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Gary Carter, the light of the Mets

Try as I might as a witness to his five years in New York as a catcher for the Mets, I cannot conjure a single image of Gary Carter with anything but a smile on his face. I have no recollection of a gloomy Carter, not even as his knees began to announce a slow surrender, his bat grew slow and weary or as his teammates, renowned masters of the dark arts, chided him for his well-displayed rectitude.

In those days in the mid- and late-1980s, you could stand in the middle of the Mets' clubhouse with a blindfold, be spun around three times, stagger off in any direction and chances are you would hit a locker that was host to some sort of mayhem or outrageousness. Those Mets, with near bloodthirstiness, wanted to destroy other teams and pillage their cities, claiming whatever women and alcohol happened to be in the way.

"What I remember," pitcher Dwight Gooden told me in 1995 in Sports Illustrated, "is we'd be on the road and we'd come back into the clubhouse after batting practice and we'd be saying, 'Yeah, let's kick some ass and then go out and show everyone we own this town.' Whether it was Montreal or St. Louis or whatever, we wanted people to know it, like we were taking over the place."

On the field, such will of these barbarians in spikes helped fuel the 1986 Mets into not just one of the most dominating teams of all time, but also one of the toughest. They won four times in that postseason in the last at-bat, including three times when they were down to their last out or two. The Mets were ferocious competitors, and they became world champions.

Carter provided much of that championship fiber, only without the demons and debauchery that came to be associated with many of his teammates. He was "Kid" from Sunny Hills High in Fullerton, Calif., a former star quarterback with a Pepsodent smile, golden curls, a beautiful family and strong faith. Teammates in Montreal and New York would come to resent how overtly he displayed such goodness -- if not, out of their own insecurities, the very goodness itself.

But I can tell you this about the guy known as Teeth or Camera Carter by the insecure: He was as genuine a person and as tough a ballplayer as you would ever want to come across.

The light that was Gary Edmund Carter has been extinguished. Kid is dead, and far too soon at age 57 because of the evil of inoperable brain tumors. This world, not just this little game, is less sunny without him.

There was, despite resentment from inside his clubhouses, nothing phony about Carter, and nothing given easily to him. He was the same off camera as on: optimistic, faithful, kind-hearted, philanthropic. It drove some people nuts that Carter played every day with the joy as if it were the opening day of Little League. Even that nickname, "Kid, " was minted with some derisiveness by jaded Expos veterans when Carter, in his first spring training camp, in 1973, had the nerve to run hard on every sprint and bring enthusiasm to every drill.

"Kid," they'd bark without looking up from their clubhouse card-playing, "go get us some ice cream."

When Carter took Berlitz classes to better fit in Montreal and when endorsements came his way, teammates cringed, including an influential faction that included outfielders Andre Dawson, Tim Raines and Warren Cromartie.

In his 1987 book, A Dream Season, written with John Hough Jr., Carter wrote, "My enthusiasm for my family -- and for baseball, and other things, too -- strikes some people as a bit too much. My happiness crowds people a little."

It was all genuine, though. Kid really did love God, his wife, Sandy, his three children, Christy, Kimmy and D.J., and baseball. Those Mets once scorned a teammate (not Carter) for having the audacity to bring his wife into a hotel bar on the road. Carter was the kind of guy who argued for the Mets to let wives fly with the team during the 1986 postseason, and wrote, "If I could, I'd take Sandy, my beautiful and beloved wife of 12 years, on every road trip."

Carter sometimes was ridiculed for such fidelity, especially on the back of planes and buses by Darryl Strawberry. Mets trainer Steve Garland told me in 1995, "There was a lack of respect for Gary Carter. He was clearly an overwhelming minority -- or I should say an underwhelming minority."

He was too religious, too good, too square -- Tim Tebow with more talent and without social media.

The late writer Jim Murray once wrote, "Gary Carter is the type of guy who, if he saved a child from drowning, the mother would look at him and say, 'Where's his hat?' "

Carter, though, was brutally competitive despite appearances. He had signed a letter of intent to play quarterback at UCLA before the Expos drafted him, and had once wrecked his knee on the football field. Originally an outfielder, he had to learn how to catch as a minor leaguer -- and wound up catching more than 2,000 games and setting records for putouts and chances.

