This 'Kid' had a passion for the game
Hall of Famer Gary Carter was a key member of the 1986 World Series champion Mets
Gary Carter was and always will be known as "Kid" because of his relentless energy and enthusiasm, his boyish smile and his genuine love for the game. Yet that nickname is a bit misleading because Carter was such a man, tough even for a catcher, be it blocking balls in the dirt, blocking the plate, hitting three-run homers or playing every day.
"What I took most pride in was catching as many games as possible every year," Carter told me six months ago. "Your toughest guy has to be your catcher. I always tried to be that."
Carter caught the fourth-most games (2,056) in major league history, trailing only Pudge Rodriguez, Carlton Fisk and Bob Boone. Carter is tied (with Yogi Berra, Jim Sundberg and Jason Kendall) for the major league record for most seasons (five) catching at least 90 percent of his team's games (Rodriguez, Fisk and Boone have four such seasons combined). When Carter retired after the 1992 season, he had caught the most games in history through age 38. And he did so playing with knees that surely ached on every pitch.
"He was such a ferocious competitor; before he came to us, I had to face him, and he was such a hard guy to get out," former New York Mets pitcher Ron Darling said. "He was so driven. There are too many stories about getting to the ballpark early on a Sunday and he was already there. After games, he was the last guy to the bus because he had ice all over his knees, his back. Something had to be broken before he couldn't make the call. He played every day, and at the end of the season, he counted them up. He was the rudder of our team."
"Our team [in 1986] won 108 games, we never took for granted when we were ahead, and never thought we were out of a game when we were behind -- and that all permeated from him,'' said former Mets manager Davey Johnson. "I had a captain of the team -- Keith Hernandez, he ran the infield -- before Gary got there, but after seening what he did, he was so special, I made him a co-captain. It was an honor he deserved. He'd come to me after a night game, with a day game the next day, and say 'Skip, I'm ready.' I didn't want to wear him out, but you couldn't wear him out. He loved to play. And he loved to play in New York. I know some teammates thought he was a camera hog. But he was always that way because he was always happy, he always loved to play, whether there was TV or not. He was that way in Montreal, they had no TV, and evertyhing else was in French.''
"He was the best catcher around," former Montreal Expos teammate Tommy Hutton said. "He brought it hard every day. He played hurt. I don't know how many knee surgeries he had -- in the teens, I think. When he first came up, he played right field because, I think, Barry Foote was the Expos' catcher of the future. Gary used to run into outfield walls all the time. He was a Pete Rose-type of player. We'd look at him and say, 'Who is that cocky kid?"'
Carter became the catcher of the future soon thereafter, and he became a terrific defensive player (three Gold Gloves; he should have won more). No one called a better game than he did (he insisted that his pitchers work the inside part of the plate), but he also hit in the middle of the order, a rarity in baseball history for a catcher. He hit 324 home runs in his 19-year career, and he drove in 100 or more runs in four seasons, including three years in a row (1984-86). He was, by my completely unofficial rankings, the eighth-best catcher of all time, behind Johnny Bench, Berra, Mike Piazza, Bill Dickey, Gabby Hartnett, Mickey Cochrane and Fisk, and slightly ahead of Rodriguez.
"People ask me who is the best catcher I ever threw to, and the answer is always Gary Carter," said Ed Lynch, who pitched for the Mets when Carter was with the team. "I don't say that because he was a great caller of games, or that he blocked every ball in the dirt, or that he caught every game. I say that because every game I pitched, he hit a three-run homer."
"We played the Cubs in a really long game on a Saturday night [in 1985], and the next morning, I come to the clubhouse and our lineup looks like fantasy camp, no one who ever played, and Gary is not in the lineup," Lynch said. "I went to him and said, 'Kid, you have to catch today. Please. Please.' And he said, 'Lynchie, I caught all last night, I'm tired, I need a day.' But I pleaded, 'Oh, God, please catch today.' So he went into [manager Davey Johnson's] office and came back with the thumbs-up. He hit two two-run homers that day off Derek Botelho, and we won the game. From that day on, he was a god to me."
Carter was a god to most in Montreal, as well. He debuted with the Expos at age 20 and hit his first major league home run that season off Steve Carlton. Carter played 11 seasons in Montreal. From 1977 to 1984, he averaged 24 homers and 85 RBIs at a time when that was big-time production, especially for a catcher. In 1984, his last season in Montreal, Carter hit .294 with 27 homers and 106 RBIs, and had more walks than strikeouts (64-57). After the '84 season, the Expos sent him to the Mets for Hubie Brooks, Mike Fitzgerald, Herm Winningham and Floyd Youmans.
What I took most pride in was catching as many games as possible every year. Your toughest guy has to be your catcher. I always tried to be that.” -- Gary Carter
"What he provided for our team -- not like it always worked -- was a moral compass," Darling said. "We had guys on our team that had gone off the deep end. They were not like Gary. But he was a rock for those guys."
That moral compass was developed early in life. "He was deeply affected by the death of his mother; we talked about that a lot in the '80s," Lynch said. "He was 11 when she died. It really shaped who he was. Most kids who want a new baseball glove, their dad gets them one. Gary mowed lawns to get a new glove. It was just him and his dad. I think that's why he became such a great father and parent."
Carter also brought great leadership to the Mets.
"We had a very young pitching staff when he came over," Darling said. "With all the sabermetric numbers that we use today, when Gary came over, he brought his own National League computer with him -- it was his brain. We didn't have pitchers' meetings to go over the hitters. No one ever said, 'We don't want this guy to hurt us.' Gary would say to the pitchers, 'Jump on board, I've got broad shoulders, we'll get this done.' Sometimes, when the bases are loaded, the fallback plan is to throw a swing-and-miss pitch. Gary would put a fastball down, you would shake him off, he'd put a fastball down, you'd shake him off, then he'd just stick his glove up in the air, meaning, 'I'm not giving another sign.' So you'd get frustrated, or you'd get on board. Initially, we thought that he was infringing on our game, but then I'd think, 'If he has this much confidence that I can throw this pitch, then I should have that much confidence that I can throw this pitch.'"
Carter had many great moments with the Mets, but none bigger than the 10th inning of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. The Mets were behind by two runs to the Red Sox, with no one on base, but Carter's two-out single to left field started one of the greatest rallies in baseball history. A single, another single, a wild pitch and an error followed, and the Mets somehow won Game 6. They went on to win Game 7 and became World Series champions.
"Kid never swore, never. He'd say 'Gosh darn' and 'Jeez.' Because of his religious beliefs, he never swore -- and that was rare on that team," Darling said. "But when he got to first base in the 10th inning, the late Bill Robinson, who was our first-base coach, told me that Kid told him, 'There's no way I'm making the last f------ out.' That's the competitor he was."
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and is available in paperback. Click here to order a copy.
Follow Tim Kurkjian on Twitter: @Kurkjian_ESPN