In the first game Gary Carter played for the New York Mets, in April of 1985 at dumpy old Shea Stadium near the auto chop-shops of Flushing, N.Y., Carter came to the plate in the bottom of the 10th inning, with the Mets and St. Louis Cardinals tied at 5-5. Mets fans, desperate for a winner after so many depressing seasons, hoped Carter, whom the Mets had traded for in the off-season, was the missing piece. During his 11 years with the Montreal Expos, Carter made seven All-Star teams, and developed into the top-hitting catcher in the game.
Carter, the Hall of Famer who died on Thursday of brain cancer at 57, took a cut at a pitch from Neil Allen, a former Mets reliever. After the ball sailed over the left field fence, Carter did a little fist-shaking shimmy on his way to first base. The Kid – the nickname Carter earned thanks to his permanent youthful exuberance – delivered immediately. New York fell hard for Carter. The Mets were on their way. One year later, they were World Series champions.
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Of all the players on the 1986 New York Mets, a team known for beating, and beating up, opponents on the field, and drinking everyone else under the table off of it, Carter, a dedicated family man, may have lived the softest. So it becomes even sadder, and more unfair, that we lost Carter first. Carter’s constant grinning, good cheer, and camera mugging rubbed many fans and opponents, and even some teammates, the wrong way. They saw him as a phony. But Carter never really cared. And sports can use a few more Kids.
Sports fandom can be so unfair. But some of us get lucky. When you’re 10, like I was in 1986, a baseball team can mean everything to you. In whiffle ball games, you mimic Gary Carter’s stance – bat upright behind your shoulder – and dream of playing for the New York Mets. On October 25 of that year, late on a Saturday night, I sat on my couch, in hysterical tears. The Mets, winners of 108 games in the regular season, the inevitable World Series champions, were trailing Game 6 of the World Series, 5-3, to the Boston Red Sox in the bottom of the 10th inning. The Mets were down to their final out. It was over.
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Up came Carter: he hit a single to keep the season alive. Then Kevin Mitchell hit a single. Then Ray Knight hit a single, and I’ll never forget Carter crossing the plate, and pointing at the on-deck batter, Mookie Wilson. You’ve got this, Mookie.
Wilson fouled off a slew of two-strike pitches, dodged a wild pitch that tied the game, and then hit the famous dribbler that went through Bill Buckner’s legs. No sporting event will ever bring me so much joy again. And it was Carter who sparked the whole thing. To this day, I’m not sure how I would have handled such a crushing disappointment, at that age.