Baseball Hall of Famer Gary Carter remembered for smile, love of game (+video)
Gary Carter, who backstopped the New York Mets to a World Series championship in 1986, passed away Thursday. Former managers, teammates, and young players remembered his passion.
New York — In a rough-and-tumble clubhouse filled with dark secrets and constant conflict, there was always one sunny stall.
Those New York Mets could count on Gary Carter to deliver — a smile, a spark and ultimately a championship.
The effervescent Hall of Fame catcher whose single for the Mets in the 1986 World Series touched off one of the most improbable rallies in baseball, died Thursday.
Carter became ill last May, two weeks after finishing his second season as coach at Palm Beach Atlantic University. Mets spokesman Jay Horwitz said Carter died at a hospice in the West Palm Beach, Fla., area.
"Nobody loved the game of baseball more than Gary Carter. Nobody enjoyed playing the game of baseball more than Gary Carter. He wore his heart on his sleeve every inning he played," Mets Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver said.
Carter's bubbly personality and eagerness to excel on a ballfield made him a joy to watch at the plate and behind it.
Even his Hall of Fame bronze plaque at Cooperstown shows him with a toothy grin and bears his boyish nickname — the "Kid" forever.
"I am deeply saddened to tell you all that my precious dad went to be with Jesus today at 4:10 p.m.," Carter's daughter Kimmy Bloemers wrote on the family website. "This is the most difficult thing I have ever had to write in my entire life but I wanted you all to know."
Carter was an 11-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glove winner. His bottom-of-the-10th single in Game 6 of the 1986 Series helped the Mets mount a charge against the Boston Red Sox and eventually beat them.
With curly, blond locks flaring out from beneath his helmet, and a rigid, upright batting stance, Carter was immediately recognizable. And anyone who watched Carter recognized his zest.
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After Carter's diagnosis, the Mets began playing a highlight reel of his accomplishments on the video board during games at Citi Field and posted this message: "Our thoughts are with you Gary. From your millions of fans and the New York Mets."
"His nickname 'The Kid' captured how Gary approached life," the Mets said Thursday in a statement. "He did everything with enthusiasm and with gusto on and off the field. His smile was infectious. ... He was a Hall of Famer in everything he did."
Carter played nearly two decades with the Mets, Montreal, San Francisco and the Los Angeles Dodgers. He led the Expos to their only playoff berth and was the first player enshrined in Cooperstown wearing an Expos cap.
"Gary was one of the happiest guys in the world every day," Mets teammate Mookie Wilson once said.
Carter was known as much for his engaging personality as his talents. He drew his nickname as an eager teen in his first major league camp and the label stuck for the rest of his career, and beyond.
"An exuberant on-field general with a signature smile who was known for clutch hitting and rock-solid defense over 19 seasons," reads his Hall plaque.
He was especially pumped during the biggest moment of his career.
The '86 Mets were a team with big stars, giant egos and huge expectations. They had a reputation for fighting on the field — and sometimes among themselves — and partying hard late into the night. Drug problems derailed the careers of two gifted teammates, Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden.
Despite all their talent, the Mets were down to their last chance in the World Series when Carter stepped up with two outs. No one was on base, and New York was trailing Boston 5-3 in the bottom of the 10th inning in Game 6.
Carter said he had just one thought in mind: "I wasn't going to make the last out of the World Series."
True to his word, he delivered a clean single to left field off Red Sox reliever Calvin Schiraldi. Kevin Mitchell followed with a single, and when Ray Knight also singled, Carter scampered home from second base.
As Carter crossed the plate, he clapped his hands, pointed at Wilson on deck and clapped again. Moments later, Bill Buckner's error scored Knight for an amazing 6-5 win. Carter rushed from the dugout to join the celebration at home plate, catcher's gear already on.
Overshadowed by the rally was the fact that Carter had tied the game with a sacrifice fly in the eighth. Then in Game 7, Carter drove in the tying run in the sixth inning, and the Mets went on to win their most recent championship.
"What he added to the team was character. His approach to the game was contagious. It spread to the rest of us. He helped each of us understand what it took to win," Strawberry said.
Carter homered twice over the Green Monster at Fenway Park in Game 4 and totaled nine RBIs in that Series. Since then, only two players have gotten more in a World Series (Mike Napoli for Texas in 2011 and Sandy Alomar Jr. for Cleveland in 1997 each had 10).
Overall, Carter hit .262 with 324 home runs and 1,225 RBIs with the Expos, Mets, San Francisco and the Los Angeles Dodgers. He set the major league record for putouts by a catcher, a testament to his durability despite nine knee operations.
"Driven by a remarkable enthusiasm for the game, Gary Carter became one of the elite catchers of all-time," Commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement. "Like all baseball fans, I will always remember his leadership for the '86 Mets and his pivotal role in one of the greatest World Series ever played."
