There are three separate reasons why we admire athletes. First, we admire their pure talent and physical ability. Next, we admire the way they play the game — their attitude and heart on the field. And third, we admire who they are as people.
Take Barry Bonds, for example. Let’s rate Bonds in each of those three categories, on a 1 to 10 scale. Talent: 10. Way he played: 4. As a person: 2.
How about Pete Rose? Talent: 10. Way he played: 10. Person: 2.
But that’s oversimplified, of course. The lines blur in so many ways, and that’s what makes athletes such fascinating and mysterious public figures. We hear stories of athletes working hard and overcoming obstacles to become great at their sport, and we equate that with the strength of their character. We admire the way they play the game, and we equate that with their character, too. We hear Carlos Beltran sound apathetic in interviews, and we assume he must be apathetic on the field.
Sometimes, like with Beltran, we are mistaken to assume one has anything to do with another. But we long to understand the human side of our athletes, and naturally, we draw conclusions based on the part of their lives that we can see — the professional part. Sure, we get glimpses of the personal side, from the media, from athletes’ friends and family, and from Twitter. But fans don’t “know” Barry Bonds, or Pete Rose, or Carlos Beltran. We don’t know Tim Tebow, the person. We don’t know Jeremy Lin.
Still, we use sports as a metaphor for life, and therefore we use athletes as metaphorical heroes. Jeremy Lin, parents can tell their kids, is a hero because he kept chasing his dream, no matter how many people doubted him. The members of the 1980 Olympic hockey team were heroes because they showed the power of the team over the individual. The 1986 Mets were heroes because they never, ever said die.
We know that those ’86 Mets were anything but heroic off the field. The team was like a hanging curve for parents, offering a perfect opportunity to explain to children that athletes are to be admired as athletes, not as people. To admire them as people — well, that would be a big mistake.
For a kid, though, there are no metaphorical heroes. When I was younger, my heroes were my grandpa and Mike Piazza. And that was that. For a generation of Mets fans, the ’86 Mets were their heroes. Keith, Doc, Straw, Mookie, Darling, Carter — fans admired them all, regardless of what they were doing after games. They played their hearts out. They never said die.
I never saw Gary Carter play, but over the past few months, and especially in the days after his death, I’ve been reading and hearing about his life from those who wrote about him, played with him and rooted for him. Strangely, during his career, Carter was accused of having the exact flaw that makes us tentative to call public figures our heroes. He was accused of being disingenuous. He was ‘Camera Carter.’ ‘Teeth.’ When the cameras were rolling, they said, he wore a facade.
And yet, if there was another side to Carter, it never showed. By all accounts, he was the same in all aspects of his life, on the field and off. He was a leader. He approached everything with enthusiasm and one hundred percent effort. He was a man of faith and a fighter. He smiled constantly.
That’s why Gary Carter was ‘The Kid.’ He was real. He was no metaphor. The lines between Kid, the ballplayer, and Kid, the man, were blurred until they were almost erased completely. That’s why he was a true hero.
There is probably a lot about Gary Carter that we never knew and never will know. The truth is, we don’t really know our athletes, no matter how badly we sometimes wish we did.
And yet, once in a while, admiring an athlete — the entire human being, not just the player — is worth the risk.
For those who called Kid their hero, he did not disappoint.