It takes a talented individual to not only make it as a major league baseball player but also to be cherished by the fans of a team. To be cherished by the fans of two teams takes a unique kind of person. Gary ‘The Kid’ Carter was such a person combining talent and character that links him to the Montreal Expos and New York Mets in equal measure.
Gary Carter was born in California in 1954 and grew up as a Dodger fan. He was a supremely talented athlete excelling at football, basketball and baseball, captaining his high school teams in all three sports – indeed such was his talent that he signed a letter of intent with the UCLA Bruins to a football scholarship as a quarterback, one of over 100 offers he received. However a torn knee ligament injury in his senior year meant he had to sit out his final high school football season and after being warned that another bad hit could threaten his sporting career he turned instead to baseball and was drafted by the Expos as a third round pick in the 1972 draft.
Originally a shortstop he was converted to catcher by the Expos after they saw the solidly built and intelligent Carter as an ideal candidate to man the plate. He was nicknamed ‘The Kid’ at his first spring training camp in 1973 as a result of his boyish enthusiasm and competitiveness – in Carter’s own words “I was trying to win every sprint and hit every pitch out of the park”. He displayed similar attitude throughout his career so that even at the age of 38 in the last year of his career he was still referred to as ‘the kid”. During that same camp he roomed with veteran catcher John Boccabella who made a deep impression on Carter both in terms of a player and a person and he accredited Boccabella with reigniting his religious faith which he had previously disavowed following his mothers death from cancer when he was just 12. Carter’s ascent though the minors was rapid and this was helped by playing winter ball in Puerto Rico.
Carter made his big league debut in September 1974 hitting .407 in 27 plate appearances and hit his first home run off future Hall of Famer Steve Carlton. The following season he was assigned the number 8, which he was to keep throughout the rest of his career. The Expos expected much of Carter, dubbed a “superkid” by his minor league coaches who considered that whilst others may have more natural talent, the intangibles that he presented made him an overall better package. In his first full season, alternating between catcher and right field, he played in 144 games, hitting .270 with 17 homers and 68 RBI and finished runner up in the NL Rookie of the Year voting. The following year he broke his thumb in an ugly on field collision and only played 91 games hitting just .219. However in 1977 he assumed the full time catcher role and he hit 31 homers hitting .284.
Throughout his time at Montreal he was a real workhorse behind the plate regularly playing over 150 games. His value as a catcher was significant cutting down over 40% of would be base stealers, winning consecutive gold gloves from 1980 to 1982, and he became renowned for his excellence in calling the game, strong arm and framing of pitches. Moreover his constant chatter behind the plate apparently rattled many, otherwise level headed hitters to distraction. A good catcher adds much value to a team – a great catcher can turn that team into one that wins titles.
Add his value as a defensive force to his offensive capabilities and his value soared. From 1977 to 1980 he averaged 25 home runs and 83 RBI, finishing runner up in the NL MVP voting for 1980 when he hit 101 RBI. Carter was in Montreal in what was the best time for the Expo franchise. With him, Andre Dawson, Larry Parrish and Ellis Valentine, the Expos regularly contended. In the 1981 division series (following the strike shortened season) he went 8 for 19 with two homers whilst in the NLCS he went 7 for 16 but the Expos lost in the deciding game. The next year he secured a league leading contract worth $14 over seven years and he maintained his performances over the next three seasons including hitting a league leading 106 RBI in 1984.
However the contract started to weigh heavily with Expos management and in the offseason he was traded to the Mets who were putting together a contending team. Right place, right time. The real grass at Shea Stadium greatly helped his knees following the many years on Montreal’s artificial surface and Carter proved to be the one of the final links in that team together with a young big armed pitcher by the name of Dwight Gooden (who was to go 24-4 and an ERA of 1.53 in probably the best season ever by a 20 year old). Carter endeared himself to the fans immediately by hitting a walk off home run in the 10th inning of the opening day game at Shea Stadium in 1985. This wasn’t to be the last clutch hit that he made in a Mets uniform. He hit a career high 32 homers in that first season with the Mets but it was his contribution in other areas that proved just as vital to the Mets. His detailed knowledge of hitters proved invaluable in dealing with the young but talented pitching staff of the Mets – Davey Johnson, the manager of that Mets team referred to him as a “one man scouting system”.
