Gary Carter will never be forgotten

When Gary Carter was alive, it was almost impossible not to notice him.

And it had nothing to do with his big, strong frame.

It's that no one had a better smile in the major leagues than Carter.

But in the years since he retired from baseball and ultimately became ill with cancer, we saw less and less of Carter -- and his famous smile.

On Thursday, Carter died. The Hall of Fame catcher was 57 years old.

For sure, there will be tears in Metland. Mets fans will never forget Carter, whom they called "Kid." His youthful enthusiasm was his trademark. Hence, the nickname most of his teammates called him, including former Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden.

"Even if he was struggling at the plate, he kept a smile," Gooden said recently about his friend. "He was always in the game, brought the best out in me. In the clubhouse, he was a true leader.

"Off the field, he had a bigger heart. That's the thing I admired about him the most."

Former Mets first baseman Keith Hernandez might have been the first piece that helped return the Mets to respectability after years of awful baseball. And Darryl Strawberry and Gooden might have been the cornerstones of the franchise, both superstars developed in the Mets' own farm system.

Still, Carter was the missing piece. He was what the Mets needed to win a World Series again -- to be the last team standing in October. If you remember nothing else about Carter, you should remember that.

The Mets were getting good, but were not quite there before Carter was traded to Mets from the Montreal Expos. It was a blockbuster, for sure. At the end of the 1984 season, the Mets sent Hubie Brooks, Mike Fitzgerald, Herm Winningham and Floyd Youmans north of the border to land Carter.

Mets fans fell for Carter almost instantly. No one can forget his first game as a Met in 1985. Carter hit a 10th-inning walk-off homer off Neil Allen to give the Mets a 6-5 victory on Opening Day against the St. Louis Cardinals.

That famous smile was on high beam when Carter circled the bases and finally landed on home plate with the crowd going wild.

In 1986, Carter was a big part of the Mets' 108 victories. He was a basher at the plate, but, more importantly, handled a pitching staff that became tough to beat. "Carter coming solidified the pitching staff we had," Gooden said. "We had a very young staff except for Bob Ojeda. Having a guy there you can rely on, he was the piece that got us over the hump."

In the World Series, in which the Mets defeated the Boston Red Sox in seven games, Carter was huge. With the Mets down 2-1 in the best-of-seven series, Carter exploded with two homers over the Green Monster at Fenway Park in Game 4.

Carter also started one of the most unbelievable comebacks in baseball history. In Game 6, with the Mets down to their final strike, Carter singled to start a two-out, three-run rally in the 10th inning. The eye-popping victory was capped by Bill Buckner's error on a Mookie Wilson ground ball to first base.

In all, Carter played 19 seasons in the majors. He had 2,092 hits, 324 HRs and knocked in 1,225 runs. In 2003, Carter was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Carter wanted his plaque to feature him in a Mets hat. The Hall, against Carter's wishes, gave him an Expos hat because he played 12 years in Montreal and only five in New York.

Fittingly, Gooden's first memory of Carter was when he was with the Expos. It was 1984, in San Francisco at the All-Star Game. "He caught me in the first inning," Gooden recalled. "I struck out all three guys.

"I remember he had a big smile, he pumped his fist. He said, "Wouldn't it be nice to do this every fifth day." Not knowing that a trade would come. But it happened, and we were together in 1985."

Gooden and New York got Carter and he delivered many special moments.

Carter's smile is gone. But we must always remember it and the joy he brought those who rooted for the Mets.