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The Kid Is Still in the Picture

Welcome to A Met for All Seasons, a series [1] in which we consider a given Met who played in a given season and…well, we’ll see.

One day in the spring of 1987, I chatted on the phone with my mom.

This wasn’t noteworthy — I was a senior in boarding school, and in the era before cellphones we’d take turns cramming into the cubby that held our dorm’s lone pay phone to check in with parents. But this time my mom had a story to tell me.

Gary Carter [2]’s book about the ’86 championship, A Dream Season, had just hit stores. She’d heard that Carter would be at Haslam’s Book Store in central St. Petersburg, Fla., and driven over to get me a signed copy. St. Petersburg had been the Mets’ spring-training home since their birth in 1962, and so the town had a certain affection for the team. Knowing this, my mom left plenty of time to wait in the long line she expected.

But there was no line. While St. Petersburg has since become a reasonably interesting town (with its own major-league team, at least for now), back then it was still disparaged — sometimes affectionately, sometimes not — as God’s waiting room. Haslam’s was in the middle of nowhere, the afternoon was hot, and not even the presence of the All-Star catcher of the World Champions of baseball was enough to draw a crowd. There was just Gary Carter, looking bored and a little wan.

My mom felt sorry for him, and so she stayed and chatted for a while — about the Mets and their season (she has always been a huge fan), but also about her sometimes wayward son [3] and his writing ambitions and where he might go to college the next fall.

As this story unfolded over the phone, I had two reactions:

1. Oh God, mom, you didn’t.

2. Please don’t let this story end with another rich athlete being curt or dismissive with a fan. Not when the athlete is Gary Carter and the fan is my mom. Because that really might break my heart.

Gary's dedication, 1987 [4]Of course I had nothing to worry about. Carter couldn’t have been kinder. He signed my book — To Jay Fry, Hope you enjoy the dream! God bless always, Gary Carter — and my mom left, a fan who’d met a baseball hero and come away thinking better of him.

I remembered that conversation in February 2012, when I heard Carter had died after a yearlong battle with brain cancer. My son Joshua was nine years old, and after I picked him up at school I gave him the news and we talked about Carter on the walk home. Our family had spent that offseason watching Ken Burns’s Baseball, which had led to conversations about athletes, and how it was both tempting and unfair to take their successes or failures on the field and turn them into judgments of them as people. What I was trying to get across was that most athletes, like most people, were neither heroes nor villains, and our stories about them were too simple. We’d talked about Ty Cobb [5] and the horrible things he’d done, but also about how Cobb had been damaged by a cruel and horrifying childhood. And we’d discussed how Barry Bonds [6] could be a cheater and a superstar and a jerk and a sad, even tragic figure all at the same time. I suppose it was my version of editor Stanley Woodward’s famous advice to the great Red Smith: “Don’t god up the players.”

Given all that, as we walked home in the dark it was a relief to be able to talk about Gary Carter. It was a relief to be able to tell my son that I’d never heard anyone speak ill of him as a teammate, husband, father or friend. It was a relief to say that he was by all accounts something simple to describe and unfortunately easy to mock, probably because it’s so hard to achieve: a good man. Not because of what he’d done behind the plate or at bat, but because of how he’d lived his life and how he’d treated others.

Carter was more complex than that, of course. His relentlessly sunny enthusiasm came with a whiff of self-aggrandizement, and he was embarrassingly wrong-footed about politics, with a bad habit of campaigning for managerial jobs that were yet to be vacated. I didn’t talk about that with my nine-year-old, but if I had, I would have said those things didn’t make Carter a bad person, just human. All of our obituaries, if fairly told, will include a but here and a to be sure there and a few things we would have preferred struck from the record.

In the days after Carter’s death, the memories from his teammates were heart-breaking — and raw in a way I’d rarely if ever heard from pro ballplayers.  Keith Hernandez [7] — Goofus to Carter’s Gallant, as saluted in our previous A Met For All Seasons, responded with grief so raw that listening to it made me feel like an intruder. But the words that really got me came from a sadder, wiser Darryl Strawberry [8]: “I wish I could have lived my life like Gary Carter.”

