By Ed Coleman
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He played hard. He played hurt. But mostly, Gary Carter played. Every day.
“The Kid” was tough, hard-nosed, yet he possessed a smile that could brighten anyone’s day. Carter – who was diagnosed last May with four malignant brain tumors – passed away on Thursday at the age of 57 from the extremely aggressive form of inoperable cancer. But Carter fought his disease on a daily basis like he played the game of baseball day-by-day — relentlessly.
If you didn’t know of or never saw Gary Carter play, you could read his Hall of Fame plaque in Cooperstown, close your eyes, and instantly picture him. It reads – “An exuberant on-field general with a signature smile who was known for clutch hitting and rock-solid defense over 19 seasons.” Carter finished his nearly two-decade career with over 2000 hits and over 300 home runs.
He often joked about his 300th HR, which seemed to take forever to hit, not so funny at the time, but good for a laugh in hindsight. Carter had 291 career homers through the 1987 season, then hit 8 in the first month-and-a-half of 1988 to put himself on the brink. Only problem was it took him nearly 3 months – August 11 at Wrigley Field to be exact – to hit No. 300.
The Kid finished 6th overall in career home runs by a catcher with 298 – the other 26 of his 324 total coming as an outfielder. His first major league home run came against fellow Hall of Famer Steve Carlton.
Ironically, Carter made his major league debut against the Mets on September 16, 1974 in Montreal. He finished second to John (The Count) Montefusco in the NL Rookie of the Year award balloting the next season after hitting 17 HR and knocking in 68 runs. His breakthrough season came in 1977, when he hit 31 HR with 84 RBI for the Expos. In 1980, Carter finished second to Mike Schmidt in the N.L. MVP balloting, after blasting 29 HR and driving in 101 runs.
The year 1981 was a signature year for both Carter and baseball. That was a strike-shortened season, split into two halves, which resumed on August 9 with the All-Star game. The Kid hit two home runs and was named the MVP. In the 1981 NLDS against the Phillies, Carter went wild, hitting .421 with 2 HR, 3 doubles, 6 RBI and an .895 slugging percentage. In the NLCS vs. the Dodgers, he continued to rake, batting .438 with a .550 OBP. All told, in 40 post-season plate appearances, Carter went 15-35 with 5 walks. Not bad.
In 1984 – his last season as an Expo – he again was the All-Star MVP and led the N.L. with 106 RBI. Carter also hit .294 with 27 HR and 32 doubles. All told, he played 11 seasons in Montreal – in his last 8, he averaged 24 HR and 85 RBI, great production at the time from a catcher. He was traded to the Mets and immediately made an impact on Opening Day in 1985, blasting a 10th inning HR off Neil Allen to beat the arch-rival Cardinals. Carter made his presence known in his inaugural season in New York, hitting .281 with a career-best 32 HR and 100 RBI. Also, in his last season as an Expo (64-57) and his first as a Met (69-46), Carter had more walks than strikeouts.
The 1986 Mets won 108 games and coasted to the playoffs. Carter hit 24 HR and had 105 RBI during that magical season. He did not have a geat NLCS average-wise (.148), but he had the game-winning single in Game 5, and then two hits in the following Game 6 classic. In the World Series with the Red Sox, Carter, probably moreso than anyone, would not let the Mets lose. He had 9 RBI. He hit 2 homers over Fenway’s Green Monster in the series-tying Game Four.
In Game 6, Carter strode to the plate with 2 outs, nobody on, and the Mets down 2 runs in the bottom of the 10th inning. He delivered a sharp single to left field off Calvin Schiraldi to keep hope alive. Kevin Mitchell then singled, as did Ray Knight to deliver Carter to get the Mets within a run. A wild pitch, the Bill Buckner- Mookie Wilson frozen-in-time moment, and suddenly the Mets lived for another day. Often lost in the shuffle of the improbably crazy ending to game 6 was this – The Kid had also hit an 8th inning sacrifice fly to tie the game and send it to the wacky ending in extra innings. And in game 7, after the Mets had fallen behind again, Carter knocked in the tying run in the 6th inning, and the rest is history.
But what Carter probably took the most pride in was catching – and being behind the plate for as many games as he could each season. He was tough, stubborn and resilient. He had countless knee surgeries, yet ended up catching the 4th-most games – 2,056 – in baseball history, behind only Pudge Rodriguez, Carlton Fisk and Bob Boone. An 11-time All-Star. A 5-time Silver Slugger. A 3-time Gold Glove winner. And ultimately, a winner.
Ron Darling once told me a story about Carter that probably speaks best about his drive, his determination, his competitiveness, and ultimately, his makeup. The Kid didn’t use profanity, he didn’t swear. But in the 10th inning of that Game 6 in the ’86 Series, the late Bill Robinson, the Mets’ first-base coach, told Darling this – as Carter rounded first and returned to the bag after singling to left, he said to Robinson “there’s no f—— way I’m making the last f—— out.”
No surprise. He didn’t. Rest in peace, Kid.
C U soon
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