When you hear Joe Carter's name this time of year, your mind drifts back to that Bill Mazeroski moment that quite literally every Little Leaguer dreams of one day doing. Hit a World Series-winning home run, as Carter did for the Blue Jays on Oct. 23, 1993, and -- shocker -- people are going to remember you for it.
"Probably the longest I've gone without somebody mentioning it," Carter said Tuesday, "is two weeks. Because I was in Europe on vacation. Two weeks is the longest. But in the country? Nah. I can't go two days without someone telling me exactly where they were and what they were doing."
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Carter, now 56 and living in Leawood, Kan., is of course proud to be associated with that truly awesome outcome. But this October, on the precipice of the American League Championship Series that begins Friday night (8 p.m. ET, TBS and Sportsnet) at Progressive Field, we can actually associate him with something other than that singular swing.
We can associate him with the Blue Jays' ALCS opponent.
The Indians provided Carter's coming-of-age. Cleveland was the place where Carter, having arrived in the 1984 trade that sent Rick Sutcliffe to the Cubs, found his big league footing with the opportunity afforded him by manager Pat Corrales and first asserted himself as a star.
The greatest moment of Carter's career is pretty much cemented in our minds. But the greatest season of Carter's career actually came seven years earlier, on a Tribe club that finished fifth in the AL East.
Carter nearly became the answer to a trivia question that year -- albeit one substantially more obscure than, "Which two players ended a Fall Classic with a blast?" In 1986, he finished one homer, one triple and one stolen base shy of becoming the only player in history to accomplish all of the following in a single season: 30 home runs, 30 steals, 10 triples, a .300 average, 200 hits, 100 runs and 100 RBIs.
"That," Carter said, "was by far my favorite year with Cleveland."
People noticed. Specifically, the good people at Sports Illustrated. Buoyed by Carter's tremendous all-around output, the Indians posted a Major League-best 831 runs in that 1986 season. They were a team seemingly on the rise, and SI bought in hook, line and, unfortunately, stinker. The cover of the '87 MLB preview issue famously depicted Carter and fellow outfielder Cory Snyder with the now-humorous headline, "Believe it! Cleveland is the Best Team in the American League."
The problem, you see, is that, in baseball, you don't get to spend all nine innings on offense. The 1987 Indians scored 742 runs, gave up 957 and lost 101 games.
"We had to score 15, 16 runs to win a game, and we couldn't do that," Carter said. "That was too much too soon."
Ultimately, Carter made too much too soon. His rising financial profile did not align with Cleveland's competitive timetable. There was some bad blood in 1989. Carter rejected a five-year contract from the club because only three years in the deal were guaranteed. He went to arbitration and scored a club-record $1.63 million contract. (Arbitration losses like that would be what compelled the Indians to get aggressive in locking up players early in their careers -- a practice that would be copied elsewhere in the industry in due time.)
So at the Winter Meetings between the 1989 and '90 seasons, the Indians dealt Carter to the Padres in a four-player swap that landed them Sandy Alomar Jr. and Carlos Baerga, two linchpins of their eventual '95 pennant-winning team. And Carter embarked upon what he thought would be a long and fulfilling stay with his friend Tony Gwynn in San Diego.
The following offseason, Carter was on the move again. This time, Alomar's brother, Roberto, went with Carter (with Tony Fernandez and Fred McGriff going the other way), and it was the Blue Jays landing two key pieces of a signature squad. Toronto took the AL East -- and then took it all -- in 1992 and '93, with Carter contributing an average of 32 homers, 32 doubles and 120 RBIs in those two seasons.
"One thing I do tell folks -- because they'll bring it up all the time -- I'll say, 'You know, I did hit more than one home run in my career!'" Carter said with a laugh. "But [the World Series winner] is a very special moment in the history of baseball, and this time of year, it's brought up all the time. And no matter where I go, especially if I go back to Toronto, you'll have an ovation.
"I was up there for the NBA All-Star Game, and they showed my home run and the whole crowd rose up. After the game, in the tunnel area, I was talking to Kobe Bryant. He said, 'They love you up here.' I said, 'Oh yeah, and it's a lot of fun.'"
Carter is obviously more closely associated with the Blue Jays than the Indians, though the Tribe did have a bobblehead night in his honor a few years back, prompting his first return to town as something other than a visiting player or TV guy.
And with his two former teams opposing each other in this best-of-seven set, Carter said he just might have to make an appearance at the ALCS. He's expecting it to go the distance.
"I love what Tito [Terry Francona] has done," Carter said. "He's been a good friend of mine since 1979. We played together in Cuba on Team USA. To see what he's done to invigorate that town is great. It could come down to that home-field advantage. But the thing is, I know Cleveland, that ballpark, and I loved hitting there. It's a great hitter's ballpark, especially for home runs, and that's one thing the Blue Jays do."
What if it ends on a home run, a la Edwin Encarnacion's walk-off winner in the AL Wild Card Game vs. Baltimore?
"I told [Encarnacion], 'You guys can always do that, but just don't do it at the end of the World Series,'" Carter said with another laugh. "All the other games, that's fine. But let me have it for a few more years. I've held it since '93, and Mazeroski had it for 33 years. So I figure I've got at least 10 more good years."