The Kid, as seen by a former kid. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)
The past seven-plus days for the Mets were not ideal, to say the least, a great weeping and gnashing of teeth that was termed "the worst week ever in the history of this terrible Mets franchise" by Tim McCarver.* (*Not his actual quote, though it might as well have been, and if he and the rest of the Fox crew are going to get so many things consistently wrong in their broadcasts I can't be bothered to quote them accurately either.)
First, Fred Wilpon verbally defecated on his best players. Then David Einhorn swept in with a much needed injection of Vitamin Cash into the Mets' bank account, but it didn't matter, say all the reporters, because the team will sell off all its best assets anyway and die alone and afraid, and won't we all be sad when the Mets no longer have the players they all described in terms similar to Wilpons' for the past 4 years?
Lost amid this haze was a bit of Mets-related news every bit as awful. Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter was diagnosed with four tumors on his brain, and a subsequent examination revealed it to be Grade 4 glioblastoma. I am not a doctor or a scientist, but I do know that nothing good ends in "-oma", particularly when it comes to the brain. Apparently, such tumors affect the central nervous system and are inoperable. Carter will pursue what treatment is available for the condition, but it is a grim prognosis. The news makes me think of how I spent a good chunk of my kid-dom loving the man they called The Kid.
If you were a kid in New York in the 80s, your favorite player was almost certainly Darryl Strawberry or Doc Gooden. What team you actually rooted for was beside the point. For one thing, the battle lines that are now drawn between Yankee and Met fandom were not nearly as hostile as they are now. For another, kids always go where the wind takes them, and that time the Mets ruled the town in every conceivable way.
Me, I was one of the weird ones who picked Gary Carter as his favorite. I can't tell you why I made the choice initially. Most likely because of my innate contrarian streak. Picking Straw or Doc would've been like saying your favorite band was the Beatles: a choice no one could dispute but that revealed nothing about you. There was every reason in the world to pick the otherwordly athleticism of Strawberry or the high kicking fireballs of Doctor K. Picking Carter said, "I like the weird-looking, awkward goofballs who look just as likely to run an HR department as play baseball."
But if I picked The Kid for square peg reasons, I stuck with him for baseball reasons. You could see him command a game on the field, directing the infielder and giving his pitcher a verbal kick in the rear, much like Keith Hernandez did. His relentlessly sunny disposition off the field belied an intense competitor on the field, particularly behind the plate. In every photo of him making a play at home, he looks furious, as if personally offended that someone would dare try to score on his watch.
He was also pretty good with the bat. On Opening Day 1985 (his first with the Mets), he hit a walkoff home run against the Cardinals in the bottom of the tenth, setting off an intense rivalry between the two teams that would last for the next four seasons. It was the first of 32 longballs Carter clubbed in an MVP-caliber season.
He would've received serious consideration for MVP honors in 1986, too, had he not injured his thumb mid-summer and missed significant time. He still managed 24 homers and 105 RBIs, but he will be remembered more for what he did in the posteason.
The playoffs did not start off well for him. All the Mets were perturbed by Mike Scott's obvious ball-scuffing in the NLCS against the Astros, but the straight-laced Carter in particular seemed to take it personally. He went 1-for-21 to begin the series, and suffered the indignity of being taunted by Houston reliever Charlie Kerfeld, who waggled a weak comebacker he hit in game three in his general direction before throwing him out at first. But Carter had the last laugh. In the bottom of the 12th of an epic game 5, Wally Backman reached on a bunt single, then advanced to second on a pickoff throw. The Astros opted to walk Keith Hernandez and face the slumping Carter. He hit a single up the middle off of Kerfield, Backman came around to score, and the Mets had a 3-2 lead in the series.
In game 4 of the World Series, Carter smacked two moonshots over the Green Monster to help the Mets even the series at two games apiece. He drove in nine runs against Boston, more than any other Met, but his most important contribution was a single. It came in the bottom of the 10th of game 6, with the Red Sox owning a 5-3 lead, one out away from winning it all. Many insane things needed to happen for the Mets to win this game, but it all began with Carter lofting a single to shallow center to keep their hopes alive.
And yet, Carter is far from the first person people think of when they think of that team; more likely, he's fourth or fifth (at best) in the public consciousness. Perhaps he has suffered in our memory for getting very old very fast, as catchers tend to do. In 1988, he was named co-captain, along with Keith Hernandez, just as his skills began to drop off a cliff. He hit home run number 299 and struggled mightily to get his next one, waiting almost a month before going deep again. He'd finish with only 11, and in the NLCS against the Dodgers, the one-time cleanup hitter routinely batted seventh in the order.
An injury plagued 1989 was his last in New York. It was inevitable, everyone saw it coming, and yet the news really hurt me. I attempted to follow his career as he bounced around for a few more seasons with the Giants, Dodgers, and back with the Expos. But that was a lot harder to do back in the those olde timey days if you didn't have cable, which I did not. Carter finally retired, several years too late, in 1992, around the same time that I took a temporary hiatus from my interest in baseball.
Carter also hasn't helped himself by putting his foot in his mouth a few times in recent years, like making statements that suggested he was angling for the managerial seat soon to be vacated by Willie Randolph back in 2008. He quickly backed off his statements, but the incident reminded many of Carter's long-standing rep: Camera Carter, the man who had to insert himself into any given situation, whether his presence was warranted or not. It was not his proudest moment, and he's more or less kept a low profile since.
I remember going to Gary Carter night in 2003, shortly before he was inducted in the Hall of Fame (and received one of the more unflattering plaques in Cooperstown history). I was working for the company that produced the Mets' programs, and an exec had field level seats he couldn't use that night. This was 2003, so Shea was not well attended. The tickets were for one of Shea's odd box sections with only three seats, so my then-girlfriend and I were flush next to a borderline autistic man who talked at me for nine innings about how the Mets never should have dumped Kahn's as their official hot dog.
I didn't go to games too often then, or to that point in my life, really, so I had this weird feeling of Maybe I shouldn't have come here tonight. And yet, when Carter came on the field to accept his accolades--I honestly can't remember what tokens he received--that all melted away. Seeing him on a field again, even in a suit, made me feel like a kid again. That's what baseball does at its best, and what it does better than any other sport, as far as I'm concerned.
Carter accepted his whatevers graciously. Indelicately, he alluded to the rough spot the team was in at the moment, but he also insisted that better days were ahead. Only The Kid could've looked at the sluggish, boring Art Howe Mets of 2003 vintage and seen better days ahead.
Such relentless, blind optimism will serve him well in his latest fight. I can't say if he will win, but I can imagine him staring this all down like a shaky Calvin Schiraldi, quietly telling himself, I am not going to make the last out...