Gary Carter, forever a 'Kid' at heart

Gary Carter expressed so much joy on a ball field, so much appreciation for simply being alive, it was fitting that his death brought his one-of-a-kind smile back to life.

There it was in all the highlights after word came that Carter was gone at 57, taken by the brain tumors that slowly broke what appeared to be an unbreakable man.

The Hall of Fame catcher was young again, a boy in a boy's game, and ballplayers who aren't old enough to remember the '86 Mets had to take stock of the beaming face on their TV screens, the generosity of spirit in high-def.

Too often professional athletes wear forbidding masks while playing their games, and all but hang "Do Not Disturb" signs around their necks. They'd rather store their true thoughts and emotions inside a hermetically sealed chamber, and never let you in for a peek.

Carter? Whenever he put on a big league uniform for the Montreal Expos, New York Mets, San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers, he wanted to assure every man, woman and child watching that he was the luckiest soul in the park. If he could've sky-written his happiness across a blue, day-game sky, Carter surely would have done it.

So there was his face on TV Thursday night, reminding the world that sports were a hell of a lot of fun long before the discovery of Jeremy Lin. Carter had the perfect nickname, "Kid," even if it started with people who not-so-privately mocked the catcher's sunshiny disposition, and dismissed the man as some sort of overgrown Cub Scout.

Everyone in the bigs started out as a Little Leaguer who was most interested in the ice cream cone waiting for him at the postgame snack stand. Carter never stopped playing for that cone, and never stopped reminding fans that fame and fortune were merely his cherries on top.

Sure, baseball was serious business to him. He played the most physically taxing position in the game, and he regularly played it hurt. New York has seen its share of tough guys and tough captains, and Carter was right there with the Willis Reeds, Thurman Munsons and Mark Messiers.

He proved it on that epic October night in 1986, with two out and nobody on in the 10th inning of Game 6 and his Mets trailing Boston by a 5-3 count. It was over. Even Yogi Berra would've agreed it was over before it was over. The Shea Stadium scoreboard flashed "Congratulations, Red Sox" and nobody saw baseball's answer to "Dewey Defeats Truman" coming.

The Red Sox were going to take their first World Series title since 1918, and just about every Met not named Gary Edmund Carter was going to do what the Mets always did win, lose, or draw.


Keith Hernandez, the one who made the second out, conceded that he was already "thinking about going out and getting drunk tonight." Only one Met who didn't drink to excess was consumed by a different thought.

"I wasn't going to make the last out of the World Series," Carter would say.

So he didn't. Carter ripped a single to left off Calvin Schiraldi instead, and an unfathomable comeback was under way. "Just trying to keep the season alive," Carter would say in the winning clubhouse. "A home run didn't matter because we were down two. I had to get on."

As it turned out, a Mets team that should've claimed two or three titles stole its one and only in a year that saw Carter knock in 105 runs.

He'd already delivered another 10th-inning moment on his introduction to New York, the Opening Day homer off St. Louis reliever Neil Allen in '85 that left fans chanting his name. Carter would finish his career as an 11-time All-Star, as one of the greatest catchers of all time, but in the end his grit and talent didn't define him like his unbridled enthusiasm did.

In a clubhouse overrun by Mets passing time between toga parties, Carter was the curly-haired Kid who wouldn't swear, the Kid who wouldn't walk within a mile of a strip club, the Kid who embraced every autograph request, the Kid who had never met a camera or notebook he didn't like.

If some teammates fingered him as a self-promoter and/or a phony, they swung and missed on the essence of the man.

"Going to a baseball game ... and sitting in the stands," Carter said in his 2003 Hall of Fame induction speech, "is like going to that happy place where you can leave your worries behind.

"It is nice to know that even though my body feels like an old man now, I will always be a kid at heart."

Carter forever walked that talk behind the plate, in the batter's box, and on the bases. So in the hours after a vile disease took him much too soon, Carter's career highlights had to leave a younger generation of athletes asking a few questions.

Why was this man always smiling? What made him so happy? And what made him so eager to share that happiness with millions of fans?

The catcher just loved taking his mask off and letting the world in. This was Gary Carter's enduring gift, one far more valuable than any Game 6 hit.

Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." "Sunday Morning With Ian O'Connor" can be heard every Sunday from 9 to 11 a.m. ET on ESPN New York 1050.