By Jason Keidel
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At the risk of sounding like an elitist, I consider myself a New Yorker – a New Yorker before I’m a writer, an American… before I’m even a human being. Perhaps you must be from here to understand that pride which borders on bloodlust for a time and a town that no longer exists.
And I think you must be a real New Yorker – not an Oberlin grad chasing some Sex and the City fantasy, but rather born and raised and lucid in the 1980s – to truly understand how good Gary Carter was with the Mets. And, as paradoxical as it sounds, I think perhaps you need to be a Yankees fan to feel his full effect.
There were two channels on which we watched our baseball back then: WPIX and WOR, which broadcast the Yanks and Mets, respectively. On Channel 11, we got the hopelessly charming shill and Huck Finn refrain of Phil Rizzutto, and on Channel 9 we saw Tim McCarver’s no-nonsense, professorial precision and catcher’s eye dissecting the Metropolitans.
And depending on your baseball allegiance, you went to one channel or the other for horror or humor or relief. To those under 30, it’s hard to grasp that New York was entirely a Mets town in the 1980s. The Yankees weren’t awful, but they were never expected to win a World Series, and they obliged every year. And thus we who worshipped the Yankees secretly and quietly nudged the dial two clicks to see how baseball should be played. (Yes, there was life before cable, remote controls and cell phones.)
In Queens, there was a grand convergence of timing and talent, like clouds joining off the deep blue part of the map, starting with Doc and Darryl spawned by the farm and the arrival of Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez. And, finally, the eye of the storm, making the Mets ready to rain on the rest of baseball, was a catcher named Gary Carter. Carter, who came to Queens from Montreal, was eager to win after toiling in Canada, where baseball was liked but not particularly loved. He landed in America’s media vortex not afraid of the glare, but rather basking in its glow.
Carter’s numbers speak for themselves, as does his dexterity in the field. Indeed, entering the Hall of Fame really silences any debate about his deeds as a ballplayer. But what made this Yankees fan so nauseated on summer nights was the fact that the hated Mets, led by Carter – affectionately and appropriately coined “The Kid” based on the glee he brought to the game, his curly hair sprouting from his blue helmet – were simply better than the Yankees at nearly every position, particularly at catcher, where the Bronx Bombers had a turnstile of deficient backstops spin through Yankee Stadium, from Rick Cerone to Butch Wynegar to Ron Hassey to Don Slaught to Joel Skinner.
Those Mets had the talent to win a fistful of World Series rings, yet only one won, in 1986. In fact, Carter often said (and was seconded by Hernandez) that the best Mets club of that epoch played in 1985. Even as late as 1988, they were by far the best team in the game, but melted before the meteoric season had by Orel Herschiser, whose science fiction stats and unbreakable will lay waste to the entire sport.
Aside from Darryl Strawberry, no Met was monstrous at the plate. But they had a sublime starting staff – handled flawlessly by Carter – a fine bullpen, and nearly every batter was big when it mattered. And no Met was more clutch than Carter, who was a big rung on the rally ladder that led the Mets back from the brink against the cursed Red Sox, who were a strike away from beating the Mets in six games. You know the rest. And Mets fans will almost say in unison that those teams don’t dominate as they did without Gary Carter, who doubled as team leader and pitching psychiatrist, coddling or prodding a rather diverse staff.
As an Expo, Carter hit .421 in the 1981 playoffs against Philadelphia, and batted .438 against the Dodgers in the NLCS. He hit two homers and collected 9 RBI against the Red Sox in the ’86 World Series, including that line drive that kept his club alive in the 10th inning of Game 6, a game I could practically hear from my 14th floor apartment in Manhattan while a senior in high school. The entire city trembled after Game 7, from Coney Island to the Cloisters, and Carter was the epicenter.
Now we learn that Gary Carter has died. At 57, he is far too young to be forever benched. It’s always incongruous, if not maddening, to see the giants of our youth shrivel into dust. Even as adults, we still need heroes.
Another nice thing about New Yorkers is that even when we root against someone – from Jordan to Reggie Miller to Reggie Jackson to Tom Brady – we respect their talent. And somewhere deep in the folds of our small brains we are applauding some great aesthetic even when completed at our expense. And now, 25 years later, we applaud Gary Carter, a special player, because 25 years ago he made New York a special place.
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