The crazy thing is, one of the greatest home runs would not have happened but for a dream and a backyard of birds.
And 20 years ago Wednesday, the baseball season would not have concluded with one of the game’s most dramatic home runs and indelible moments of celebration — Joe Carter dancing around the bases after lining Mitch Williams’ fastball over the left-field wall for a World Series-ending three-run blast.
Holding his index finger and thumb about an inch apart on a recent morning in an Overland Park coffee shop, Carter described how close he came to signing with the Royals instead of the Toronto Blue Jays as a free agent after the 1992 season.
“Closer than this,” Carter said. “It was only going to be Kansas City or Toronto.”
Just maybe this could have been Kansas City’s joy.
Baseball was in a different place then. Royals owner Ewing Kauffman wasn’t going to be outmaneuvered financially, and with his health failing, he desperately wanted to field a winner.
The Royals offered Carter a better contract, four years to the Blue Jays’ three, with more money up front and all the clauses Carter sought. The Royals also improved their team by signing shortstop Greg Gagne, trading for second baseman Chico Lind and landing their other major free-agent target, David Cone.
Carter was genuinely torn. He already owned a World Series ring, helping power the Blue Jays past the Braves in 1992. Kansas City, where Carter’s wife, Diana, had grown up, had been the family’s home since 1986. He could see himself wearing either shade of blue.
Then one December morning at his home in Leawood, Carter woke up to birds chirping after seeing Toronto teammate Devon White and the Skydome in a dream.
“When the Lord shows me the way, then I’d decide,” Carter said he remembered thinking. “Then I had the dream, and I woke up and saw blue jays in my backyard, and I knew. That’s how it happened.”
At least that’s how the chain of events leading to the heroic moment started.
The Blue Jays won their second straight American League championship in 1993 and met a Philadelphia Phillies team that had about-faced, improving from 70 victories in 1992 to 97 in 1993. These were the mullet-coiffed Phils of Darren Daulton, Lenny Dykstra, John Kruk, Curt Schilling and Mitch Williams, who in the sixth game of the World Series took a 6-5 lead into the bottom of the ninth.
With a victory, Philadelphia would ride the momentum of a two-game winning streak into game seven.
Williams, the closer nicknamed “Wild Thing,” enjoyed his best season in 1993, with 43 saves. But in game six, he opened the ninth by walking Rickey Henderson. One out later, Paul Molitor singled, bringing Carter to the plate.
As he always did, Carter stepped into the box with a plan. Sixty feet away stood Wild Thing, and Carter was taking every pitch until he got a strike.
Williams’ first two offerings stayed up and away, wild thing indeed.
The third pitch split the plate for a called strike, and the fourth was Williams’ first non-fastball, a sinking slider that Carter chased. He had lost the ball in the jersey of Phillies second baseman Mickey Morandini, who was shading Carter up the middle.
“It looked like a pitch down the middle, but I completely lost it,” Carter said.
Instead of being in command at 3-1, the count was 2-2 and Carter’s mind became a calculator.
“You’re told not to guess, but I was always a good guess hitter,” Carter said. “I think he has to come back with a breaking ball, so I dig in. Mitch shakes off the first sign.”
Carter’s mind is spinning. He thinks Williams and Daulton, the catcher, are trying to fool him, and Williams will throw the pitch he shook off. But what pitch? Carter still thought slider.
He guessed wrong. But it turned out so right.
Williams’ cut fastball ended up where a slider might have, inside half of the plate, around the knees.
“It wasn’t a bad pitch,” Carter said.
To Williams and the Phillies, it was a horrible pitch.
The ball left Carter’s bat and was deposited over the left-field wall so quickly that it’s difficult to pick up the flight path in replays.
But Carter heard the deafening din in the Skydome about 75 feet down the first-base line and sprang into the first of many leaps. A scrum awaited him at home plate. Iconic scenes are etched in the minds of baseball fans, and Canadians.
As a place in history, Carter and the Pirates’ Bill Mazeroski in 1960 are the only players to end a World Series with a home run, and Carter’s blast has the added distinction of standing among the great sports moments of a nation.
Carter hears this often on his frequent trips to Canada as a spokesman for Webber Naturals, a vitamin company, and to conduct the Joe Carter Golf Classic outside of Toronto.
Last summer’s celebrity event raised more than $550,000 for the Children’s Aid Foundation.
A year earlier, Williams played in the golf tournament and said he wasn’t scarred for life by allowing a World Series-ending home run.
“It’s not like I gave it up to a slap-hitting second baseman,” Williams told the Toronto Star. “People think it hurt me, but that didn’t hurt me more than any other game.”
After the home run, Carter enjoyed several more productive years in baseball and retired in 1998 with 396 career home runs and 10 seasons of at least 100 RBIs. A case can be made for Hall of Fame inclusion.
The aftermath wasn’t as kind to Williams. After the season, he was traded to the Astros, and he picked up six more saves in a career that ended in 1997 — in Kansas City.
The Blue Jays came to town in late April. Carter was stretching when, for the first time since that fateful day, he saw the man who had served up the homer.
“Man, I’d have thought you’d have sent a limo for me,” Williams said.