I was really sorry to see that Gary Carter lost his battle with cancer this week. He never played for my team and was never my favorite player but I can’t think of a player who exemplified baseball in the 1980s and everything that was right with it more than he did.
In the 1980s, he picked up the torch from Johnny Bench to become the best catcher in the National League. At the beginning of the decade, he was a perennial All-Star. He won a World Series in dramatic fashion in 1986, while playing for the hated New York Mets. By the end of the decade, he was a part-time player. But he never quit smiling, and he played the game in a way fitting of his nickname, “The Kid.” He kept on playing, even if only as a part-timer, until his body wouldn’t let him do it anymore. The same way we played baseball in the back yard.
Even though he played five years for the Mets, a team anyone outside of New York likes less than the Cuban Nationals, I couldn’t dislike him. Every time you saw him, he was smiling like he was having the time of his life, except maybe the one time players aren’t supposed to smile, which is when they’re standing at the plate, staring down the pitcher and trying to hit his next pitch into orbit. But if there ever was anyone who could get away with smiling even then, it would have been Gary Carter.
He collected baseball cards. Everyone knew he collected baseball cards because he told them. He still had all his cards from when he was a kid. It seemed like at least once a year, he had an interview in both of the magazines about baseball cards that I read, and it was great. Here’s an adult, a real, live baseball player, telling me it’s perfectly OK to collect baseball cards.
And then in 1987 and 1988, at the age of 34, all those years of catching caught up with him. He went from being great to being merely adequate, and from 1989 onward, he wasn’t a starter anymore. That’s the point when a lot of players decide to walk away. They’ve made their money, they’re former All-Stars, and ain’t nobody gonna tell them to spend their twilight years sitting on that bench. Except Gary Carter. He continued on as a backup, doing what he loved however much the manager would let him. In 1992 when he went back to the Montreal Expos, where he started his career, and they gave him the chance to play about half the time. He batted one last time, in the 7th inning of the final home game of the season. And in that last at-bat, he drove in the winning run of a 1-0 win.
He always did have a flair for the dramatic. Without him and his 10 RBIs, the Mets wouldn’t have won the 1986 World Series. In Game 6, he started the rally off Boston closer Calvin Schiraldi with a single and scored the first of the three runs in the 10th inning of one of the best games of one of the best World Series ever. I was rooting for Boston and Schiraldi that year, but looking back, I can’t help but admire how Carter played in that series.
And then when Gary Carter went to the Hall of Fame, it was with the joy of a child. He had to wait six years, which must have been worse than a kid waiting for Christmas. Had he retired after the 1988 or 89 season, I think he might have been a first-ballot Hall of Famer. But that would have been out of character for him.
The Hall of Fame is serious, somber business, at least from the point of view of the people who cast votes, and they remind us of that every winter as they evaluate all of the candidates. When his phone rang with the news he’d been inducted into the Hall of Fame, Gary Carter reminded us better than anyone else that what happened to him is the dream come true for every little boy who ever suited up for a little league game. Nothing more, and certainly nothing less.
One of the things that defined him was that he lost his mother at age 11. For him, that’s the bright spot in this. He gets to go home to see mom again.