What I remember about Gary Carter, a.k.a., “The Kid” …
The Best Backstop
The moment Johnny Bench moved to third base, Carter became the best all-around catcher in baseball, at a time when there were many good, and a few great catchers in the game. Two-way guys like Ted Simmons, Carlton Fisk, Lance Parrish, and Darrell Porter — and defensive stalwarts like Jim Sundberg, Bob Boone, Rick Dempsey, Tony Pena, and Mike Scioscia. He was a notch above, all-around, than all of his contemporaries. Sure, Fisk and Simmons were close, but both spent much of the 1980s in the DH role; their heavy-duty catching days happened in the 70s, when Carter was on the way up. Whenever I hear nonsense like moving Joe Mauer or Buster Posey to “another position”, I think about Gary Carter, and how valuable he was as a backstop, and why, if the Kid could do it, why can’t others? Further, why are teams so averse to developing all-around catchers like Gary Carter?
The Kid caught at least 85% of his team’s games for nine years straight. He caught over 2,000 games over a 19-year career. He was a rock.
When Gary Carter was behind the plate, there was no question as to who was in charge. He called the game; he coddled the pitcher’s frequently fragile emotions; he directed the defense. His hustle, hard-nosed play, and determination was inspiring. His positive attitude, engaging personality, and outward display of enthusiasm and love for the game was infectious.
If you read The Bad Guys Won (and you should), you’d know that — off the field — Gary Carter was one of the outcasts on the heavy-drinking, hard-living 1986 Mets. At the time, he was seen by many of his teammates as a “goody two shoes”; they were annoyed by his choice to live by values of his choosing, rather than “going along with the crowd”. Those same teammates, 25 years later, effusively praised him for living life “the right way”. Darryl Strawberry said “I wish I made the choices he did, and lived my life the way Gary Carter did.” Ron Darling echoed similar comments, admitting that while some of his Mets teammates took many years to figure out that family and being a good father were the most important things in life, Carter did it “right” his whole life. Darling also said, “Gary Carter was everything you wanted in a sports hero: a great talent, a great competitor, a great family man, and a great friend.” None of that is smoke-blowing; Gary Carter WAS as close to being “perfect” as an athlete could be — an ideal example for others to follow.
While playing for the Expos, I HATED Gary Carter, because he was so damn good, and he played so hard, and had a distinct cockiness about him — he was the guy I never wanted to see up at the plate in an important spot, the guy who always seemed to kill a rally by throwing out a runner, who never let the winning run knock him over. It was a hatred based in jealousy, of course, and I secretly loved watching him play. So on a cold December night in 1984 when it was announced on the 11 o’clock news that the Mets had acquired him, I literally jumped up and down and screamed like a schoolgirl. To this day I remember that night like it was yesterday — not unlike one might remember where they were on 9/11, or when JFK was shot, except this was a good memory. At the time, it seemed so improbable, so impossible, that our Mets could have a superstar of Carter’s ilk. And once he became Mets property, it was all but a matter of time before they won the World Series — you just knew it.
Which leads me into another one of those “good” memories that I remember like it was yesterday. Tenth inning, two outs, two strikes, down by two, and the Mets were about to lose the 1986 World Series. And somehow, Gary Carter — who later conveyed that he refused to be “the last out of the World Series” — takes a tight, rusty-gate swing and punches the ball into shallow left-center to keep a shred of the Mets’ waning hopes alive. The rest was history.
Thanks for the memories, Kid. May you rest peacefully, and be forever remembered.