Carter twice was the MVP of the All-Star game. He won the award in 1981 by homering twice in baseball's first game after a players' strike that lasted two months. He remains the lone player to have a two-homer performance in an All-Star game and a World Series game.
Carter also set the NL record for games caught.
"I relied on Gary for everything when I was on the mound, including location, what pitch to throw and when. Even when I didn't have my best stuff, he found a way to get me through the game. He was just a warrior on the field," Gooden said.
Carter, however, spent his first full season in the majors primarily as Montreal's right fielder. His first All-Star appearance came that year, in 1975, as a defensive replacement in left field for Pete Rose.
Later, Carter was recognized for his contributions off the field when he was honored with the Roberto Clemente Award.
Carter hit his first major league homer in September 1974 off future Hall of Famer Steve Carlton as a 20-year-old rookie — Carter homered 11 times against the ace lefty, his top victim.
Carter spent his first 11 years with the Expos and was part of a solid core that put them into the 1981 playoffs. They beat the defending champion Philadelphia Phillies in a new first round created after the strike split the season into two halves, but lost to the Dodgers in the NL championship series.
"Learning of Gary's passing feels as if I just lost a family member," former Expos pitcher Steve Rogers said. "Gary and I grew up together in the game, and during our time with the Expos we were as close as brothers, if not closer. Gary was a champion. He was a 'gamer' in every sense of the word — on the field and in life. He made everyone else around him better, and he made me a better pitcher."
A perennial fan favorite, Carter returned to Montreal in 1992 for one final season. His last swing was a memorable one — he hit an RBI double in the seventh inning at Olympic Stadium, left for a pinch-runner to a huge ovation from the home crowd and walked away after that 1-0 win over the Cubs.
Carter was elected to the Hall in 2003 on his sixth try. He had joked that he wanted his Cooperstown cap to be a half-and-halfer, split between the Expos and Mets. The Hall makes the ultimate call on the logo.
"It's nice to know that even though my body feels like an old man now, I will always be a kid at heart," Carter said on his election.
The Expos traded him to the Mets after the 1984 season for Hubie Brooks, Mike Fitzgerald, Herm Winningham and Floyd Youmans. Carter turned out to be one of the last missing pieces on a New York team that already had the likes of Strawberry, Gooden and Keith Hernandez.
He made an immediate impression — it just took a little extra time to get it right in his Mets debut in 1985. In the season opener at Shea Stadium, Carter took strike three, had a passed ball that gave St. Louis a run and watched Cardinals pitcher Joaquin Andujar steal a base against him.
But in the bottom of the 10th inning, Carter hit a home run that won the game and drew a standing ovation plus chants of "Gary! Gary! Gary!"
"What a way to start," Carter said with a grin afterward. "Hit by a pitch, strike out looking, a stolen base, a passed ball and then the home run."
"There's not enough words to describe what it feels like," he said. "I'll certainly remember this the rest of my life."
It wasn't the only time he bounced back from a rugged start. Slumping badly in the 1986 NL championship series, Carter hit a winning single in the bottom of the 12th to beat Houston in Game 5, putting the Mets within one win of the World Series.
"Nobody loved life in a bigger way than Gary," said former Mets manager Davey Johnson, who now has the same job with the Washington Nationals. "Gary's brave battle has ended, but his from-the-gut laughter will be heard and his vitality and spirit will be felt forever. I loved him very much, and I know he is finally at peace."
A two-sport athlete as a boy, Carter won the 7-year-old national division of the NFL's first Punt, Pass & Kick skills competition in 1961. He was a pitcher and shortstop in Little League and switched to catching in high school after a scout suggested it was the fastest path to the big leagues, turning down a chance to play football at UCLA.
Carter stayed in baseball after his playing days ended. He became a broadcaster for the Florida Marlins, coached and managed for the Mets in the minors, managed two independent minor league teams and coached in college.
Carter made it to opening day for Palm Beach Atlantic University on Feb. 2, shaking hands with each player on the team. He watched about three innings and received a standing ovation from the crowd. The Mets had invited him to spring training, which opens Wednesday.
The only hint of negative publicity Carter drew came a few years ago when he appeared to be campaigning for the Mets' managing job though it was already filled.
Carter, however, always had a winning touch. At the ballpark or away, he greeted fans with a hearty handshake — many marveling at how his big right hand had swallowed up theirs.
Current Mets pitcher Jonathon Niese played under Carter in 2005 and 2006.
"The one thing Gary stressed to us was team. He said individual goals were meaningless," Niese said. "He said the name on the front of the uniform was more important than the name on the back. That's what I'll take from my two years with him."