Welcome to Flashback Friday , a weekly feature devoted to the 20th anniversary of the 1986 World Champion New York Mets.
Twenty years, 43 Fridays. This is one of them.
Six Mets received votes for National League Most Valuable Player in 1986. Would you be surprised to know that two of the era’s signature players were completely ignored?
Darryl Strawberry (27 HR, 93 RBI when those were outstanding power numbers) got no votes. Dwight Gooden (17-6, 2.84 ERA) got no votes. In the judgment of 24 members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, neither of them was any more than the seventh-most valuable Met the year they won 108 games.
Jesse Orosco and Mookie Wilson who executed the two most enduring symbols of the postseason that followed (the ball! the glove!), got no support. Postseason doesn’t count in MVP voting.
Wally Backman had a career year in 1986. Batted .320. Was the pulse of that lineup. More dirt than almost anybody. Fewer votes than everybody. Zero.
Kevin Mitchell was a real difference-maker as ’86 became ’86, the kind of weapon championship teams come up with. He didn’t impress the voters a whit.
Well, if those six didn’t get MVP support, which six did?
Bobby Ojeda, Lenny Dykstra, Roger McDowell and Ray Knight each got token support, collecting between 2 and 9 points from all ballots. They were in the lower echelons of the 23 players considered the least bit valuable. Knight finished the highest among this Met crew, in 14th place. Steve Sax came in 13th.
It doesn’t take a historian to figure out who got most of the Met votes in ’86. Gary Carter and Keith Hernandez, in that order. Carter finished third, Hernandez fourth. Hernandez got two first-place votes, Carter one. Overall, Carter edged Hernandez by two points for show. No trophies for that, though. Both were beaten handily for runnerup by the Astros’ Glenn Davis, who finished well behind Mike Schmidt of the Phillies.
Mike Schmidt’s team finished 21-1/2 games behind Carter’s, Hernandez’s, Knight’s, McDowell’s, Dykstra’s, Ojeda’s and Randy Niemann’s. So much for MVP voting.
Whether Gary Carter was the most valuable Met of the best Mets team ever is debatable. How do you measure the value of someone like him on a team that seemed so unlike him? When I think of the ’86 Mets now, in terms of personality, I don’t think of Gary Carter. But when you thought about the ’86 Mets in terms of achievement then, you didn’t think of too many before Gary Carter.
The Goofus-Gallant comparison  between Keith and Gary is a good one. You could argue, however, it should be between Gary and Keith.
Take the MVP voting. Keith, with half of one (from ’79, split with Stargell) in his pocket, never made a big deal of it in ’86. I don’t remember him talking up his chances or campaigning for it. He just wanted the Mets to win. That’s pretty gallant.
Gary may as well have set up a storefront headquarters and handed out buttons and cigars. Hey, I’d rather have had him win it that Schmidt, but — .255 batting average to the side — let someone else make your cases for you. Carter always seemed to find a way to let slip into stories that his slugging, the strongest on the best team in baseball, deserved consideration. He was the same way when he was finishing up with Montreal and letting you know that the National League record he was setting for most games caught was very impressive. And he was unceasing in every interview I ever heard from the time he became eligible for the Hall of Fame until he made it that a guy like him with his career…he should really be in.
Goofus move. You were a great player. You were the Piazza of your time in many ways, arriving with a rep and very much living up to it. You played in pain and played some more. You had two entire cities behind you in your prime. You had history on your side for the long run. You were going to Cooperstown. You didn’t have to answer every question like this:
“What time is it? It’s time to talk about the 300-plus homers I hit and the 2,000 games I caught and the World Series ring I won.”
That’s what it felt like listening to Carter after he retired, and the MVP race was a smaller version of that. For someone so likable, he could occasionally make it hard to love him.
No matter. I did love Carter in 1986, if not always with the conviction I did Hernandez (I’m with Goofus, too) or Strawberry (when good fans love dangerous players) or Gooden (what wasn’t to love?). Actually, those guys were rather easily Keith and Darryl and Doc to me. Gary was half the time “Carter”. As hot as I was to have him on my team, I never quite warmed to him at the same level as our other superstars. Respected him, adored him, did a Mark Gastineau sack dance when we got him. But he was a different breed of ’86 cat.
