Gary Carter: Loss of a Baseball Legend Rekindles Lessons From Youth

02/18/2012 12:33 am ET | Updated Apr 19, 2012

There are certain losses that just simply tug at your heart because they symbolize not just the passing of a vibrant iconic person, but a bit of our youth as well. For long suffering Mets and other baseball fans from the 1980s the sad loss of Hall of Fame catcher Gary "The Kid" Carter to cancer at the all too young age of 57 has special resonance. New York is a town that is both gritty and competitive, but romantic as well. It's a peripatetic place where legends, wealth and history are made and where hearts are filled, but often broken. Baseball, like music and first (or last) romances, have a special place for those prone to emotion as defining experiences that capture the wonder of what it is to be young. And there weren't any players that had a more youthful zeal for the game coupled with a very mature manner of capitalizing on an opportunity as Gary "The Kid" Carter.

Youthful Disappointments Are Like Baseball
I was always destined to be a Mets fan. We were both born around the same time in America's majestic metropolis with a legendary older sibling already making history. In the case of the Mets, the legendary older brother was of course, the perennial best team in the history of baseball (and ironically my younger son's favorite), the American League's Yankees, who played in the house that Ruth built. In my family I was the upstart Met and my brother the legendary Yankee. I was the left handed younger brother of the prince of the family. My brother, was the genius first son, born to a war hero first son, who himself persevered through the depression and the throes of a Nazi POW camp.

Dad had no time for baseball, as his job was to work incessantly to shield his naïve boys from a harsh and unforgiving world: by making sure we always had a surplus of food on the table and funny looking winter coats and boots that vaguely resembled the spacesuits worn by the first Apollo astronauts. By seventh grade I was a struggling trifecta of disappointments for my overworked father: massacring French at school in a way that crossed the line from cringe worthy to comical; causing polite, yet patient gasps from my organ teacher at being incompetent at reading music; and struggling with the irrelevancy of Algebra to my youthful mercurial existence. And my baseball team was just like me -- the lovable, but extraordinarily frustrating New York Mets.

In 1977 my older brother Bruce was the Yankees, always achieving every goal in his path to the stadium cheers of the rest of the extended family at every conceivable holiday gathering. In 1977 both the Yankees and my brother were the apotheosis of success. The Yankees celebrated their 75th season in New York with 100 wins in the regular season. After that the team, led by Reggie Jackson, had a stunning victory in the World Series over the treasonous Los Angeles Dodgers, who heartlessly abandoned their old world Brooklyn mom for a mysterious faraway siren named California. The biggest success the Mets had that year was avoiding 100 losses, ending the season with a .395 average, 37 games behind Rocky Balboa's Phillies. To add insult to injury, they traded, the heart of the team, legendary pitcher Tom Seaver and their main, albeit strike out prone, slugger Dave Kingman.

Like the Mets, I too was a gawky, but lovable ball of disappointments. I remember coming home that spring from school disappointed that I got a question wrong on a math test that brought my grade down to just under a B, not because the answer was wrong, but because it was illegible. I opened Newsday to read about yet another loss by my beloved Mets the day before in front of a stand out crowd of maybe 4,500 . Such was the play of the forlorn Mets on the field then, always sloppily missing every opportunity to win at the most critical of times. The only thing shielding the Mets from the Dante's inferno of the National League East basement in any given year was the equally dazzling missteps of the lovable, but still hapless Chicago Cubs. But in 1977 even French speaking Canadian fans from Montreal who wouldn't even sing our National Anthem or bother insulting us in English finished 9 games ahead of us.

My baseball and algebraic disappointments were quickly overshadowed by my brother's gazelle like stride off the organ bench while playing Bach, to open the new mail my mother had collected on the dining room table. My Yankee brother, all set to start as a premed at Columbia in the fall opened a letter saying that he could, like Doogie Howser, leapfrog the whole Ivy League experience by getting into medical school in 12th grade.

