had the tools. The physical talent was there. It just needed direction.”5 Carter was inducted into the Wichita State Hall of Fame in 1988. He was only the second baseball player in Shocker history to be so honored.

While at Wichita State, Joe met the former Diana Tinch. The couple wed on January 3, 1981. They had three children, Kia, Ebony and Jordan.

The Chicago Cubs drafted Carter in the first round with the second overall pick in the June Amateur Draft. Carter reported to AA Midland of the Texas League in 1981 and returned in 1982. His 25 home runs, 98 RBIs and .319 batting average in 1982 earned him a promotion to AAA Iowa of the American Association the next season. He continued his assault on minor league pitching, hitting .307, 22 homers, 83 RBIs and he stole 40 bases. He made his major league debut on July 30, 1983, as a pinch-runner for Cubs third baseman Ron Cey at Veterans Stadium.

Carter began the 1984 season in Iowa. Chicago broke from the gate early to lead the National League’s Eastern Division. The team was in first place when they acquired pitcher Dennis Eckersley from Boston. But general manager Dallas Green knew that he needed another proven starter to stabilize the rotation. He dealt Carter, outfielder Mel Hall, pitcher Don Schulze and minor leaguer Darryl Banks to Cleveland on June 13 for pitchers Rick Sutcliffe and George Frazier and catcher Ron Hassey.

For Cleveland, it seemed the same old story of selling off a proven commodity for prospects with potential. Many suspected that the deal was about Cleveland dumping salary. General manager Phil Seghi disagreed. “Money had nothing to do with this,” said Seghi. “The trade follows the pattern we began in the winter. We want to get the best young players we can and see what they can do. Hall and Carter are outfielders with some pop. Carter is a good prospect and Hall hit 17 homers for the Cubs. He (Carter) hits for power and average. Carter and Hall can also run.”6

Seghi was correct; the Indians were a young club. Brook Jacoby, Brett Butler, Julio Franco, Pat Tabler, Carter and Hall were all counted on to form a solid nucleus. But like all young teams, they had many ups and downs. Even though he played in only 66 games for the Indians in 1984, Carter hit 13 home runs, second on the team to Andre Thornton’s 33 round-trippers. Two of Carter’s homers came on August 12, 1984, against the New York Yankees. Carter victimized Ron Guidry twice, one home run being a grand slam. He drove in all the runs in the 6-0 Tribe victory. “I wish it was me,” commented Tabler. “He has a lot of talent. I’ll tell you he has a heckuva lot of talent-and he is still learning. Those two balls were crushed.”7

Carter led the American League, and the majors, in RBIs in 1986 with 121. He had five hits in three separate games that year, his career high. He also enjoyed a 21-game hitting streak from May 17-June 8. The Indians finished above the .500 mark and it looked as if they were on the rise. Sports Illustrated predicted big things for the Indians in 1987, putting Joe and teammate Cory Snyder on the cover of their April 6 baseball issue. Instead the Indians lost more than 100 games, the second time in three years they achieved futility. However, Carter hit 32 home runs and stole 31 bases to become the first 30-30 man in Indians history. He also showed his versatility in the field. Carter moved to first base, allowing Snyder to start in right field and Hall to roam left field. “The man’s an RBI machine,” said Butler. “He’s unbelievable. Every time you looked up, it seemed he was knockin’ someone in. He cranks out RBI like no one I’ve ever seen, game after game. Like a machine.”8

Although Carter was making a name for himself as an offensive force around the league, there were holes in his swing. In his career, Carter never walked more than 50 times, and neared or exceeded 100 strikeouts most seasons he was a regular. He was a free swinger, to be sure.

Like many struggling franchises, Cleveland could not afford to pay high salaries. Like many rising stars, Carter felt that he was underpaid and was waiting to be paid market value. The Indians made an offer, but Carter refused, instead taking the team to arbitration prior to the 1989 season. He was awarded a $1.63 million dollar contract, making him the highest-paid professional player in Cleveland, no matter the sport. He clubbed 35 home runs and drove in 105 runs, but hit .243 for the season. The front office knew that Carter would leave when he became a free agent after the 1990 season, and made no secret that their star player was on the trading block.

A deal was struck with San Diego on December 6, 1989, sending Carter to the Padres for catcher Sandy Alomar Jr., third baseman Carlos Baerga, and outfielder Chris James. In order for the deal to be completed, Carter had to agree to a contract with San Diego, which he did, a three-year pact.