Not everybody can fight the law regardless of the chances the law will win. The other big names on the team battled illegal-substance demons. A bunch of the supporting cast made an involuntary visit to the Houston pokey. Half the gang seemed five minutes away from having to snap a mug shot at any moment. That romanticizes them in the rear view. Gary Carter wasn’t doing any of that stuff. Are we so hardened and cynical that he loses points for that?
Steve Garvey, with whom Carter was often compared, wasn’t the All-American role model he set himself up to be. Carter probably was. He never gave the organization he represented any cause for embarrassment. Goodness knows he never gave anything except his all and his knees. And for two years — the only two years that really mattered in his five-year Met stint — he was everything he was being paid to be.
On the other hand, Gary Carter always seemed very worried about what we thought of him. It went beyond his taking care to wear a suit to a celebration. He didn’t say much without processing it for Q ratings or PR appeal or MVP or HOF consideration. If there can be such as thing as a crafty righthander or a wily rookie, then somebody can be warmly calculating.
Gary Carter was that. It was a one-of-a-kind personality, not to be confused with other examples of “what a nice boy!” from his era. Garvey was kind to strangers, less so to his wife. Cal Ripken signed autographs into the wee hours yet kept his literal distance from his teammates. Dale Murphy was said to be every bit the angelic presence he came off as but he went about his business beatifically and quietly. He wasn’t out there the way Gary Carter could be Out There.
Unique in the annals of franchise leading men as well. Not the stoic like Mike. Not the brooder like Keith. Not the intellectual Tom struck the reporters as when he emerged full-grown in 1967. Not desperately cool like Darryl. Not the savvy/shucks mix we see in David today.
I’m reminded of a phrase my wife uses when she’s had just enough of something or someone: A little goes a long way. A little Carter was very sufficient. I’m not talking on the field, where we couldn’t get enough of him. The only non-pitcher on the 1986 postseason roster to not log playing time versus the Astros or Red Sox was Ed Hearn. He was Carter’s caddy. Carter wasn’t coming out for anybody.
He had to be in the game, but did he have to be in nearly every commercial that was ever made in the mid-1980s? Ivory Soap was a natural. New York Newsday (“is that how they deliver newspapers in New York?”) was kinda cute, especially with him earning the back page so often. But Northville Gasoline, Gary? How did you manage to get that excited about premium unleaded? It reminds me of the Simpsons Halloween episode in which the public has had enough of the Simpsons’ overexposure. The last straw is a billboard of Bart advising women, “Get a mammogram, man!!!”
Northville Gasoline could make another player look cheesy. Gary Carter managed to make Northville Gasoline look enticing. He was that believable a pitchman. Ubiquitous, but believable.
After the World Series was won, Gary Carter was not, as some of his teammates may have been, noticeably intoxicated in talking into microphones. Except for being high on life. The next morning, Howard Stern did a parody in which Robin Quivers interviewed him as Gary Carter. It went something like this:
ROBIN: Gary Carter, how do you feel?
HOWARD: WOO! WE WON THE WORLD SERIES! I WANT TO THANK JESUS CHRIST!
ROBIN: Anybody else?
HOWARD: Yeah! I want to thank the Easter Bunny!
It wasn’t far off from the real thing. Gary wasn’t shy about thanking anybody who made this victory possible…and I mean Anybody (and who among us would argue that the tenth inning in Game Six was merely of this world?).
For all his baseball heroics across 1986, the lingering image I have of him from that season is the period when he wasn’t playing. Remember that he sprained ligaments in his left thumb while taking a busman’s holiday at first base during a doubleheader in August. With him not being able to keep pace with Schmidt and Davis for MVP for a couple of weeks (he swore he didn’t need a disabled list stay, but Dr. Parkes stuck a cast on his hand to make sure he wouldn’t rush back into action), someone as On as Carter always was needed an outlet. During the Mets’ next trip to Los Angeles, Channel 9 put him in the booth.
Gary sat with Ralph and Tim and was, as you’d expect, bubbly. He was a natural. He went on about the game. He talked about the Mets. He talked about the Dodgers. He analyzed Freddie.
