1:47 pm Feb. 17, 2012
Perhaps the strangest part of Gary Carter's glorious Mets career is that he'd already passed his prime when the team got him.
It certainly didn't seem that way at the time. Carter, who died Thursday at age 57, was clearly the best catcher in baseball. Moreover, he was the first catcher I ever knew as a fan of the New York Mets.
As my baseball consciousness developed—I was six when the 1986 Mets won the World Series—Carter was a regular at the All-Star Game, the centerpiece of a Mets team that regularly won 90 games or more. A sense of Carter's baseball mortality came later.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can see his decline as a player in indisputable black and white. The Mets acquired Carter for 1985, in time for his age-31 season, more than 1,400 games into his career. His OPS+ slid from 138 in his first New York season to 115 in 1986, then 83, then 93.
Still, he hit 24 home runs for the world champion Mets, another 20 in 1987, and slugged eight home runs over the first month and a half in 1988. The three months that followed—with Carter stubbornly stuck on 299 career home runs—was the drought that told us the difficult-to-believe truth, that The Kid might not be the Mets catcher forever.
By 1989, the Gary Carter/Keith Hernandez Mets were no more. The two leaders of the 1986 team had been pushed aside by younger, healthier players. Hernandez hit just .233 in a part-time role. And Carter was struggling too.
He hadn't played in nearly a week when my father took me to Veterans Stadium on Wednesday afternoon, August 9, 1989 for a businesspersons' special between the Mets and the Phillies. I'll always think of Carter as a cleanup hitter, but on this day he batted seventh, just behind Gregg Jefferies and just ahead of Kevin Elster.
As was the custom at the time, The Vet was half-filled with Mets fans, blue and orange overtaking the maroon in the crowd just as invasively as the Phillies fans these days who occupy Citi Field when the two teams play.
The Mets didn't disappoint their away supporters, taking a 1-0 lead on a Juan Samuel home run in the first inning.
Carter first came to the plate in the second, and hit a line drive single to left field. It didn't matter that Carter had entered the game with a .116 batting average; no one would have thought to boo Gary Carter.
We cheered the single, and we cheered again when Carter doubled into the left-field gap to start the fifth inning, and yet again when he came around to score on a single by Elster, in what turned out to be a five-run rally that transformed a 1-0 pitchers' duel into a 6-0 Mets blowout. (Carter's single most famous contribution to the Mets, of course, was also a hit that started a rally.)
Carter stayed in the game to catch and call pitches for Bobby Ojeda, who would wind up with a complete-game shutout.
Carter got another chance to hit in the sixth inning, and laced another single to left field. In his fourth and final at-bat, Carter cracked a double over center fielder Bob Dernier's head for his fourth hit. He received a standing ovation from the crowd.
The conversation with my father as he held my hand, leading us to our car parked along Pattison Avenue, stayed with me for years afterward. He pointed out that we'd been there for something historic; the last moment of greatness from a baseball player heading to the Hall of Fame.
But I'm sure I didn't appreciate it at the time. It would have been no easier for me to understand that Gary Carter wouldn't always be there to produce clutch hits for the Mets, and to pump his fist into the air as we cheered him on, than to understand that my father wouldn't always be there to lead me by the hand when I went to watch my favorite team play in their away-grays.