As a Mets fan, the first time Gary Carter came across my radar screen was in December 1984, when the Mets traded third baseman Hubie Brooks and three other “prospects” for the 30-year old catcher from Montreal.
Sure, I generally knew who Carter was; I collected baseball fans and had seen “The Kid” play against my Mets a few times. But it was out of the realm of what I thought possible at the time that this All-Star catcher would ever play for my lowly Mets. After all, as a Mets fan since 1975, I’d only experienced two winning seasons out of nine, through 1983.
Gary Carter (Photo credit: AxsDeny)
Yes, the arrival of Keith Hernandez in mid-season, 1983, gave me some hope (and Keith, not Gary, became my favorite Met of the ’80’s), but after seven consecutive terrible seasons (1977-83) I knew that they would need a lot more than one excellent player to turn this franchise around.
Yes, the young kids Gooden and Strawberry had each just arrived, but there was one missing piece to the puzzle.
Enter Gary Carter.
Carter quickly announced, not with his mouth, but with his bat, that things were going to be different at Shea Stadium when, on Opening Day, 1985, in the 10th inning, he hit a walk-off home run. It was now clear to all Mets fans that HOPE had truly arrived.
The enthusiasm of the player they called “The Kid” was infectious. The Mets hadn’t really had a player who contained these personal and professional qualities since Tom Seaver had been unceremoniously dumped (for “prospects”, there’s that word again) in mid-’77.
In his first season as a Met, Carter hit a career high 32 home runs, drove in 100, hit .281, made the All-Star team, won a Silver Slugger, and finished 6th in N.L. MVP voting.
The ’85 Mets enjoyed their finest season in many years, finishing with a record of 98-74, but they just couldn’t quite catch Tommy Herr’s Cardinals. Gooden and Strawberry each had fantastic seasons, as did Keith Hernandez.
Most importantly to me was that the Mets were simply fun to watch again. Every day, you knew they had an excellent chance to win, and the players assembled on that team (which also included Mookie, Dykstra, Darling, and El Sid) had a rare chemistry. I hadn’t enjoyed a Mets team this much since the days of Seaver, Koosman, Matlack, Staub, Harrelson, Grote, and Cleon Jones.
And even though Keith Hernandez was my favorite player, I was aware that my friend James was right. Carter was the player that made all of this success possible. He was the glue that held this disparate, passionate, often profane group of guys together.
But what success? The Mets still hadn’t won anything yet.
Enter the 1986 season. Not only did Mets fans like myself expect the Mets to win lots of games that year, we knew this would be OUR YEAR, the year a Championship would finally come back to Queens. Unlike our rivals over in a certain ballpark in the Bronx (whose box-seats were always full of rich, yuppie suburbanites from Manhattan or Connecticut), the denizens of Queens were primarily working class, and understood that it took a lot of losing to truly appreciate winning.
The ’86 Mets did not disappoint. They won 108 games against just 54 losses, led the N.L. in both pitching and hitting, and went on to defeat the Astros of Nolan Ryan and Mike Scott in the greatest league-championship series ever played. (Game Six of that series was the greatest game I’ve still ever seen in my life.)
Carter hit just .148 in that series, and it was clear that at age 32, he was finally slowing down just a bit. True, he had driven in 100 runs again in ’86, but the wear and tear of, at that point, a dozen seasons as a catcher had begun to take their toll. It was unclear how effective he would be, in the Mets first World Series since 1973, against Rocket Roger Clemens’ Red Sox.
Led me begin by saying that I did not hate the Red Sox. After all, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and it was the Yankees that I truly couldn’t stand (although I always respected certain players like Randolph, Munson, and later Mattingly.) My brother was a Red Sox fan, so we had a fun, natural rivalry as well.
Through the first five games of the Series, the Mets looked alternately flat and dominating. Their had been some heroics and some botched opportunities. And the Mets suddenly found themselves down 3 games to 2 going into Game Six. Although it was clear that the Mets Could come back and win, it was far from certain that they Would.
The Mets had lost the first two games of the World Series at Shea Stadium, then had taken two of three at Fenway Park (Carter hit two home runs in Game Four.) So home-field “advantage” had not been an advantage so far in this Series.
Dwight Gooden had already been beaten twice, and Ron Darling once, so it fell to the Mets underrated third ace, Bobby Ojeda (ironically obtained in an off-season trade from the Red Sox) to even the Series three games apiece.
Paid attendance at Shea on this October night topped 55,000, and all of New York (and Boston, of course) was glued to their T.V. sets. The Red Sox took an early 2-0 lead off of Ojeda. The Mets got two back to tie the game in the fifth inning. The Sox chipped another run in the seventh. The Mets responded with a run of their own in the eight inning.
Neither team scored in the ninth, and we had extra innings.
I can’t imagine how exhausted Gary Carter must have been. He had caught every game of the Series, and now here he was entering the tenth inning still behind the plate for the Mets. I was tense, nervous and exhausted just watching the damned game.
In fact, writing this post is the first time I’ve allowed myself to virtually relive this game, more or less in its entirety, in a quarter of a century.
After the top of the tenth inning, it looked all over for the Mets. The Sox had scored two in the top of the tenth, and how much Mets Magic could be left in the tank? There are some miracles you just don’t dare ask for.
The Mets were quickly down two outs in the bottom of the tenth. I looked over at my brother and said, “Congratulations, Mark, it looks like your boys are finally going to win a World Series.” He responded, “Nope. It’s not over yet. They’ll probably find a way to blow it.”
But the Mets were down two runs, and were down to their last out.
Then Gary Carter strode to the plate. It had to be Carter. This moment could be reserved for no one else.
Quickly, though, he was down two strikes. The Mets were down to their last out. Their last strike. Just one more pitch. I couldn’t watch.
In my mind’s eye, I seem to remember Carter fighting off a pitch or two, but I could be wrong.
Then, it happened. Gary Carter lined a clean single, and the floodgates were opened. I looked over at my brother. He had a look of pure doom on his face.
There is no reason to go any further with the play-by-play. There can’t be a baseball fan over 30-years old anywhere that doesn’t know how the rest of that game, and that Series, turned out.
But I can’t help wondering how different it would have turned out if Carter had not come to the plate in that tenth inning at bat. How did he do it? He must have been running on pure adrenaline. And, of course, he came back the next day and caught Game Seven. He finished the Series with a pair of home runs, a .276 batting average, and a team-leading nine RBI.
No Met player had come to the plate more often than Carter’s 29 official at bats in this Series, and no player on either team had come up with a bigger hit when it mattered most.
Carter played a total of just five seasons with the Mets, but he solidified not only his Hall of Fame credentials, but his permanent place in the hearts of all Mets fans during his short stay.
Now, at age 57, Gary Carter has passed away, a short stay in a world he made better with his generosity, enthusiasm and dignity, taking a piece of my youth with him.
But what he has left in its place is a profoundly grateful fan’s memories of how Hope is always just around the corner, if you dare to believe in it.