When I heard the news of Gary Carter's passing last night while driving near Albany, I immediately engaged in a little experiment after letting out a gasp that disrupted my wife's slumber.
The experiment, which I'll ask you to repeat after this paragraph, was to briefly close my eyes and recall the visage of the Kid. While I was barely a sentient baseball fan when Carter helped carry the Mets to the 1986 World Series, I can still picture him standing behind the plate, helmet backwards with curly blonde locks of hair spilling out under the bill, blue chest protector over the racing stripe jersey, surveying the field.
You might put him in a different jersey if you can recall his Expos tenure, or perhaps swinging a bat, or might not picture him so stoic if his disastrous epilogue with the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers comes around, but I'd be that the simple act of recalling Carter will draw you a picture of Carter the ballplayer.
So go ahead and close your eyes. I'll be waiting for you after the jump when you open them.
It occurred to me shortly after my thought experiment that the reason I drew a picture of Carter the ballplayer was precisely because he worked so hard to cultivate that image. It may not have been intentional or deliberate; Carter just always kept himself ready for the spotlight on and off the field. By all accounts, he was a squeaky clean and charitable character during his playing days. While that made it easy for all to point at Carter and recommend him for emulation, it made it hard for his teammates who secretly resented the fact that the cameras weren't pointing their way instead.
In a Los Angeles Times article during the summer of 1986, Ross Newhan quoted Davey Johnson regarding the Mets manager's evaluation of the "Camera" Carter nickname. Johnson responded to the love-hate reaction directed at Carter by comparing his All-Star catcher to one of Johnson's former All-Star teammates, Frank Robinson:
"There are some players who generate both like and dislike," the manager said. "Gary is the same as Frank. You hate him when he's on another team and love him when he's a teammate."
It's an interesting distinction, if only because of how Carter came to the Mets in the first place. If you think the Bad Guys belittled their catcher with impunity by calling him "Camera" Carter, please consider that his colleagues in Montreal called Carter "Lights" because Carter was the fourth-highest paid player in baseball and unfailingly answered for it to the local media. Or because Pete Rose, a Hall of Fame candidate making a Montreal cameo in the twilight of his own career, publicly told Kid to grow up.
And yet, Expos fans knew they'd lose something when they lost Carter to the Mets, even though everyone involved did their damnedest to make him feel unwelcome. As The Montreal Gazette's Michael Farber recalls, Gary Carter's departure dealt a blow to Montreal sports that rivaled Guy LaFleur's departure from the Canadiens:
Carter will be missed next summer, for his baseball and his blarney. Some of the Mets' former chattels might blossom into stardom, and any mooning about the best catcher in baseball will seem irrelevant.
This morning, it does not.
He perfected his Hall of Fame pedigree in Montreal, but Carter just seemed like a better fit in Flushing. The nickname changed from "Lights" to "Camera," but even those who used to cover him in Montreal described the catcher as more at ease in the home clubhouse at Shea Stadium during the 1986 World Series. It helped that the Mets were in the World Series, and helped that the club also had personalities like Keith Hernandez and Darryl Strawberry that could draw away some of the cameras from Carter without much prodding. And it helped that Carter was, as Johnson described him, "the heart of our pitching... and of our offence."
That sentiment echoed throughout Metsopotamia, as Carter emerged as one of the leaders of Mets that won the World Series in 1986 and flirted with it for the rest of the '80s. He did it with MVP-caliber seasons both at and behind the plate, and did it with an aww-shucks stoicism that would make David Wright blush. And, as George Vescey of the New York Times observed in the summer of 1987, Carter impressed everybody with his unrelenting effort and consistent results:
As anybody knows from walking down the aisle of the supermarket, there are all different types of hot dogs. Carter has given indigestion to teammates and opponents alike at times because of his spicy feel for the game, but he is a quality grade, on and off the field.
...Perhaps the Mets should protect themselves by finding a replacement in case Carter wears down any further, but it is also true that Carter could carry the club for a week or two. Gary Carter never found a big game he did not like.
He just kept going, sticking with the Mets for two more years after '87 and through one more playoff push in 1988. He was the Little Catcher That Absolutely Could, even if he put his foot in his mouth from time to time after his playing days came to a close. He was a Hall of Famer by every measure, maybe one that will always belong to Montreal but one that we'll always be grateful to Expos fans for sharing with us.
Carter knew the reputation that preceded him. He admitted as much when he joined the broadcast booth for the Florida Marlins during their inaugural season in 1993:
"I've never felt shy in front a camera," Carter said. "I've had people say that many times."
Yet, it was Carter's words as much as his actions that endeared him to the Mets fans who cheered him and the others who got to know him during the catcher's illustrious career. He could walk the walk AND talk the talk, and never let up. There was no other side to him, no conspiracy, no secret double life. He was happy to sign a kid's autograph or smile for the camera or raise money for charity as far as any of us could tell. He gave so willingly that Joe Posnanski infers we definitely knew a real and sincere Gary Carter regardless of the one we never met in private.
That private Carter is the one we mourn today. Today, there's a wife without her husband, two daughters and a son without a father and countless grandchildren without their grandfather. They saw his nine-month fight against cancer reach its end on Thursday, and to them, we offer our deepest and most sincere condolences.
But the Carter we knew? The one we remember? For all the photos, the camera, the controversy, the hits, he summed up his spirit in one sentence during the summer of 1986, as George Shirk attempted to transfer it on to the swagger of the Mets:
If we have to fight, we will.
Gary Carter proved himself as capable a fighter as anyone we may see. He fought for a 19-year Major League career, a pursuit into managing, to raise awareness for charity, to raise and cultivate a family, to push back the devastating and ultimately fatal effects of cancer. He did it for no other reason than because he could, and because it was the right thing to do. And he did it with the cameras rolling, to make sure we all saw what a man of his character was capable of when things get rough.
He fought because he had to, all the way to the end. That's what the cameras captured for me, anyway.