Last week, my favorite baseball player of all time passed away.
Gary Carter played for the Montreal Expos (a team that later moved and became the Washington Nationals) from 1974-84, and his best years were spent with the New York Mets from 1985-89, where he helped Dwight Gooden develop into one of the most dominant pitchers in the history of baseball, and he had the first hit in what's probably the most famous rally comeback in all of sports, in the tenth inning of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. Yep, that's the one where the ball trickled through Bill Buckner's legs.
I can't say why or how Gary Carter came onto my radar, but it was when he was with the Expos. He was already my favorite player when he hit a home run in the 1984 All-Star Game, which earned him that year's All Star Game MVP. I wasn't happy when he was traded to the Mets, because the Expos were my favorite team -- I liked their hat. But Gary quickly took to the Mets, and so did I.
That Mets team was the world's worst nightmare: a frat house with f*ck-you talent. In addition to Gary and "Doc" Gooden, they had Darryl Strawberry, Keith Hernandez, Lenny Dykstra, Howard Johnson, Ray Knight, Mookie Wilson, Wally Backman, Kevin Mitchell, Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez, and Roger McDowell (and that's off the top of my head). There's a great book about the 1986 season called The Bad Guys Won.
But Gary, whose nickname was "The Kid," didn't really fit in with that team. He was a diehard believer in sportsmanship -- such a nice guy that it pissed the other players off. I really liked that about him. I think I saw him as one of those 1980's heroes that was threatened by his own morality, like Superman or -- I dunno, Lucas.
Baseball was a much different sport back then. This is before the strike that ended the season, before steroids destroyed the game's integrity, and before athletes became salary whores. There was a big controversy during the 1986 playoffs surrounding an Astros pitcher named Mike Scott, who had a crazy pitch called the split-finger fastball. Folks swore he had to be scuffing the ball. They wanted to check his pockets for sandpaper. Times were simpler back then -- all you had to believe was your eyes.
My friends and I were collectors. We moved from comics to baseball cards to action figures (even M.U.S.C.L.E.S.) When we were collecting baseball cards, I went nuts finding every edition of Gary Carter -- which was both difficult and expensive at that time. My buddies wanted the mythical Dwight Gooden rookie card from the Fleer Update Set, or Jose Canseco rookies or Mark McGwire Olympic cards -- and I did too -- but my most prized possession, on the top pages of my binder, was my collection of Gary Carter cards.
When I made the cut for our high school baseball team in my sophomore year, I did it in Gary's model -- with sportsmanship. I wasn't a great player -- in fact, I'm fairly certain I shouldn't have even been on the team -- but I only missed one practice in three years, and that was when I had to visit the campus of my future college. I wore Gary's number, eight, even though the jersey was a bit tight. And I played first base, which was Gary's back-up position. I have a great story about that (I have stories about everything), but I'll tell it another time.
I tried to go to every game when Gary visited my hometown Phillies at Veteran's Stadium -- both the Expos and the Mets were National League East rivals, so my favoritism was always contentious. Anyway, I saw him hit a bunch of home runs. And someone gave me a baseball with his autograph. But I never met the guy. In those days, there was no direct route -- no Facebook or Twitter -- and I had no interest in sending a letter to a PR team that would return a black and white photo with a stamped signature. In retrospect, it seems sad that Gary never knew he had such a big fan in a rival city.
Gary slipped off my radar when he retired from baseball after a brief return stint to the Expos. I heard that the Expos retired his number, and he got into the Hall of Fame, and that he was doing TV analysis for the Florida Marlins. But by then, I was across the country in Los Angeles.
And let's face it, my relationship with him was on the field. But the great thing about Gary was that he valued that relationship enough to make sure that he never did anything off the field to disappoint me.
I remember reading last year that he'd been diagnosed with brain cancer and the prognosis was grim. On February 16, I got the sudden barrage of texts that can only mean a bad thing has happened. My childhood friends were letting me know that Gary had passed. And hearing about him made them inevitably think of me.
I'm proud about that last part.
If there's a sports icon to be identified with, you couldn't do much better than Gary Carter, a true sportsman.
Here's to Gary. Thanks for being a great childhood hero.