ChopTalk: Carty still loves the Braves
Groundbreaking Dominican outfielder was a feared hitter
As Rico Carty made a visit to Turner Field on April 12 for the 40th anniversary celebration of the Braves' inaugural season in Atlanta (1966), he had a good idea what to expect. Not so a decade earlier, when Carty returned for a ceremony marking the final regular-season game at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in 1996.
"I was worried they wouldn't remember me," said Carty, who maintains strong ties to Atlanta, where his six children (and 16 grandchildren) live.
But, of course, Braves fans didn't forget the self-proclaimed "Beeg Boy," greeting him with a long -- and loud -- ovation, a moment Carty still cherishes.
"[My kids] told me that day, 'They still love you here, Daddy.'"
"You gotta understand my dad," said his son, Rico Carty Jr., who played in the Mariners and Dodgers organizations and now owns a construction firm in Gwinnett County in suburban Atlanta. "His whole life is baseball. And to him, the Braves are everything. They're the ones who made him, and he's always been thankful for that."
Even though it's been 34 years since Carty, now 66, last played for the Braves, the former left fielder remains a favorite to many who remember one of the first Major Leaguers to come out of the Dominican Republic. Although his big smile and playful disposition did plenty to endear him to fans, it's Carty's performance in the batter's box that ranks him among the franchise's all-time greats.
Carty, who still lives in his native San Pedro de Macoris, holds three Atlanta records: highest batting average in a season (.366), highest season on-base percentage (.454) and longest hitting streak (31 games), all accomplished in 1970. He conducted a clinic at the plate that season and was named a starter on the National League All-Star team by virtue of write-in votes from fans.
Besides posting the NL's top batting average that year (and the highest in the Majors since Ted Williams' .388 in 1957), Carty also hit 25 home runs with 101 RBIs. While his all-time power numbers (204 career homers) fall short of the likes of Hank Aaron, Dale Murphy and Chipper Jones, few Braves have ever approached Carty's skill at delivering two-strike hits, according to longtime scout Paul Snyder, who's been in the organization since signing as a player in 1957.
"I used to laugh at pitchers when they'd get two strikes on me," said Carty, who spent 15 years in the Majors (plus the entire 1968 and '71 seasons he missed with illness and injury).
Carty retired after the 1979 season with a career .299 batting average and a .369 on-base percentage. His career batting average as a Brave (.31718) ranks just a hair behind Ralph Garr (.31719) for the franchise record. But as Snyder recalls, Carty wasn't signed for his bat.
"He was a catcher who couldn't hit," said Snyder, last summer's inductee into the Braves Hall of Fame. "He was best known for his arm."
That right arm was so powerful that the former boxer -- "his fists were lethal weapons," Snyder said -- almost got turned into a pitcher after struggling mightily with the bat during his first Spring Training with the Milwaukee Braves in 1960.
"I had struck out 25 times. I couldn't hit anything," Carty remembered. "But I wasn't going to be a pitcher. I wouldn't let go of my mitt. I told them, 'I need help. Get me help and I'll be a good hitter.'"
Minor League hitting instructor Dixie Walker simplified Carty's approach, getting him to lower his bat angle, and a line-drive machine was born.
"I can still remember that first hit I got in Spring Training," Carty said. "It was a check-swing over first. That was the first contact I made all spring. From that point on, I never stopped hitting."
The 6-foot-3, 200-pound Carty, who may have possessed the most powerful forearms in franchise history, learned many other lessons that spring. Growing up poor in the Dominican, he dreamed of playing baseball, but not in the big leagues. Unlike today, there were no professional role models, because the sport had yet to include Dominicans.
"I just wanted to play baseball -- somewhere," he said. "I never thought it would be in the States."
But his play in the 1959 Pan American Games caught the attention of big-league scouts, who were just discovering the wealth of talent that existed on the tiny Caribbean island. Carty was among the first wave of Dominicans, joining the likes of the Alou brothers -- Matty, Felipe and Jesus -- and Hall of Fame pitcher Juan Marichal.
In 1966, the Braves' first season in Atlanta, he finished third in the NL batting race (.326) to fellow Dominicans Matty and Felipe Alou.
"I [talked] with nine different teams," Carty said. "Whoever was going to offer me a chance to play, I was going to sign."
Fortunately for the Braves, they were the first team to get his name on a contract and thus owned the rights to his services. As a rookie in 1964, Carty hit .330 (with 22 homers and 88 RBIs), finishing second in the batting race to Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente (.339) and runner-up to Rookie of the Year Richie Allen.
Injuries were a constant throughout Carty's career, ranging from several dislocated shoulders -- "I did that about seven or eight times," he recalled, a likely byproduct of his boxing career -- to a bout with tuberculosis, which caused him to miss the entire 1968 season.
"I was really concerned about that, because where I'm from, that's a very serious disease, and I was entering the prime of my career," Carty said.
But he recovered fully.
"The first time I took batting practice, I hit the first two balls out of the park," he said.
He remembers the 1969 season -- when the Braves won their first division title -- fondly; it was the only time he ever experienced the postseason. The Braves' lineup that year was fearsome, featuring such legends as Aaron, Felipe Alou and Orlando Cepeda. Carty missed some time early, due to injury, but returned with a flourish, compiling a .342 average.
"The time in Atlanta was the best of my career," said Carty, who missed all of 1971 after tearing up a knee in winter ball. "I was just happy to be playing. I never had a bad moment on the field."
The Braves traded Carty to the Texas Rangers (for reliever Jim Panther) after the 1972 season. He also played for the Cubs, Indians, A's and Blue Jays. Since his big-league career ended, Carty has stayed close to the game, mentoring future superstars such as Alfonso Soriano, Sammy Sosa and current Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano, all from San Pedro de Macoris.
"Everyone knows Rico Carty here," said Dario Paulino, general manager of the Braves' Dominican Academy and a native of the island. "He's still a legend here, because he was one of the first, and the best."
That fame led Carty, reluctantly, into politics. He was made an honorary general in the Dominican army, and in 1994, he was elected mayor of his hometown, though he never served due to losing a recount.
"I didn't like politics anyway," he said. "You have to lie too much."
Baseball remains his first, and most enduring love. Besides tutoring future Major League stars, Carty has served as a hitting instructor for San Pedro's team in the Dominican Winter League and is still an enthusiastic ambassador for the game.
"I give speeches to kids and tell them how to act in and out of the baseball park," said Carty. "I'm just a baseball player. That's what I was born to do."
Chris Boone is a contributor to MLB.com. This article appears in ChopTalk magazine. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.