He's Mr. Consistency : Blue Jays' Joe Carter Is Not Flashy--He Simply Drives In Runs

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He has driven in so many runs, delivered so many clutch hits, that he simply visualizes it happening again when the situation arises, sees himself responding.

But although he clearly is baseball's leading run producer of the last decade, with totals for the last eight years virtually unmatched in any era, it is as if the Toronto Blue Jay right fielder is taken for granted.

It is as if he is thought of only as an often-traded player, having gone from the Chicago Cubs to the Cleveland Indians to the San Diego Padres, then finally to Toronto, which he expects to be his final stop. At 34, he plans to retire when his contract expires after the 1996 season.

There is a larger-than-life mural on the side of a building in Toronto showing Carter, with the time and date, hitting the three-run, ninth-inning homer that lifted the Blue Jays to an 8-6 victory, and the championship, over the Philadelphia Phillies in Game 6 of last year's World Series. But it might take Hall of Fame validation before Carter's career is portrayed in proper perspective.

Even now, despite a major league record 31 runs batted in during April, Carter is only a footnote to the offensive onslaught of 1994.

"It's unfortunate that people haven't been able to appreciate who Joe Carter is and what he's accomplished," teammate Dave Stewart said. "He's as solid a professional as you're going to get, and he's got to be the premier run producer during his time in the big leagues. If there's a guy on second base, he's going to find a way to get him in.

"Joe's problem, if you want to call it that, is that he's not flaky or flashy and doesn't toot his own horn. He's also played in places that didn't get a lot of media attention.

"Even when the Blue Jays have played in the World Series, someone has stolen the spotlight. It was Roberto Alomar in the playoffs and Pat Borders in the World Series two years ago. I was the MVP of the playoffs last year, and people seem to remember Paul Molitor as the star of the World Series despite Joe's homer."

No problem, Carter says.

His wife, Diana, and their three children know who he is and what he has accomplished. So do his 10 brothers and sisters, his 38--at last count--nieces and nephews, all of whom live in Oklahoma City. The family doesn't have to be reminded of what he has done, what he has become. His mother, Athelene, often has to caution her other children to "call Joe to talk, to say hello, not just when you need a bill paid."

Carter says he can't control the media and couldn't care less about headlines or the spotlight.

"It bothers my family more than it bothers me," he said of the relative lack of recognition. "It's not why I play the game. We have a fraternity of ballplayers, and all I care about is what my peers think. I feel I've earned their respect and feel I have it.

"Besides, I enjoy my privacy, and anything more would take away from it. I like to go into a restaurant without being hassled. I enjoy taking a walk or riding my bike without being recognized. The (World Series) home run raised my recognition level about 50%, particularly in Kansas City (where he lives in the off-season), but it didn't change me personally.

"I mean, it brought out the little boy in me at the time, but my greatest joy is seeing

and hearing the emotions other people express when they talk about their reaction to my reaction, seeing me laughing and jumping around the bases."

Carter appeared on the Arsenio Hall show last winter but otherwise turned down appearance and endorsement opportunities that would have increased his visibility but intruded on his privacy. He had hit 33 homers and 33 doubles during the season, finishing third in the American League with 121 RBIs, but he was only 12th in the most-valuable-player voting, only fourth among the Blue Jays behind Molitor, John Olerud and Alomar.

Taken for granted?

Consider:

--Carter began the 1994 season with 893 RBIs, 247 homers and 162 stolen bases over the previous eight seasons. Only Willie Mays and Hank Aaron ever averaged 30 homers, 100 RBIs and 20 steals over an eight-year span.

--His major league-leading RBI total for those eight years is the highest since Aaron had 884 and Frank Robinson 828 from 1961 through 1968.

--He drove in 100 or more runs in each of the eight years except 1988, when he had 98. He has driven in 115 or more four times, 120 or more twice. He has also hit 30 or more homers five times, 24 or more eight times.

