"That’s the heartbeat of the game: the stories."
Baseball is a sport filled with complexities, paradoxes, and enigmas. There are plenty of bittersweet moments and successes – and, at times, the game can breed frustration.
Like most players, Mark Carreon experienced his share of success and frustration over the course of his ten-year career, and he joins us to reflect on that in this week’s Spitballin’.
The son of former Major League catcher Cam Carreon, Mark had the genetics, work ethic and understanding of the game from the start. That led to a stellar prep career growing up in Tucson, Arizona. In fact, Carreon was so highly regarded as a high schooler that he was set to join the defending NCAA Champion University of Arizona baseball team until the Mets came calling in the 1981 draft.
Carreon passed on Arizona to embark on his professional career at the age of 17. He joined a Mets organization at the start of the process that led to their mid-to-late 80’s success. Coming up through the minors with Darryl Strawberry, Lenny Dykstra, Doc Gooden and others was a great experience, but that depth in talent made the Major League roster tough to crack.
Carreon played so well in AAA that he was an All-Star for three years from 1985-1987; his performance clearly meriting a promotion. But having Strawberry, Dykstra, Mookie Wilson, Kevin Mitchell, Kevin McReynolds and Juan Samuel in the Mets outfield presented quite a roadblock. The Mets chose to keep Carreon in AAA for insurance.
Even when he got his first chance as a Major Leaguer, it came with a caveat. Carreon proved to be so valuable as a pinch hitter, that Mets managers kept him on the bench for that one at bat that could turn a game. Carreon still holds the Mets record for pinch hit home runs in a career with eight.
The ultimate bittersweet moment for Carreon came when he was finally called up to the Majors on September 1, 1987. The very next day when his flight landed in San Diego where he was to join the team, Carreon learned that his father had passed away. There would be future redemption though.
Carreon was respected by the fanbases where he played as someone who worked hard, was a great teammate and a dude who could flat out hit.
“My favorite manager was the guy who gave me my chance to play in the Big Leagues everyday and that’s Dusty Baker. You don’t forget that guy who has confidence in your ability like that.”
Let’s relive his baseball journey as we go Spitballin’ with Mark Carreon.
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Carreon. As a big Mets fan, I always rooted for you growing up, so it’s great to be able to speak with you. Let’s start back at your childhood though. Can you talk about how you began playing baseball?
I grew up in Tucson, Arizona and the Cleveland Indians had their Spring Training there. That was around 1974 and ’75, so when they played the A’s, I would go to the games to get a glimpse of Reggie Jackson, Joe Rudi and Sal Bando. It was real exciting.
Playing the game, well, my dad was a Major Leaguer which was cool. He taught me how to play the game right the first time. I got a pretty good foundation on the fundamentals. I had a huge advantage as a young kid.
You were too young to remember your dad’s career I assume, but what kind of impression did he leave on you as a kid?
The stories he used to tell me I cherish whole-heartedly. Our home was in Tucson and my dad played for the Indians. He had a relationship with Pat Corrales, Frank Robinson and Doc Edwards. They used to come to the house. I was about 14 or 15 and an impressionable young man who loved baseball. These guys would come to the house. I would make beer runs for them and they would tell baseball stories. That’s the heartbeat of the game: the stories.
You had a great high school career and almost ended up at the University of Arizona. What was it like having a top program like that recruiting you?
Jerry Kindall, the Head Coach of the University of Arizona, really wanted me. I was a highly recruited guy. Jerry was in my living room telling my parents that I had a legitimate chance of being the starting center fielder for him. They had just come off a National Championship. Seeing the pride on my parents’ faces was a moment in time that I’ll never forget.
Mark Carreon #45 of the New York Mets bats during a game circa 1990 at Shea Stadium in the Queens borough of New York City. Carreon played for the Mets from 1987-91. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
It sounds like a tough decision to pass up on that to go to the Mets. Can you talk about the 1981 draft and your thought process?