Freddie? That was Freddie Valenzuela. That’s what the players called him, Gary said. I didn’t know that about Fernando. I don’t think Ralph or Tim did. When we watched him, my father told me he assumed Gary would go into broadcasting when he retired. (I don’t think either of us imagined it’s a trade Keith Hernandez — whose MVP candidacy bloomed in Carter’s absence — would ever enter.)
Dad was right. Gary was one of the Marlins’ inaugural analysts when they began in 1993. Made sense. He lived in South Florida. He had been gone from the Mets for four years by then. After being forever a Met, he became a Giant, a Dodger and then, at last, an Expo for life. He said something like that when they gave him a day in Montreal. By then, Gary Carter’s Met legacy faded, certainly in my mind. When I thought about the ’86 Mets, it was the outlaws I remembered wistfully. Gary Carter? Rollicking and rambunctious, but now he was an eternal Expo. He just said so.
In the way you couldn’t keep him out of action unless you shoved his hand in a cast, maybe you couldn’t keep Gary Carter from wandering an actual baseball field, not just talking above it. I was a little surprised when he decided he wanted to be a manager. You don’t think of Hall of Famers just drifting back into the game, especially if they played in the era where they made out very well (though I’m guessing the Northville checks have stopped arriving). I was also delighted he wanted to do it with the Mets — though he accepted feelers from the Yankees — and had put that Expo stuff behind him. Then again, the Expos have been put behind everybody.
Was it calculating for Gary Carter to decide he was forever a Met all over again? Probably. But it was warmly calculating. It’s who he is, at least from here. I’m happy to have him back in the family. I’m thrilled he made the Hall, whatever insignia’s on his cap, though I confess I would have assumed Keith would have gone in before him and Darryl and Doc would go in after him. Unless there’s a late boomlet for El Sid, Gary Carter is our sole guarantee that the 1986 Mets will always be officially represented among the immortals. The 1986 Phillies and 1986 Astros had already gotten Schmidt and Ryan, respectively, through the door. Kid’s 2003 selection made sure those pretenders couldn’t lead us in any meaningful category.
It’s easy to be cynical about a grown man who goes through life as Kid. But it would be wrong. I’ll never forget how he gave us not just his all, but his knees. He was his pitcher’s best friend and the other pitcher’s worst nightmare. He treated every at-bat like it was Armageddon. Carter makes out and he’s in full grimace. Carter gets a hit, and Bill Robinson better steady his palm for a warp-speed high-five. Carter hits one out, and you could be in the helicopter from that Newsday commercial and you could still identify all those teeth.
It’s understandable one would feel a more automatic kinship with the guy who wore the t-shirt than the guy who wore the suit. (I’d make the same choice as Keith every time, regardless of occasion.) But my thanks to Gary for leaving no doubt that he was ready to go, just like he did every day from April of ’85 through October of ’86. If he was in our face, our face didn’t complain too much.
Doc didn’t ride in the parade. Doc didn’t pick up his ring. Doc didn’t make the reunion. He won the triple crown of disappointment. Gary Carter showed up for everything. He was grateful to be inducted into the Mets Hall of Fame. He was thrilled to receive a make-believe Cooperstown plaque three years ago when the Mets wanted to overturn the Hall’s judgment. Never mind that the plaque was rather chintzy and the Night they threw together in his honor was the Northville Gasoline of tributes (they gave Gary a bike from Harley-Davidson of Hempstead). Gary told us he was thrilled and smiled. He always seemed to be doing both, much as we were when he was earning our affection.
Jerry Izenberg, one of my favorite sportswriters, rushed out a book after 1986 called The Greatest Game Ever Played. Despite some typos and stat errors, it’s a great snapshot of a team on the march to glory, particularly on its longest afternoon, Game Six in Houston. Izenberg had been around. He had a BS detector the size of the Astrodome. This was his professional cynic’s picture of Gary Carter:
Gary Carter may come off like a cliché, to the point where a lot of other players mistrust him, but the genuine article comes along so rarely it can be hard to recognize when it looks you in the eye.
It was a pleasure to look back in that eye and know the body it was attached to was batting cleanup in our order and blocking our plate.