In 1984, I was 12 years old, and my four closest friends were all over the age of sixty-five. They were retired, blue collar senior citizens from Queens who loved sitting on the stoop with their coffee and scratch-off lottery tickets, shooting the breeze about baseball and the pretty girls that walked by. I spent a couple of summers listening to their jokes as I pretended to hit home runs out of Shea Stadium.
Three of the men were widowers, including my grandfather whom I shared an apartment with, above my parents house. The only married guy was Ray Stahl, who, on the evening of December 8, 1984, came running across the street, banging on our front door yelling, "The Mets Got Carter! The Mets Got Carter!" At this point in my young life, Ray's jubilance was the equivalent of the shot heard round the world, or at least the shot heard around 152nd Street.
The "Mets" were, of course, the miracle New York Mets, a team built not on Sabermetrics, but on Tug McGraw's premise that "You gotta believe." And believe I did. "Carter" was, of course, Gary Carter, who, at the time, was the best catcher in baseball, and eventually would become one of the greatest to ever play the game.
Ray and I, along with Pop, Louie and Nick, sat up that night speculating about what Gary Carter would bring to a team that already included all-stars like Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry and Keith Hernandez. Ray and I saw Carter as a missing link to an eventual World Series title, but the other old men cautioned me about investing too deeply in my dreams: "You're setting yourself up for disappointment. It's a long season."
These men carried heartache deep within them -- seeing their lives not work out as planned, losing their young wives to cancer and heart disease, and still bitter that their beloved Giants left the Polo Grounds for California.
But I didn't care, I pinned the Daily News headline "The Mets Get Carter" to my corkboard and stared at it religiously until opening day, April 9, 1985. My father pulled a few strings to get seats along the first base line. We piled into his big Buick, the old men and us, to watch history unfold.
It was freezing at Shea that spring afternoon. Dad made a dozen trips to the concession stand for hot chocolate. With the score tied five to five in the bottom of the tenth, Gary Carter intensely stepped to the plate to face off against Neil Allen, and crushed the ball over the left field wall to win the game, 6-5. It was one of only a few times the roar of the crowd at Shea was louder than the roar of the planes bound for LaGuardia.
The game would foreshadow the season, as the Mets and Cardinals were in a heated battle for first place. Just about every evening in the summer of 1985, the old men would sit on the stoop listening to Bob Murphy call the games on a crappy AM radio. They watched me as I imitated Gary Carter's open stance in between stuffing my face with Mister Softee. It was an incredible season for Carter -- he hit 32 homers and batted in a 100 runs. For these old timers, the joy of a winning team would mask, at least for a little while, the loss they carried within them.
On the second to the last game of the season, the Mets would fall short to the redbirds and just missed the division title. I had tickets to the last game, but none of the old men wanted to go with me because it didn't mean anything and the reminder of losing was too much. I went anyway, and on that last game I scored an autographed picture of number 8 himself.
A year later, Carter would begin one of the greatest and most dramatic rallies in sports history, which helped give the Mets their second World Series victory. After that, we had moved away, I lost touch some of the old men, and other things in life became more important than baseball. My only connection with the sport was my grandfather. It was the touchstone we could always go back to. When I visited him on his deathbed in 2004, we talked about the Mets, Carter, and those magical summers in '85 and '86.
I rekindled my love of the Mets in the late '90s when technology made it possible for me to see and hear every game being played 3,000 miles away. The best thing about baseball, of course, isn't the game itself, but the tradition and the stories passed down through generations. Those old men filled my young ears with their joyous memories of Mel Ott, Carl Hubbell and Willie Mays.
These stories are with me as I look at my son, about to turn five, and starting tee ball. A few months ago, he asked to see my baseball collection. As I dusted off one of the binders holding my cards, that autographed picture of Gary Carter fell to the floor. My son asked who he was. "He's one of the greatest catchers to ever play the game," I said, as I launched into my 1985 opening day story to my wide-eyed audience member.
Gary Carter died on February 16, 2012 after a brave bout with brain cancer. His memory will long live on in all of us who love this game and treasure its stories.
Stand Up To Cancer has launched a star in honor of Gary. Please visit and share your memories.