The Padres had finished three games behind division-winner San Francisco in 1989. Naturally, the acquisition of Carter was thought to put them over the top. At least that was the opinion of manager Jack McKeon. One of the highlights for Joe was a career-high seven RBIs (including a grand slam) against the Giants on April 23. Carter’s 24 homers were second only to Jack Clark’s 25, and his 115 RBIs easily led the team. No other Padre drove in more than 72 runs. McKeon was fired in the middle of the year as the Padres finished tied for fourth place in the division with a disappointing record of 75-87.

Padres’ general manager Joe McIlvaine went to the winter meetings needing a first baseman to replace the soon to be departing Clark and a shortstop to replace aging Garry Templeton. The Toronto Blue Jays could part with Fred McGriff, as John Olerud was ready to take over at first base, and offered shortstop Tony Fernandez. In return, the Padres sent second baseman Roberto Alomar and Carter up north. “It was a good old-fashioned baseball deal, value for value, a gutsy move by both sides,”9 said McIlvaine. The day before, the Jays acquired Devon White from California. Their new outfield was substantially upgraded.

The blockbuster deal catapulted Toronto back to the top of the American League’s Eastern Division, a position they held for three straight seasons from 1991-1993. The pitching staffs were a blend of youngsters (Juan Guzman and Pat Hentgen) and veterans (Jack Morris, Jimmy Key, and Dave Stewart) and were supported in the back end by ace reliever, Tom Henke.

Toronto’s offense was led by Olerud, Alomar and veterans Dave Winfield, Paul Molitor, Pat Tabler, Mookie Wilson and the return of Fernandez in 1993. Winfield and Molitor each drove in more than 100 runs (Winfield 108 in 1992, Molitor 111 in 1993) as designated hitters and provided leadership in the postseason.

For Carter, the 1991 season was the first of five that he was selected to the All-Star Game. He averaged 33 homers and 116 RBIs from 1991-1993. On October 3, 1993, he became the first Toronto player to hit two home runs in one inning. He accomplished the feat in the second inning, victimizing Oriole starter Ben McDonald twice. Carter totaled four home runs and 11 RBIs in their back-to-back World Series victories over Atlanta (1992) and Philadelphia (1993). “From a pitching standpoint, if you make a mistake he hits it,” said Orioles pitcher Mark Williamson. “When there’s men on base, he sees the ball and swings at it. If it’s a mistake, he swings harder. And it seems like he comes up with men on base three out of four times a game.”10 Indeed, Williamson’s words proved prophetic in Game Six of the 1993 World Series.

Over the next four seasons, Carter knocked in 100 runs three times, including 1994, when he drove in 103 runs in 111 games despite a shortened season due to the players strike on August 11. The Blue Jays got a look at the other end of the spectrum, finishing in last place of the American League’s Eastern Division in 1995 and 1997. They have not returned to the postseason since 1993.

Carter signed on with Baltimore for the 1998 season. He was dealt to San Francisco in mid-year. He retired after the season. Carter batted a career .259, totaled 396 home runs and drove in 1,445 runs. He smacked 432 doubles and stole 231 bases. His 10 seasons of 100 or more RBIs ranks him among the highest in major league history.

Joe Carter turned to a career in broadcasting after his playing days. He served as a color commentator for both Toronto (CTV Sportsnet) and the Cubs (WGN), as well as a studio guest for ESPN. In 2003, he was elected to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame.

When Rick Sutcliffe was traded to Chicago in 1984, he was miffed that the Indians would trade him. He was also puzzled about what they received in return. “It is a really bad trade for Cleveland,” said Sutcliffe. “The Indians sent Ron Hassey, George Frazier and me to the Cubs and they got Mel Hall and three minor-leaguers in return. That’s not much. It would seem that the Indians would get more than Hall, who was platooning in the outfield. I’d have thought they get some other regular players.”11

They received much more, Rick. Much more.

 

Published on June 30, 2014

 

Sources

GoShockers.com/HomePage.dbml?DB_OEM_ID=7500

Baseball-reference.com

Retrosheet.org

SABR.org

National Baseball Hall of Fame Library - Joe Carter player file

Cleveland Indians 1989 Media Guide

 

Notes

1 The Sporting News, October 31, 1994, 47-50.

2 Philadelphia Inquirer, February 5, 2011.

3 Ibid

4 USA Today, Baseball Weekly, March 31-April 6, 1993 4-6.

5 National Baseball Hall of Fame, Player File

6 Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 14, 1984

7 Cleveland Plain Dealer, August 13, 1984

8 Sport, June 1992, 29.

9 Sporting News, December 17, 1990, 33

10 Baseball Digest, September, 1993, 23.

11 Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 14, 1984.

Individual Memberships start at just $45/year

Become A Member Today

When you join SABR you are making a statement of support for baseball history. You are joining a worldwide community of people who love to read about, talk about and write about baseball.