Every Game Is a Home Game

April 15, 1990

Leawood is a suburb of Kansas City, situated to the south of town just across the state line, on the Kansas side. The upscale section of Leawood has been divided into clusters of cul-de-sacs that have been assigned predictably pretentious names: It does not seem possible here to pass a new development that is not announced as Something-ville, Something Manor or Something Estates. Of course, the elitism may be more appropriate than intended, for if the compounds are not quite fit for a king, they are nevertheless home to an impressive concentration of Royalty. Where else would George Brett, Bret Saberhagen and Bo Jackson (to name a few) hang their Kansas City Royals caps?

But what is Joe Carter doing here in Leawood, tooling about in his Jeep Cherokee, taking his two daughters to school and then meeting the guys (Bo knows Joe!) down at the Grand Slam USA batting cage? Carter is not a Royal—never has been. He has spent the last six seasons playing outfield and first base for the Indians. For at least five of those years, he was considered as much a part of Cleveland as the steel plants, and he forged some impressive statistics—like 31 homers a year over his last four seasons. Kansas City? Leawood? Perhaps the folks in Cleveland now realize that Carter's heart is where the home is—and home was never Cleveland.

His heart may not be in San Diego, either, though that's where he landed after being traded last December. Oh, it's true that Carter, who signed a three-year contract with the Padres for $3,067 million per, was able to afford a little place outside San Diego for his family to spend the summer in, but he still calls Leawood home. And though there are cynics in Cleveland who suspect that Carter has kept himself centrally located to ease his leaps from high-bidding franchise to higher-bidding franchise, there is a richer reason for him to remain in the middle of America. That is where his family is.

On a typical day, Carter is baby-sitting his infant son, Jordan (born on Christmas and named after a famous athletic shoe), and relatives are streaming through his house: A sister-in-law drops by; his father-in-law plays pool in the cellar. If he wants to, and he sometimes does, Carter jumps into his Jeep and heads for Oklahoma City, 300 miles away, to visit his parents, Joe Sr. and Athelene, whom he has just pensioned off; his 10 brothers and sisters; and his 40—he thinks—nephews and nieces. His team may have been in Cleveland, but his family, with its much larger farm system, is here.

In Cleveland, Carter's departure was regarded as the latest in the long line of betrayals that have ensured the Indians 35 years of pennantless baseball. Last season, when it was widely accepted that Carter was maneuvering to get out of town by forcing the Indians to trade him, the once-popular outfielder was booed regularly. He had won an impressive arbitration case in February 1989 and was making $1.63 million a year, more than any other Cleveland sports star. "More than [Browns quarterback] Bernie Kosar," Carter says, acknowledging a source of customer complaints. "So, of course, I had to be superhuman." He wasn't, not with a .243 batting average and 112 strikeouts for '89. And Indians fans saw ingratitude in every strikeout, indifference in every misplayed fly ball, disloyalty in every public statement.

Carter did hit a career high 35 homers and bat in 105 runs last season, but the trade—prompted by his impending free-agency—has occasioned some revisionist history. Indians president Hank Peters, who in the trade with the Padres got a nice young catcher, Sandy Alomar Jr., along with outfielder Chris James and third baseman Carlos Baerga, says, "We'd love to have Joe." Then Peters adds that, well, he wouldn't love to have Joe that much. "The last year, he did not play the outfield particularly well. And his late-inning clutch hitting was zero. I would never accuse Joe of a lack of trying, but he has his own way of doing things. Some people, for example, might see that a hit would win a ball game. But Joe was always trying for the home run," says Peters.

It must have been the unhappiest 35-homer season ever, right from the start. Going into spring training, Carter, whose wife, Diana, had been his girlfriend at Wichita State, complained that the Indians didn't fly the players' wives to. out-of-town games. Carter remains confused by the uproar this seemingly wholesome idea caused. "I mean, this is in the wake of the Wade Boggs era," he says. "And I get blasted for it."

The idea that the boss should fly the employee's wife to work didn't strike a friendly chord in Cleveland. "Everybody works for a living here," says Peters, "and Joe's complaint created a tremendous backlash." Cleveland, like Peters, was beginning to get the idea that Carter didn't want to stay. "It wasn't just dollars; he wanted out."

So Peters began shopping Carter around and eventually settled for some youth from the Padres, who, meanwhile, were willing to nearly double Carter's salary yet again, in order to add power and speed to a lineup that finished second in the National League West last year.

It may be money well spent. Last year in San Diego, Tony Gwynn batted third and Jack Clark fourth, and pitchers employed the following strategy against the Padres: walk Clark. With Carter now in the mix, Padres general manager-manager Jack McKeon can make it more complicated.

With his new outfielder in the lineup almost every day, McKeon is not likely to be confronted by the Carters' family-first credo; in the past, though, the family has been known to keep a close watch on dugout proceedings. In '83, Carter's first year with the Cubs, he wasn't seeing much action. Enter his dad. "Hell, yeah," says Joe Sr., still indignant. "I called [Cub G.M.] Dallas Green. And he wouldn't return my calls. He knew what I was calling about!" Such parental concern is nothing new. When Carter enrolled at Wichita State, Joe Sr. didn't wait long before he called up the baseball coach to discuss his son's lack of playing time. Immediately, Carter got his chance in a three-day, five-game series against Texas Tech and hit .438 with five home runs. "I played every game after that," says Joe Jr.

Through most of his youth, Carter didn't require much meddling. He was one of those kids who was good at every sport he tried. At Millwood High School, Carter was a star quarterback, pitcher, basketball forward and, in his spare moments, a track champ. As Oklahoma City legend has it, the Millwood track coach noticed Joe in the stands during the state regional meet and asked if he would like to try the long jump. Carter went below the stands, exchanged clothes with a runner whose event was over, and won the event. A week later, still jumping off the wrong foot, he won the state championship.

The greater glory, however, was in baseball. And despite his major in accounting at Wichita State, Carter doesn't measure the game in terms of the bottom line alone. Carter likes being paid—Peters will tell you that. But the money is useful only to the extent that he can spend it on his family. His lone extravagance, other than his house in Leawood, has been to buy an arcade-sized Nintendo game (his road trips are enlivened by a smaller video outfit he hooks up to hotel TVs). The Carters also practice simple economies; Diana still clips coupons for the grocery store.

The role of family provider comes easily to Carter; his father says it was always so. When Joe Jr. was nine years old, he worked at his father's Conoco service station, where he hauled a five-gallon bucket around to stand on while he washed windshields. And the money he earned? His sisters used him for a bank, hitting him up every day for lunch money. He didn't mind.

Joe Sr. eventually sold the gas station and began driving big rigs for Conoco; when Joe Jr. was in college, Joe Sr. worked on Sunday, washing and greasing the trucks, but he signed the checks over to his son. Joe Jr. has inherited that easy touch. Before Christmas he took those 40 nieces and nephews shopping. "One-hundred-dollar bikes, whatever," says his father. Three weeks ago, Carter presented his parents with a certain dollar figure and asked them if they could retire on that amount. "Athelene was at AT&T 24 years, and I was at Conoco for 20." says Joe Sr. "And he went and bought his mother a Town Car and me a bass boat and retired us, just like that."

A sweet tale. Just don't try to tell it to the fans in Cleveland.

PHOTOCRAIG MOLENHOUSEA new Padre in more ways than one, Joe shoots electronic hoops with his infant son, Jordan. PHOTOCRAIG MOLENHOUSEAt a K.C. batting cage, the ex-Indian joked with a few Royals before his debut as a Padre. PHOTOV.J. LOVERO[See caption above.]

Eagle (-2)
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