That life began in 1954 in Culver City, Calif. Carter grew up a quintessential California kid, a star quarterback and outfielder at Fullerton’s Sunny Hills High. He signed a letter of intent to go to UCLA, where the Bruins wanted him as a QB, but opted to sign with the Montreal Expos after they selected him in the third round of the 1972 draft. The Expos turned him into a catcher, though he also played right field early in his career, and gave him a September callup in 1974. He made his debut against the Mets in the second game of a Sept. 16 doubleheader, grounding out in his first at-bat against Randy Sterling [9]. Carter went 0-for-4 that day, but collected his first hit two days later, a pinch-hit single off Jon Matlack [10]. He kept going from there, hitting .407 in his September cameo and becoming a National League All-Star the next season, the first of 11 such honors.

He was beloved by fans in Montreal, but not by his teammates. They resented his rapport with the media, his ever-present smile and his gift of gab. They made fun of his faith — which he’d discovered with the help of Expo teammate John Boccabella [11], and never shied from expressing. They sneeringly called him Teeth, and Camera. Even the nickname that stuck, “Kid,” was a put-down, bestowed after Carter had the temerity to run hard in spring-training drills. As Pete Rose [12] had done with the derisive tag “Charlie Hustle,” Carter embraced the insult and turned it into a positive.

In the 1984 offseason, the Expos’ ownership tired of Carter and his big salary and traded him to the Mets for Hubie Brooks [13], Mike Fitzgerald [14], Floyd Youmans [15] and Herm Winningham [16]. The Mets were young and exciting but a work in progress, having run out of gas trying to catch the Cubs the year before. Carter was the missing piece they needed — a potent bat in the middle of the order and a mentor behind the plate. He was a brick wall in home-plate collisions, a masterful pitch framer before the concept existed, and a skilled pitcher whisperer when needed.

[17]

The view from Cloud Ten

His impact was immediate. Introduced to the press, he noted that his right ring finger was reserved for the World Series ring he intended to win with the Mets, which must have driven his detractors in Montreal crazy. On Opening Day, he bashed a 10th-inning homer off Neil Allen [18] to give the Mets a 6-5 win over the Cardinals, and all but invented the curtain call with his jubilant fists-raised celebration. (They hated that in Montreal too — in time they’d hate it all around the National League.)

The Mets would fall just shy of the Cardinals in ’85, but the next year they made good on Davey Johnson [19]‘s promise that “by God, nothing is going to stop us.” Carter was front and center, of course — in the playoffs, he was mired in a seemingly unbreakable slump, and suffered the indignity of Astros reliever Charlie Kerfeld [20] showing him the ball he’d just grounded back to the mound in yet another big spot. Three days later, in the 12th inning, Astros manager Hal Lanier [21] walked Hernandez with one out and the winning run on second to let Kerfeld face Carter and his 1-for-21 streak. Carter lashed a ball up the middle [22], nearly undressing Kerfeld, to bring home Wally Backman [23] and win the game. As Kerfeld stalked off the mound to stew about it, Carter celebrated by hugging every teammate in range, then threw his arms skyward like Atlas holding up our baseball world. Up in Massachusetts, I was certain I’d just seen a modern-day parable, a lesson that hard work and self-confidence would be rewarded.

In some other, lesser universe, Carter made the last out of the 1986 World Series, ending a meek 1-2-3 inning against Calvin Schiraldi [24] and the Red Sox. But in this universe, he stroked Schiraldi’s fourth pitch into left for a single. Carter was so averse to profanity that he’s sometimes said to have coined the term “f-bomb,” but according to legend he arrived at first base and told coach Bill Robinson [25] that “I’ll be damned if I’m gonna make the last fuckin’ out in this fuckin’ World Series,” a story I simultaneously don’t believe and find delightful. A few improbable minutes later the Mets had won Game 6; two days later, Carter had that ring he’d vowed to wear.

