Gary Carter showed something today about the character that has helped make him the finest catcher and one of the highest paid players in his sport.

Two weeks after signing a $15 million contract with the Montreal Expos, Carter today went through the exasperation of a four-hour, 150-mile car ride from West Palm Beach to Key Biscayne and back. The purpose of the jaunt was to fulfill a commitment to appear on ABC's "The Superstars," and, in the process, make a fool of himself on national TV.

When the Superstar finals began this afternoon, Carter was not in sight. Since he was entered today in only one event--the 100-yard dash, in which he was expected to finish last--it seemed obvious he'd decided to duck the aggravation and embarrassment.

Then, just minutes before the race, in strolled Carter, laughing about the terrible traffic on his pilgrimage from the Expos' training camp in West Palm Beach, where he'd spent the morning warming up rookie pitchers and running wind sprints.

Under the best of circumstances, forcing a catcher to run--even the 30 yards to first base--is cruel and unusual punishment. Forcing him to run 100 yards on television against three of the fastest men in the National Football League--James Lofton, Cris Collinsworth and Preston Pearson--borders on sadism.

The gun went off and the NFL players sprinted down the track, leaving Carter chugging 30 yards behind.

As he crossed the finish line, Carter was delighted. "Did you see them blow me away?" he said. "Somebody told me, 'As soon as the gun goes off, you'll be alone.' "

Offered a towel, Carter said, "The way I run, I don't sweat . . . You mean they brought me all the way down here from spring training just to finish last?"

As the times were announced, Carter pretended to be interested. "Twelve point what?" he asked when his incredibly awful clocking was announced.

Carter invested about six hours of his day, plus considerable aggravation, so that he could do one of the things he does worst--sprint--for 12 seconds.

Why? Because he had made a promise.

And he figured he'd have some fun.

After his "dash," Carter sought several of his fellow Superstars--such as winner Skeets Nehemiah and football players Mark Gastineau, Nolan Cromwell and Dwight Clark--to tell a few jokes, slap them on the back and tell them what a great time he'd had all week.

Ironic is not a strong enough word for this scene. Carter's $15 million deal is, by any guesstimate, more money than the other nine competitors here have made or will make in their careers.

Of all baseball's recent zillionaires, Carter may be the most impossible to resent, surpassing even Pete Rose in the "How Can You Begrudge Him" sweepstakes.

"I'm not going to change as a person," Carter said very seriously, as though lecturing himself. "I've always been a very conservative type individual. That's the way I was brought up. I always had a job when I was a kid. If it wasn't cutting lawns or collecting bottles or delivering newspapers, it was, ya know, working at the gas station or at the restaurant as a busboy. I did all that stuff, so I appreciate what I'm going to receive."

Of course, it's unlikely that any athlete "deserves" the $1.5 million to $2 million-a-year salaries of Dave Winfield, Mike Schmidt, George Foster and Carter. "They set the standard," Carter said apologetically. "I just took what was offered to me. You would have, too."

However, if any of these gentlemen earn their keep, Carter does. Why? Because he plays baseball's hardest and most valuable position better than anybody else in the game, now that the best, Johnny Bench, has rusted and moved to third base.

In the past two years, Carter, 27, has gone from a very good player to a great one. From 1977-79, Carter averaged 24 home runs and 77 RBI a year, but was overshadowed by perhaps the best catching generation in history--Bench, Carlton Fisk, Thurman Munson and Ted Simmons.

Many peers thought Carter deserved Gold Gloves in '78 and '79; "he had passed Bench defensively by 1978," said former teammate Rudy May this week. Carter acknowledges that he thought "a little politics" went into Bench's last two defensive awards, but says, "maybe I'll get a couple someday on reputation, too. That's just how it works."

Now, however, Carter has won back-to-back Gold Gloves and it is his arm, his work on balls in the dirt, his talent for calling pitches and his handling of a young pitching staff that are the standards by which others are measured.

Also, Carter has made the last leap forward as a clutch run producer, overcoming a tendency to press with men on base. In 1980, he hit 29 homers and drove in 101 runs, and last season, he had 68 RBI in only 100 games.

In answer to those who criticize Carter's .251 average of last year and his .265 career mark, he said, "Any manager will tell you that more than half of any catcher's worth is what he does on defense. I agree with that . . . I'm never going to hit .300, but if I work hard on my defense and produce runs like I have . . .

"They say all catchers are a little goofy," Carter said later. "Bench told me that he thought catching one game was the equivalent (in wear and tear) to five games for a player at any other position. I'm sure with the years it'll take its toll . . .but, right now, I just really enjoy what I'm doing."

That even applies to doing the dirty work that catchers always fall heir to, be it warming up wild rookies in West Palm Beach or finishing last in the 100-yard dash--all in the same long day.

Carter, sitting in the shade in the cool of the approaching evening, sums up this fleeting business of being on top:

"There's nothing in this world," he says, "that I want or need."