Carter played the position with extreme tenacity. Over an 11-year period (1977-87), Carter averaged 139 games behind the plate -- and that includes the strike-shortened 1981 season. And yet his bat stayed potent enough to join Yogi Berra, Johnny Bench and Carlton Fisk as the only catchers with 300 homers, 2,000 hits, 1,000 RBIs and 1,000 runs. And incredibly, his best month over his career was the last; he posted an .820 OPS in September/October games.

"Certainly physically he's the strongest catcher I've seen," former catcher Alan Ashby once said.

Pitchers loved throwing to Carter. Despite his creaky knees and his strong physique, Carter was renowned by them for his target and his ability to frame pitchers. He seemed to ball himself up behind his glove, so that the pitcher has this great, round pillow of a target with no extraneous movement.

The physical strength of Carter was exceeded by his mental strength. His mother had died of leukemia when she was 37; Carter was just 12 when he lost his mom. Raised Presbyterian, Carter saw his Christian faith grow under the guidance of a teammate in Montreal, John Boccabella, a Catholic who helped him make sense of his mother's passing. He tirelessly raised funds to support leukemia research.

By the time he was traded to the Mets following the 1984 season, with Montreal owner Charles Bronfman souring on him and money paid to star players, Carter was not just ready for New York -- which was a Mets town then -- but wanted it. In his first game in New York, Carter hit a walk-off homer at Shea Stadium, which practically invented the New York curtain calls that opponents came to despise as excessive. He became the last piece to what in another year would be not just a championship team, but also the best National League team since the dawn of free agency.

Above all, there is one moment that forever will define Gary Carter and his inner strength. On Saturday night, Oct. 25, 1986, after Keith Hernandez made the second out of the bottom of the 10th inning of World Series Game 6 with Boston leading the Mets 5-3, the videoboard at Shea Stadium briefly flashed this message: "Congratulations, 1986 World Champions, Boston Red Sox."

There was one problem. The Red Sox would have to go through Kid to get that championship.

Five years earlier with Montreal, Carter came to the plate in the decisive Game 5 of the 1981 National League Championship Series with the Expos down 2-1 and down to their last out against Dodgers ace Fernando Valenzuela. Carter refused to make the last out. He grinded out a seven-pitch walk that knocked Valenzuela from the game -- only to have Bob Welch end it with one relief pitch.

This time the World Series was on the line, not to mention those 108 regular-season wins by the Mets that would be left without validation. Red Sox closer Calvin Schiraldi was on the mound, pitching with the bases empty and a two-run lead in need of only one more out for Boston's first championship since 1918.

Such are the moments that define the fortitude of a ballplayer -- not the endorsements or the nicknames or the camera time. And Carter, this man of unshakable faith and self-assuredness, was comfortable in such a revelatory spot.

"I was our last hope," he wrote, "and as I took my place and looked out at Schiraldi, all sounds shrank back, and I felt a presence in me, or perhaps besides me, a calming certainty that I wasn't alone. I was not alone, and I was not, so help me, going to make the last out of the World Series. I felt certain of that."

So confident and ready was Carter that he lashed at the first pitch, a fastball -- and fouled it back. Schiraldi threw two more pitches that would skirt the strike zone. Carter was comfortable enough to let them pass. On the fourth pitch, Carter, who had tied the game in the eighth when the Mets were down to their last five outs, lashed a single into left field.

With that one swing under ultimate duress, Carter provided the first light of hope to what would be one of the greatest rallies in baseball history. Within four batters the Mets would score three times without an extra-base hit to win the game.

Set aside the hit. Imagine the strength it took for Carter to stand there and be "certain" he was not going to make the last out. Such sangfroid is what defines Carter as a man, not just a ballplayer, of supreme conviction.

Wrote Carter even soon after the moment of a lifetime, "I'll always be grateful for the dream season of 1986. In a corner of my mind I will stand forever with my bat cocked, waiting for the two-one pitch from Calvin Schiraldi."

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