It started as anger, metastasized as agony, dulled into bitterness, and was eventually, like all these stories, passed down by our ancestors as further evidence to never believe in anything. Now, there is only a scar—one of many—that only glows and pulsates in moments of extreme stress.
Two and a half decades have passed since Joe Carter punched a hole in the history of Philadelphia. And from that gaping wound has oozed a generation of tainted fandom.
The 25th anniversary of Carter’s walk-off, championship-clinching home run in the 1993 World Series has come and gone, but as the sport celebrated the historic moment, we were forced to re-live a home run that taught us in childhood how to feel sports pain and in adulthood to simply expect it. To us, the Phillies were the victim of a heinous baseball tragedy. To the rest of the world, they were just the blurry figures in the background of an all-time moment.
Speaking about clutch hitting on the 25th anniversary, Carter talked about how, in a high stakes moment with the world watching you, the first part of survival is to shift the dynamic.
“The pressure’s not on you,” he said. “It’s on the pitcher.”
Even if Mitch Williams had managed to get Carter out in Game Six, the Blue Jays would have had another game to play. Carter, playing in the third of four consecutive (and five total) all-star seasons, would hit .280 with an .810 OPS in the World Series. He’d helped Toronto win it all the previous year against the Braves, and homered twice in that World Series, too. He had a few productive years in front of him and would finish his career as a legend, eventually inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. Joe Carter was—and would be—fine.
Meanwhile, Williams had given plenty of reasons why putting the game in his hands was a bad idea. He had a nickname based on his lack of control. He frequently allowed base runners with the game on the line. In the NLCS, he’d been on the verge—or in the middle—of a meltdown in almost every appearance. He’d already blown a five-run lead in Game Four of the World Series. But at this point in the season, manager Jim Fregosi’s throwback squad wasn’t going to be making any dramatic changes.
“Well, Mitch Williams has been our closer all year,” Fregosi had said. “I’m not going to change that, because he’s the guy that’s done it for us,”
The Phillies had found their success as a beer league team that had knocked out the real Phillies and taken their places for 162 games. They had well-documented fun, but everyone had their job to do and was expected to do it. Williams’ job now was to forget everything else that had happened to this point, close out the game, and keep the series alive. Carter’s was simply to win it, if he felt like it.
“I wanted to see it go to the seventh game, obviously you wanted to see it go to the seventh game,” David Letterman said on his show while interviewing Lenny Dykstra after Carter’s ball had landed, “and we knew a little bit, watching the series, about Mitch Williams’ pitching.”
“He makes it interesting,” Dykstra said, shaking his head.
So it didn’t take much for Carter to shift the pressure off of himself and onto the Phillies’ closer. The game was Williams’ to lose. And he watched it sail over the left field fence with the rest of us.
The emerald ash borer is an environmental scourge about the size of your thumbnail. Its appetite is insatiable, its numbers in the millions, and as it feeds its terrible hunger, the insect menace has irrevocably changed the baseball industry. But, in a weird coincidence, it had Joe Carter’s help.
A product of East Asia, the EAB showed up in Detroit in 2002, where it proceeded to decimate the ash tree population and spread across 22 states, killing at a rate much too swift for officials to react, leaving a trail of chewed-up forests in its wake.
While biologists and city officials scratched their heads and tried to warn others in the EAB’s path, the situation was also a nightmare scenario for an industry getting hit on both supply and demand. Around the same time that the EAB was devouring the resources of baseball bat manufacturers, players had started moving away from using ash bats on their own accord. And the man credited with bringing about that change is Joe Carter.
It was Carter who switched to maple bats in the early nineties, and the trend was solidified when Barry Bonds swung a maple bat to hit his 73rd home run of the 2001 season. When a maple bat hit a ball, people noticed: It has been written that Carter’s bat “produced a sweeter, louder, more pleasing sound;” a distinct signal that let you know he’d done his job.
When Williams reared back to throw his final pitch of 1993, you may have feared what was coming. You may have known who Carter was and what he was up there to do. You may have watched the last play of the Phillies’ season through your fingers. But using a maple bat, when Carter hit that home run, you didn’t have to be watching to know what he’d done.