I got a phone call from Roger Jongewaard, the advanced scout who signed Billy Beane, Darryl Strawberry and Lenny Dykstra. He congratulated me and told me I was drafted by the Mets. Immediately I got off the phone and was grinning ear to ear. I shared the news with my family and had to make a huge decision at 17 years of age. Do I go play for the National Championship team? Or do I do what I always wanted to do, which was play baseball every day.
I actually had to have my parents’ permission to sign with the Mets because I was still a minor. Against their wishes, I told them that I wanted to turn pro and start playing immediately. Turned my back on a full-ride scholarship to a great school. It would have been crazy if I didn’t make it, but I did make it to the Majors, so that justified my decision.
You got drafted right at a time when the Mets were stocking their system with a ton of talent, which led to the great success in the 1980s. Could you see what was happening with the young talent in the organization?
The talent was unbelievable, and it all started with Darryl Strawberry. As I was coming up through the system, Joe McIlvain and the scouts put together an unbelievable organization. We won the Minor League Organization of the Year Award just about every year. From top to bottom, our minor league teams were all in first place.
Who were some of the guys you played with along your path in the minors from the 1986 team?
There was Darryl, I played with him during Instructional League. I played with Dwight [Gooden] in 1983 in the Carolina League. He totally dominated and then Davey Johnson invited him to Spring Training and decided to keep him. Lenny Dykstra and I were roommates for a few years coming up. I played with Barry Lyons and Kevin Elster.
I got put on the roster after they won the World Series in ’86. My first Spring Training as a roster player was in 1987. That was crazy because the media was just all over these guys. There were so many newspapers; it was a fiasco for sure.
Mark Carreon #32 of the New York Mets looks on prior to the start of an MLB game circa 1989 at Shea Stadium in the Queens borough of New York City. Carreon played for the Mets from 1987-91. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
You were in AAA doing well again in 1986, was there a time when you thought you’d be called up?
I was thinking I would get called up. I wasn’t on the Major League roster, but I was having another All-Star year in AAA. They called up Dave Magadan. He had a good year, and they had some money invested in him. He deserved it. I thought for sure I would get a nod too. They were focused on winning though, they didn’t want a whole lot of players around. They had more important things to do than expand the rosters and give young guys a look. When I didn’t get a call, I was disappointed though.
Considering all of that, what were your thoughts watching the 1986 NLCS and World Series?
I was excited to see a lot of my friends do well. I especially remember being up late watching the games in the Houston series. Lenny had an awesome Series. He hit that home run off Dave Smith and did well in the World Series. I remember watching from the minors saying, “Hey, I played with that guy last year.” I was happy for Dwight too. Those are some really proud moments in my career.
We talked a little before about the circumstances around your first day being called up to the Majors, only to find out your dad had passed away. I understand if you don’t want to talk about it, but can you describe how you dealt with those emotions?
I was having another All-Star season in AAA and my brother called me. He told me I needed to come home because my dad was getting sick. I was able to get home and say my goodbyes to my dad. He wasn’t gonna make it much longer. I went back and joined my team and two days later, Mike Cubbage calls me into his office and says, “Congratulations Mark, you got called up. You’re gonna join the team in San Diego.” What a moment of sheer joy.
I went home that night and packed my bags. I flew to San Diego and called my mom and she told me dad had died. I didn’t even get to get into the room and unpack. Jay Horwitz made arrangements for me to get back home. What should have been the highest point of my baseball career, was bittersweet.
It was weird because when something like that happens, all you have is memories. I reflected on the nuances he taught me, the sayings and stories, and I often wondered if I had been a good student.
That’s amazing that it happened that way. I can’t imagine trying to balance those emotions. What was it like finally getting your first taste of the Majors?
It was unbelievable. You get your first knock, get your first home run. Get those out of the way and put them in the trophy case. I wasn’t getting much playing time though with that ballclub. No Way. Strawberry, Mookie, Lenny, Kevin Mitchell. I knew I didn’t have a chance to make it out of Spring Training.
All I could do is let Davey Johnson know that I could hit that ball. Every opportunity I had during Spring Training, I just tried to catch his eye. I wanted to show him I could hit with consistency and power. I kind of see-sawed back and forth. I had been an everyday player my whole life and an All-Star at every level, and now, I got thrust into a situation where I just wanted to take whatever I could get just to be on a Major League roster. I had seen enough of Tidewater.