The next year, the mileage started to catch up with him — and 1988, the year he represents in our series, was a slog, with Carter laboring through a three-month pursuit of his 300th homer, a milestone that became a millstone. My last memory of him from ’88 was him dourly packing his catching gear amid the wreckage of Game 7 against the Dodgers, the smile for once stripped from his face. In ’89 he stumbled to a .183 average and in the offseason the unimaginable happened: The Mets released him. He’d play for the Giants and the Dodgers, then return to Montreal for a last go-round, one that let the frustration of his autumn seasons dissipate and drift away. His final at-bat, on Sept. 27, 1992, was baseball perfection [26] — a double just over the head of Andre Dawson [27], once one of his chief underminers in the Expos’ clubhouse. It drove in Larry Walker [28] with what proved to be the winning run; the standing ovation almost brought down Olympic Stadium.

In the last A Met For All Seasons I posited that there are Gary people and Keith people, and declared that I’m a Keith person. Which I am. But you can declare for the one without diminishing the other. I was naturally drawn to Keith’s ferocity and brains and, OK, the fact that he succeeded despite a long list of flaws and foibles. But I also beamed in response to Gary’s buoyant curtain calls, and I admired his bedrock stoicism, crouching behind the plate night after night in pain and dust.

Carter’s Met teammates rolled their eyes at his faith, but I always sensed that what rankled them most wasn’t his unshakeable faith in a higher power, but his unshakeable faith in himself — and how that compared with their own doubts and shadows. The other Mets respected him to a man, but few of them seemed to like him. But by the time Carter died, something had changed. The remorse his teammates shared was genuine — in finding themselves older and grayer and thicker, they’d come to think differently of square, uncool Gary Carter from California.

I’d never so much as met him, but my feelings had changed too. As I’d grown older and grayer and thicker myself, I’d learned that the person you show yourself to be in dealing with others is the person you really are, and how you’ll be remembered. Living your life like Gary Carter? We should all have such courage of our convictions.

Twenty-five years before he died, Gary Carter was kind to my mother. It was a little thing, but most of our lives are little things, and we determine whether they’re done well or poorly, graciously or indifferently. He wrote God bless always in a book for me, but he was a blessing in his own right. That was true on the field, at a time when baseball meant everything to me, and in time it was true off the field as well. He was a blessing, for me and so many others. His memory still is.

PREVIOUS METS FOR ALL SEASONS
1962 [29]: Richie Ashburn
1963 [30]: Ron Hunt
1964 [31]: Rod Kanehl
1966 [32]: Shaun Fitzmaurice
1969 [33]: Donn Clendenon
1970 [34]: Tommie Agee
1972 [35]: Gary Gentry
1973 [36]: Willie Mays
1977 [37]: Lenny Randle
1978 [38]: Craig Swan
1981 [39]: Mookie Wilson
1982 [40]: Rusty Staub
1983 [41]: Darryl Strawberry
1986 [42]: Keith Hernandez
1990 [43]: Gregg Jefferies
1991 [44]: Rich Sauveur
1992 [45]: Todd Hundley
1993 [46]: Joe Orsulak
1994 [47]: Rico Brogna
1995 [48]: Jason Isringhausen
1996 [49]: Rey Ordoñez
1998 [50]: Todd Pratt
2000 [51]: Melvin Mora
2001 [52]: Mike Piazza
2002 [53]: Al Leiter
2003 [54]: David Cone
2004 [55]: Joe Hietpas
2005 [56]: Pedro Martinez
2008 [57]: Johan Santana
2009 [58]: Angel Pagan
2012 [59]: R.A. Dickey
2013 [60]: Wilmer Flores
2014 [61]: Jacob deGrom
2019 [62]: Dom Smith