Looking back, it’s hard to believe that Gary Carter, in the eyes of many, was the villain of the ’86 Mets. In a clubhouse of misfits — albeit talented misfits — he was the choir boy. But these Mets, who ran roughshod over the National League en route to a pennant and World Series title, were a brash, cocky, raucous bunch. And Carter, always smiling, fists pumping, hands clapping, was seen by opposing players (and some teammates), fans and media, as Mr. Cocky. The epitome of New York bravado. A phony even. After all, who could really be that happy and full of energy all the time — while having the nerve to hit lots of homers, throw out baserunners, and win and win and win?
I think we know by now that all of those who lined up in the anti-Gary Carter camp had it all wrong. Shamefully wrong. Carter, who passed away yesterday at the age of 57 after a very public and courageous battle with brain cancer, was the antithesis but phony. He was as real as it gets. And as tough as they come. That Mets team was loaded with talent, but the Kid was its heart and soul. And its moral compass. He played hurt all the time, gutting his way through a seemingly endless array of injuries. From his very first game with the Mets in April of 1985, when he slugged a game winning homer in extra innings against Neil Allen of the Cardinals, to his rally-starting hit against the Red Sox in Game Six (“I wasn’t going to make the last out of the World Series!”), Carter had a flair for the dramatic. There have been few truly great catchers in the history of the game, and even fewer who had the mix of charisma, guts, leadership, and character of a Gary Carter.
I remember hearing the news of Carter’s trade to the Mets in December ’84 and thinking, “We’re going to win it all.” I never felt that giddy about a Mets trade, not before or since. I just knew it would pay off in a big way some day. The next morning, I called a friend and said, “The pennant is ours” (I was too modest to declare the World Series was a lock). My friend remarked, “We won the pennant. We won the pennant.” Okay, so we were off by a year, but Carter’s enthusiasm was infectious, sending a charge through Mets fans months before playing his first game. He was one of the few superstars who came to New York and delivered on the enormous expectations that rested on his shoulders. After his many All Star seasons in Montreal and the energy and enthusiasm that he brought to Flushing, it was inconceiveable that he could fail. From day one, he flashed a smile we could all rally behind.
I had an opportunity to meet Carter once, a few months after the ’86 season. I was a young PR executive and my agency had been hired by a video distributor to publicize the Mets 1986 highlight video, “A Dream Season.” So I spent the day with Carter, doing the rounds of media and attending a press conference to preview the video. I can still hear him saying, “It really was a dream season,” over and over, interview after interview. Sounds corny, but he pulled that line off flawlessly. Coming from Lenny Dykstra or Doc Gooden, it would have lost its effect.
During my 30 years in the public relations business, I’ve met many athletes, current and former. Fortunately, most have been professional and gracious. None were as accommodating and respectful as Carter. He treated me like an old buddy, making my job easy, and my client happy. Twenty-five years later, it remains my most cherished memory of Carter, even more than his many heroics on the field. I was privileged to witness first hand, in a very personal way, that Gary Carter was the farthest thing from a phony, a media hog, a hand-clapping showboat. He was a gentleman, a gamer, as genuine as they come, whether he was leading his teammates onto the field or taking direction from a wide-eyed 26-year-old publicist.
Rest in peace, Kid.