A baseball player died before his time on Jan. 16.
They called Gary Carter “The Kid” because he played a child’s game with the pure, untainted vigor that generally fades when the complexities of maturity and the allure of financial gain set in.
Carter was afflicted with inoperable brain cancer. He was a Hall-of-Fame player, an exceptional teammate, and from all reports, a model husband and loving father. He was 57.
Why? How? Are there answers to those questions?
A childhood friend died before his time on Jan. 16.
Cliff Zolot was 54. We grew up one house away from each other and as our teenaged years and early 20s melted away shared a love for sports and music.
We went to Mets games together long before Carter arrived to watch our beloved Cincinnati Reds when they came to Shea. We bent the rabbit ears of his TV antenna in every which way, peering between black-and-white snowflakes, tuning in through static-filled interference, as a young pitcher named Nolan Ryan was striking out hitter after hitter.
We played basketball. We played baseball. He was a pretty good athlete. I remember him saying, “I could get a hit off Tom Seaver.”
We howled. Then he explained, “Hey, if I just stick out the bat, maybe I’d get lucky and get a hit. It could happen.” He never lived that one down.
We played game after game of chess while we listened to the music we loved, predominantly the Grateful Dead. Our battles were one-sided at first. I was the better player. But gradually Cliff learned the strategies and the games became time-consuming classics. He wasn’t much for school so it surprised me that he had the intelligence to improve so quickly and thoroughly. The fundamentals were in place, but where Carter lived an exemplary life, Cliff tempted fate.
As we learn more about life from day to day, we find how difficult it becomes to successfully navigate its eddies and currents, its ebbs and flows, without bringing on problems that don’t need to be there.
If Carter and Cliff were sailing on separate rafts in the middle of the ocean, Carter would face his destiny nobly while trying everything in his means to save the day. Cliff would have put a pin prick in the raft the way he put a needle in his arm.
The day Cliff experimented with heroin he separated himself from those who truly loved him. Faced with an inexorable need for money to feed his habit, he invaded the sanctity of his neighbors’ homes. He inflicted pain on my mother by looting anything of value from her modest antique collection.
There would be no forgiveness on my mother’s part. She went to her grave cursing his name, and God apparently took notice.
The last time I heard Cliff’s voice was somewhere around 1984. I wasn’t much into hearing it, told him as much and that was it, a childhood friendship dashed on the rocks of drug addiction.
Word trickled in from family and friends how his life took a turn when he followed his mother and father to Florida. Apparently he was in a car accident and subsequently endured the amputation of a leg.
More years passed. I guess there were weddings, funerals, etc. to which I wasn’t privy, but my sister and others who lived in our amazing post-WWII, Baby Boomer special, humble housing development in Hamden we came to know as Belden Road, passed on bits of news.
Time didn’t take kindly to Cliff’s indiscretions. The body that he chose not to maintain began to give way. More than one person told me that he looked more like he was in his 80s than his 50s. I never saw him again. He’s got to be in a far, far better place now than he was last week.
The heroin needle punctured the periphery of my life when Cliff brought it into his. I had some choices then. You can pick and choose your friends but you can’t pick and choose your family. The needle invaded our happy home when my son allowed the pressures of his young life to break down the barriers we all tried so hard to make impenetrable. He is clean now, and making an honest effort to transform his life.
The hole in the raft is patched, but is the patch temporary? Only time will tell, and all I can promise is that time will be filled with boundless love. I believe I can make a difference. I wish I could have for Cliff.