Spoiler alert. Red Sox fans – just skip to the next paragraph – this could get painful. In 1986 the Mets ran away with the NL East with Carter hitting 105 RBI. In the NLCS against the Astros and after going 1 for 21 he hit a game winning single in the bottom of the 12th of game 5 which gave the Mets a 3-2 lead in the series. It was this series that marked the first time I saw Carter play and I remember thinking how athletic he looked at the plate – standing straight and tall he looked like he could do some serious damage if he caught hold of the ball. The Mets wrapped the series up in game 6 but only after an infamous 16 inning marathon. Against Boston in the World Series Carter hit .276 but it was the timing of his hits that proved crucial. He hit two home runs in game 4 which tied the series up. Then in game 6 he stepped up to the plate in the 10th inning with Boston one out away from winning their first championship since 1918. He singled and sparked probably the most famous two out rally in baseball history to plate three runs capped by Bill Buckner’s inexplicable fielding error that gave the Mets game 6. The Mets closed it out in game 7 and Carter secured his World Series ring.
Carter stayed three more years with New York although in truth his career started to decline from 1987. He hit 20 home runs in that year, followed by 13 the following year but his body started to fail him. He was a true gamer though always wanting to play even at times when maybe he shouldn’t have – he had 6 cortisone shots to get through the 1988 season for various ailments and whilst he played in 150 games in that season, in the following year he only managed to appear in 50 games. After being released by the Mets he played one season each for the Giants and Dodgers before returning to the Expos for a final season in 1992. In 95 games he hit .218 with only 39 RBI but typically, as befits his clutch status, he doubled in his final at bat bringing home the winning run. The Expos retired his number 8 the following season and there have been many calls for the Mets to do the same.
Over the course of his career he played in 2,296 games hitting 324 Home Runs with a slash line of .262 / .335 / .439. These are excellent marks for any player but for a catcher are exceptional. He played in 12 all star games, gained three gold gloves, finished runner up once in the NL MVP voting and in 1989 also won the Roberto Clemente award for his charitable work outside baseball.
After a stint on TV he became a manager in the Mets minor league organisation and at various stages was touted (not least by himself) as a candidate for the Mets managerial role. In 2003 he was elected to the Hall of Fame although he was uncertain himself as to whether to go in as a Met or an Expo. He suggested a split hat but ultimately the Hall made the decision for him and that on balance his major achievements had been with the Expos so he became the first to be elected to the Hall as an Expo.
The story has a sad ending. In May 2011 Gary Carter was diagnosed with brain cancer and he eventually succumbed to the disease in February 2012 aged just 57 having fought the illness with his customary fight and determination. Just earlier this year the city of Montreal named a street after him (rue Gary Carter) and his surviving family were guests of honour at a pre season game in Montreal.
To be named to the Hall of Fame nominees not only have to prove their worth as a player but also their moral standing within baseball – this latter aspect is likely to trip up noted names like Clemens, Rodriguez, Bonds et al whose numbers alone clearly dictate their worthiness of a plaque in Cooperstown. That is a separate debate. With regard to Gary Carter there is little debate – not only do his numbers mean that he is regarded as one of the top ten catchers of all time, but as a person and as a leader he may rank even higher. A man who played the game competitively and yet with a broad grin on his face, a man who Ron Darling referred to as the “moral compass” of that 86 Mets team. His faith clearly inspired him – but a man of faith is no less a man. He could be tough on the field as all catchers have to be and he wasn’t afraid to ‘get involved’ with the opposition if the circumstances called for it.
Perhaps the last word on the worth of Gary Carter should be left to Daryl Strawberry, a fellow member of that Mets team. Strawberry, singularly talented yet whose inner demons always followed him, said of Carter after he died “I wish I could have lived my life like Gary Carter – he was a true man”.