It’s no secret that Phillies fans were watching almost every pitch of 1993. “You took us into your hearts, you cheered us on in record numbers, and you shared the joy of that season with us,” Larry Andersen wrote in the foreword of “More then Beards, Bellies, and Biceps: The Story of the 1993 Phillies,” by Tom Burgoyne and Bob Gordon.
All you have to do to be a fan is get invested, but for those who’ve been disappointed too many times, crushed by too many losses, bored by letdown after letdown, it’s impossible to see the payoff. Joining a team for its unlikely meteoric rise can make for a fun summer, in some cases formative to the fandom you carry for the rest of your life, but doing so exposes you to a punch in the gut. Fandom is a gamble that’s not designed to pay out. And when that emotional pendulum swings the other way, things can get ugly. With one swing, Carter momentarily silenced a city’s love affair with its team.
Williams received death threats following the Phillies’ 15-14 loss of a very winnable Game Four of the World Series and, according to Philly Mag, “spent a sleepless night in his truck, clutching a handgun.” Police were called to guard his house, the stress costing Williams valuable rest, though he didn’t use that as an excuse for the pitch in Game Six to Carter that was supposed to be up and away but instead went down and in. But obviously there was a sharp spike in anger after the World Series loss at a team that had been heroes all summer.
Eventually, the dominating emotion of Phillies fans became fondness. Despite the heartbreak at the end, they celebrated their team for the pennant-winning season without having to shut the whole city down for the hassle of a parade came autumn. In time, the impact of Carter’s maple bat has been absorbed into the misery among which some Philadelphia sports fans choose to live.
Philadelphians proudly wear their pain, shouting about, writing about it, braggadocios about the amount of time they’ve spent watching sports smash them emotionally. Fans born decades after 1964 are sick to death of hearing about it and now, 25 years later, a generation of babies conceived after the 1993 Phillies clinched the NLCS can almost rent a car. It’s only been less than a decade since Ryan Howard took strike three in 2010 and ruptured his Achilles to close out 2011, and those moments came in the wake of an actual championship. But there will always be a miserably repeated sports trauma. As a city, this is simply the history we tap into when we tell our stories. Yet in every wound, there’s the same lesson: Pain doesn’t earn you anything. It just contributes to who you become.
The Phillies played a full regular season in 1993 they filled with unbelievable memories and punched their own hole through Atlanta with an unlikely victory in the League Championship Series. Their end was not a prolonged, strung out loss that the Phillies played through with their guts hanging out; it was a crack of maple that cut them down in an instant.
“If you’re gonna lose a game like that,” Dykstra said on Letterman, “it’s better to have a quick death.”
It may have happened fast, but it’s lasted forever, Carter said in 2016.
“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.”
So if you’re trying to forget it, Carter has done what he always did at the plate: Put the pressure on the other guy. After all, Joe Carter doesn’t have to get over you.
But at this point, Phillies fans have more reasons to despise certain members of the 1993 Phillies much more so than Joe Carter. Compare him to jailed all-around scum bag Lenny Dykstra or frothing hate-cauldron Curt Schilling, who have spent their post-Phillies years screaming at people and/or trying to make the world a terrible place. Carter, meanwhile, has hosted golf tournaments to raise money for the Children’s Aid Foundation and built a reputation as a generally kind human being.
But this time of year, Carter’s off-the-field work doesn’t matter. The pain grows dull, but it never fades, and we pass it down like a soiled, crumpled keepsake to the next fans.
Three years after the 1993 World Series, when the 1996 MLB All-Star Game came to Veterans Stadium, Carter stood in line with the rest of the American League and accepted boos from Phillies fans as they rained down from the stands. But the following season, the first of Interleague Play, brought the Blue Jays back to Philadelphia for three games, and Phillies fans had to look Carter in the eye for the first time in a non-exhibition contest since he’d abruptly ended their only World Series appearance in a 25-year span.
They watched him and Toronto take two of three from the Phillies, Carter hitting a home run in the process and contributing to an 11-1 Phillies loss in the rubber match. And yet, at one point, Phillies fans stood up and cheered for him.
Carter, whose Game 6 home run won the 1993 World Series for the Blue Jays over Philadelphia, earned the fans’ appreciation with his two-run double in the first inning -- his 2,000th career hit -- in Toronto’s 11-1 victory.
’’They’re great fans,’’ Carter said. ‘’When they acknowledge you, even though you are the opposition, it shows they’re really into baseball.’’