--He is the only player to have driven in 100 or more runs in three consecutive seasons with three teams, starting in 1989 with Cleveland, then San Diego, then Toronto.

--He also has played the full 162 games four times in the last six seasons and 155 or more six times in the last eight. He sat out only 29 games in the eight seasons--13 of those in 1987 when he suffered a broken nose when hit by a pitch--and he has enhanced that reputation this season, setting his April RBI record despite a broken thumb. He did sit out three games in early May after experiencing dizziness and collapsing at home because of a condition diagnosed as vertigo.

"Everything was spinning and suddenly I was on the floor," he said. "It was frightening, the kind of thing that puts baseball in perspective. I still have trouble focusing at times, and it still feels a little weird when I run, but I try to play through everything, even though I don't feel as if I've slept in a month, my eyes are so heavy.

"I guess I have a football mentality. I played in high school with a broken kneecap, a broken nose and a broken hand, though not all at the same time. Anybody can play when they're healthy. It takes something special to play when you're not."

Carter is batting .284--22 points higher than his lifetime average--with 16 doubles, 16 homers, a .553 slugging percentage and 67 RBIs.

"Every time I put on the uniform I'm having fun," he said. "Every time I get a hit it's a new experience. Every year I feel I can improve on the previous year. I've never put limits on what I felt I was capable of achieving. I believe in shooting for the moon. If I miss, I'm still among the stars."

More than at Cleveland and San Diego, he is among the stars in Toronto, where he bats behind Devon White, Alomar and Molitor, who have a combined on-base percentage of almost .400 and the speed to score from first base on extra-base hits.

"Some guys, like myself, see a runner in scoring position and try to get a base hit," Molitor said. "Others are always trying to hit a three-run homer. Joe will get the base hit, but he will also jump on a mistake and hit a three-run homer. He can hurt you both ways. He's amazingly consistent. A lot of guys knock in a hundred runs once or twice, but he's the only guy knocking in 115 or 120 every year."

At 6 feet 3 and 215 pounds, with the speed that had accounted for as many as 31 steals in a season starting to tail off now--he had eight steals last year and has five so far this season--Carter said he considers himself a line-drive hitter capable of hitting home runs. He holds the American League record for most games with three home runs, five, but said he considers a 30- or 40-home-run season meaningful only if his 500 or so other at-bats have been productive.

"Look at Rob Deer," he said of the former major leaguer now playing in Japan, whose repertoire at the plate consisted mostly of home runs and strikeouts.

Consistency, Carter said, is his key. He has not gone more than six games this season without an RBI and is on a pace that projects to 153.

"I've been there so often now that I can visualize the home run I hit in the World Series or the other hits I've had in clutch situations," Carter said. "It's like tunnel vision. I have a clear picture of what I need to do because I've done it so often before. That's confidence."

It's also a matter of not trying to do too much. Carter started this season with 40 sacrifice flies in the last four years.

He has done it with good teams and bad.

"First of all, I consider the caliber of people I was traded for," he said. "I went to the Indians for a guy (Rick Sutcliffe) who won a Cy Young (award) with the Cubs. I went to the Padres for one of the best catchers in baseball (Sandy Alomar) and a guy (Carlos Baerga) who had one of the all-time years for a second baseman (last season). The Blue Jays traded Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez for me and Roberto.

"Not exactly chopped liver. I mean, it's supply and demand. One team may have felt they could get rid of me, but I was always in demand elsewhere."

Said Toronto General Manager Pat Gillick: "He's the total package, on and off the field. I hate to be trite, but it's not just his playing ability. He's a leader in the clubhouse as well. We definitely knew what kind of person he was."

Added Stewart: "Joe basically leads by example, but when things get critical, he can become vocal. He's definitely a rock in the clubhouse."

Definitely Hall of Fame material.

"That's out of my control," Carter said. "All I can do is put the numbers up and let them speak for themselves. If I'm elected, it would be a great honor. If not, it won't be because I didn't have a great career. I think I have, and I still have 2 1/2 years left."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
65°