The Stars Are Aligned
All this underdog youthful status of mine had changed by 1986. My father ceased sitting shiva over the fact that he would only have one physician son to protect the family from whatever chaos the world would muster. He had survived being killed in prison camp at the hands of his captors by performing surgeries despite the technical fact that he lacked a medical degree or a college education for that matter. I was now coming into my own in my twenties and in a law oriented internship in Washington that would soon result in my heading off to law school. While my successful Yankee older brother was settling into the the day to day routine of a grueling residency and a new marriage, I was enjoying the buffet that is life in one's early twenties.

Not coincidently, the Mets were maturing and defining themselves in their twenties after an awkward youth. By the middle of the decade long suffering Mets fans felt in their hearts that the stars were finally aligned. They got an infectiously positive leader in Gary Carter, from the Expos. He signaled a new beginning with a home run that helped power the Mets to an opening day victory in 1985. By 1986, the team had a truly magical ensemble that led baseball with 108 wins. That team included franchise RBI champ Gary Carter, with 105, as well as golden glove slugger Keith Hernandez, Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, Lenny Dykstra, Ray Knight and Mookie Wilson. Not since their loss in 1973 to the A's had the Mets played in October while the vaulted Yankees cooled their heals at home.

After the Mets smoked the Astros in the playoffs, I called an old friend from middle school and said I'm coming up from Washington, we have to see the Mets play in the World Series. I knew that this was just about a once or twice in a lifetime opportunity after watching them lose through most of my childhood.

On Oct. 25, we bought tickets to Game Six from a scalper outside of Shea Stadium for $85 apiece, back when that was actually a decent chunk of change. Little did we know that by 2011 that game would be ranked as the third greatest game of the last half century. I never told my dad of my extravagant purchase. What I remember most about the game was the thundering stamping of thousands of sets of feet in the stadium and the roller coaster ride of not knowing which direction the game was going in until it was over.

Boston had come into town with a scrappy attitude: they prayed more than New Yorkers ever did, they had Harvard (kind of) and the Kennedys, and heck they were due, having won their last series in 1918. They pounded the Yankees into second place during the regular season, and now they had their sights set on the younger crosstown bother of their archrivals, the Mets. In pure Mets fashion the team had lost the first two games of the series at home and the sportscasts were replete with the factoid that no team had ever overcome such an event.

The Mets were down three games to two. In Game Six, Boston was leading 2-0 before the Mets tied it in the fifth. After the Sox scored again, it was Gary Carter who tied it in the eighth with a sacrifice fly ball. Thanks to Carter, the game was tied at the end of regulation play. At the top of the tenth Boston powered back with two runs, including a home run. It was still winnable, I thought as the Mets came up to bat at the bottom of the tenth. Boston, however, meant business. The Mets were down to their last out, when Carter, who was subbing in for Darryl Strawberry, again kept the Mets alive with a single. He said of that hit, "I wasn't going to make the last out of the World Series." Later that inning Mookie Wilson would hit a ground ball on the tenth pitch of a 3-2 count that rolled between the legs of Bill Buckner. In one of the most stunning comebacks in baseball history, the Mets won the game 6-5 and went on to win Game Seven which I also attended.

I could type out all of Gary Carter's impressive stats and his Hall of Fame credentials, but what I remember most was his heart, particularly during that series. There are certain times in life when it all comes down to a team leader delivering everything he or she has at just the right moment. Gary Carter was like that both on and off the field. He played when injured. When the team needed a hit or a play at the plate he put his all into it. But there was also that X factor of his unadulterated fun at playing the game. It was this happy attitude that was exactly what a team so accustomed to loosing for such a long time needed so desperately. And unlike many sports heroes who lived less than stellar lives, Carter was a dedicated family man who overcame the loss of his mother to leukemia when he was 12 to raise great sums as an adult to fight cancer. His dad passed on the day he was inducted into Cooperstown. And no Mets fan will ever forget his curly locks and jovial ever-present smile, or the pure joy he exuded as he jumped into the air towards the embrace of his teammates after the Mets won the World Series for the last time a quarter century ago. What better image for all the young fans like me at Shea back then, on the cusp of their adulthood, to carry into middle age for their children: that despite setbacks, sometimes nice guys with heart and perseverance do actually finish first.