I can remember being a Mets fan as a kid rooting for you. You always seemed to be a clutch hitter and someone the fans really pulled for.
The at bats were few and far between, but that was my opportunity. I prepared for it and came to the field with a good attitude. Eventually, I did well in that pinch-hitter and fourth outfielder role. I still have the Mets all time home run record for pinch hitters. I was able to do that in a difficult position. You earn the right to get that chance with the game on the line. Me and Mackey Sasser did a lot of that.
Then I became a victim of my own success. By the age of 27, I felt like I was pigeonholed as a pinch hitter deluxe, fourth outfielder and I didn’t want that label. I felt like I was watching my career crumble right before my eyes and I couldn’t take it anymore. Eventually I asked for a trade and hoped someone else could give me a chance.
CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 21: San Francisco Giants batter Mark Carreon (R) gets congratulated by teammates Barry Bonds (C) and Robby Thompson (L) after hitting a three-run home run in the third inning of their April 21 game against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field in Chicago. The Giants won 7-6. (Photo credit should read BRIAN BAHR/AFP via Getty Images)
That led you to going to the Tigers and the Giants. You did get more playing time and did well. Was it satisfying to do well when finally given the chance?
I went to Detroit and played for Sparky [Anderson]. I got some more at bats and was doing really well early on. Dan Gladden got hurt and I was hitting over .300 with some power filling in for him. When Gladden came back, I didn’t see playing time for like a month and a half and got frustrated. I wanted to get back to the National League. I lobbied to get back to the NL and got back there with the Giants.
You mentioned Sparky Anderson. You got to play for some really good managers like Davey Johnson, Dusty Baker and Mike Hargrove. What did you think about playing for those guys or any of the managers you played for?
I think about Bud Harrelson. I felt it was unfortunate for him. He’s a super nice guy who had been with the Mets for his entire life. They put him in that interim spot, then he managed the next year and things went south. He got fired and I felt bad. Davey Johnson I didn’t know too well. He didn’t talk to the players too often.
But my favorite manager was the guy who gave me my chance to play in the Big Leagues everyday and that’s Dusty Baker. You don’t forget that guy who has confidence in your ability like that. He knew I could play this game on a daily basis and gave me the chance. I had been in the league a few years and felt like I belonged. When I was with the Mets, I felt like a kid. That was a tough group to try to fit in. They ran Greg Jefferies out of town. You just go out there and play the game hard. That’s how you earn respect and that’s what I tried to do.
That’s the truth. After you were done in the Major Leagues, you played two years in Japan for the Chiba Lotte Marines. What was that experience like?
Well, Sid Fernandez had turned me on to sushi when I was with the Mets. He got me hooked on that stuff, so I got to have that. Lou Piniella was recruiting me to come play for him on a two-year deal and then Japan came in and offered me twice the salary. I was getting up there in age and had a family to take care of, so I chose to go to Japan.
It was tough there. It was a great experience, but the level of competition wasn’t the same. To me, everything was very competitive in America. Things are cutthroat here. Not everybody comes from money here. A lot have to fight their way. In Japan, it’s a wealthy country. The poverty level was pretty much non-existent. There wasn’t that hunger element built in because that wasn’t the culture. We could lose ten games in a row, and everyone was laughing it up. That took a toll on me, but I had a couple of good years there.
That’s an interesting perspective on that. This has been awesome catching up with you. Like I said earlier, I really rooted for you as a young Mets fan, so it’s great to talk to you for an interview. My last question for you is open-ended: Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to leave our readers with?
I’ll leave you with my most memorable game. A few years after my father passed away, we were playing a day game in Pittsburgh on Father’s Day. My first at bat, I hit a home run. Then I hit a double my next at bat and I came up again. The television broadcast was showing my dad’s baseball card on TV. They took out his face shot, and they zeroed in on my at bat. Just as they zeroed in, I’m connecting for my second home run. I definitely felt his presence. By far, that was my greatest day in the Big Leagues.