Illustration by Derek Erdman.
Illustration by Derek Erdman.
If you were a kid in the greater New York metropolitan area in the late 1980s, your favorite baseball player was Dwight Gooden or Darryl Strawberry. There were Keith Hernandez and Don Mattingly, too, I suppose, but in reality those were your only choices, unless you were related to Mike Pagliarulo or something. I could go with the flow as well as any other preteen—hell, I watched every episode of Transformers and don’t recall enjoying a single one, but I watched because that’s what I thought I was supposed to do. But when it came to baseball, I pushed the envelope a bit. I decided that Gary Carter was my favorite.
Anybody could admire Straw’s elegant yet violent swing, or Doc’s effortless strikeouts. Saying you loved either of them was akin to saying you loved pizza: an indisputable choice that revealed nothing of yourself. It took a kid of distinction, I told myself, to root for Gary Carter.
They called Carter "The Kid," and everything about him did indeed have a quality poised somewhere between childlike and childish. His odd, mom-ish perm seemed to signify an unselfconscious soul that hadn’t quite recognized the importance of image in Our Modern World. The same went for his endless series of endorsements for one aggressively whitebread product after another: Ivory soap, milk, Amoco gasoline, Newsday. There was some obvious attention to his public persona in all this—his teammates in Montreal had called him "Camera Carter"—but the very idea of what that image should be seemed somewhat off even then, as if he hadn’t the slightest idea what was cool to the adult world. He thought being wholesome and doing his job and ascribing his success to his faith (at a time when this was still an unusual thing for athletes to do, at least publicly) was cool.
The enthusiasm with which he played truly was kid-like, in the best and worst ways. His love for the game was undeniable and untempered and wildly palpable, and as such could be infuriating if you were unlucky enough to not be on his side. To his opponents, being on the field with Carter was like being in a crowded theater with a totally geeked eight-year-old too excited to know how loud he’s talking. He was incapable of controlling himself in that regard, and showed no indication of even trying to do so.
He would run to the mound after last out to congratulate the pitcher, hand primed, ready to shake. He would pump his fist and yell at himself in the dugout minutes after a play concluded. He would take curtain calls after big home runs as if practicing the move in his parents’ bedroom mirror. (He wasn’t the first hitter to do this, but he was the one who brought the practice to its biggest stage: Shea Stadium in the late ‘80s.) He would scramble desperately after bunts, to the point where you could almost see the words I GOT IT! materialize in boldface block letters over his head. And he would look absolutely furious in every single play at the plate, personally insulted that someone would dare try to score a run while he stands by the plate.
When Mets fans think of Carter, it’s to recall him willing himself to not make the last out in game 6 of the 1986 World Series, or hitting a walkoff homer in his first game in a New York uniform on opening day, 1985. For me, the indelible image of Carter comes from Game 5 of the 1986 National League Championship Series. Nolan Ryan pitched nine innings of one-run ball, Gooden pitched 10 (!), and the contest stayed knotted until the 12th inning. With Wally Backman on second and one out, the Astros elected to intentionally walk Keith Hernandez to face Carter.
To that point in the series, Carter was 1-for-21. He looked every bit like a catcher at the end of an exhausting season, one in which he suffered a torn thumb ligament that limited him to “only” 132 games, 24 homers, and 105 RBI. He’d also been one of the loudest voices insisting that Houston’s Mike Scott was scuffing the ball, wailing about the alleged cheating with a child’s sense of outrage and injustice, and saving the purportedly scuffed balls in a bucket in the dugout. Houston seemed to take his offensive futility in the series as a comeuppance for his whining. In Game 3, when he hit a comebacker to Charlie Kerfeld, the reliever taunted him, waving the ball in Carter’s direction as he outran him down the first base line.
It was Kerfeld on the mound again in Game 5, and this time Carter fought him to a full count before lacing a single up the middle, fast enough to sneak through but slow enough to allow Backman to score the winning run. As soon as the ball slipped through the infield, Carter raised his arms skyward in an exultant “yes!” gesture, then did it again as he rounded first. And after the onfield celebration, hugging everyone in his path as headed back to the dugout, he did it again, as jazzed as any fan about what he’d just done. You would have seen the same behavior from a Little Leaguer who went 0-for-4 on the day before hitting a walkoff double. I’ve seen it a million times in the highlight video 1986 Mets: A Year to Remember, and I could watch it a million more.
My family didn’t have much money growing up and didn’t live too close to Shea, which meant going to games was a once-a-year treat. One of the few I was fortunate to witness in person was Carter’s first home game after he finally hit his 300th home run, following an excruciating four-month-long power outage throughout the summer of 1988. I made a sign congratulating him, sketching him from his baseball card, mid-swing, about to follow through.
I didn’t count on sitting in the worst seats in the whole place, the farthest section out in right field, top row. Carter received a standing ovation in his first at bat. From where I sat, he was a grain of rice in a vast field of green. I was overjoyed to be there to cheer him, yet I felt very stupid for making my sign, thinking there would have been any chance he’d see it.
It was one of the first times I felt the pull of adulthood, the way that the sense that there are things you should not do or say for fear of looking weird or uncool blunts the still-present child’s enthusiasm for things. It is that sickening, terrifying feeling that tells you maybe your dreams won’t come true and maybe you can’t do anything you set your mind to.
It is a feeling I would bet Gary Carter never had once. Most of us have to leave the sandlot sooner or later, but Carter managed to stay there his entire, too-brief life, and when you watched him, you could feel like you were back there with him.
I realized this when I saw the outpouring of grief and condolences on Twitter following his death, and in the many fine tributes today. Suddenly, it seemed, everyone was willing to admit he was their favorite player growing up, far more than I remember admitting such a thing twenty-odd years ago. Straw and Doc were the favorites of children who dreamed of adult sophistication. Carter, belatedly, is the favorite of grown-ups who realize what they’ve left behind, and who wish they could know again, if only for a moment, what it feels like to be The Kid.