Everybody looks Gary Carter in the eyes these days. They want to know what manner of man lurks inside. When you catch with one knee wrapped like a mummy, when you can't run right or squat right, when you've lost 20 pounds and ought to be exhausted, how in the name of common sense do you hit 13 home runs and get 34 RBI in September in a hairbreadth pennant race?
How do you have the greatest clutch month of your life, with eight outright game-winning hits, when you ought to be in traction? How do you amass 32 homers and 99 RBI when you've had one lousy injury after another since opening day?
Look deeper. Some people have eyes of different colors; it's rare, but there's a name for it. Carter has one eye of different colors. As far as he's been able to find out, that's so rare there isn't even a term for it.
"I'm just unique," he grins, squinting that right eye whose iris is halved on a perfect diagonal, one half pure brown, the other pure green.
Just above that eye, the New York Mets all-star catcher, cleanup slugger and all-purpose hero has another mark of distinction -- an old, deep scar like a saber slash that runs three inches across his forehead to the top of his nose.
"Who says you can't run through a brick wall face first?" he asks with a snicker so kid-like that it's easy to forget that this is a man who plays the position of pain and eats it up.
"The Expos tried to make me an outfielder in 1976. I went for a fly ball full-speed and split my whole face wide open on the bricks. I thought I was dead. You could see my skull."
Must have been a vital game, like the one last night, in which he got his 17th game-winning RBI this season?
"No. Just spring training in Winter Haven." He shrugs. Bizarre as it seems, athletes really can't explain why they try to run through brick walls in spring training games. "That's how I play."
Heroes never know why. That's what makes them ambiguous, powerful, even mysterious. Just unique, like that eye.
On opening day this season, in his first game with the Mets after being traded for Hubie Brooks and sundry others, Carter was hit on the elbow with a fast ball. Naturally, at least for him, he won the game with a 10th-inning home run. Then he won the next day's game, too. Say hello to New York City, Gary, where they love guys like you who say, "Challenge me. Please."
Carter will play more than 150 games this season -- his iron-man average -- and not one has been pain free. When it wasn't a cracked rib, it was a bad ankle. Then his right knee deteriorated so badly, from leading the league seven times in games caught, that doctors told him to put the miserable wheel up on their arthroscopic rack and do a full 1,500-game check -- snip, tie, wash. DL.
For 10 years in Montreal, he waited to win the pennant that was always predicted, the title that would be built around his toughness and brains, his enthusiasm and leadership, his home runs and cannon throws, his dugout banter and schmaltzy interviews.
Never happened. One man with guts out of 25 wasn't quite enough.
The Expos always whined that it was really Carter's fault that they didn't win. They stabbed at his broad back constantly, talking about how he was unpopular because he made his teammates look bad by comparison. Always smiling and signing autographs. Always in shape and sacrificing for the team. Always raising money for leukemia, crippled children, cancer research or the boys clubs. Always drinking milk while they were out . . . well, we know what at least some of them were doing now.
"He's always promoting himself and showing us up," the Expos said.
This is no new Carter who's batted .344 the last six weeks. Every time some one says, "Lights, camera, pressure," Carter accidentally starts hitting line drives through walls. In his only two postseason series, he hit .421 and .438. He was most valuable player twice in the All-Star Game. Last year, he tied for the NL lead in RBI with 106.
But this has been his best year.
"Not big hits," says teammate Tom Paciorek. "Unbelievably big hits."
"I have to ask myself how many more times I'm going to have this chance to win it all," says Carter, 31 and in his 11th season -- old age for a catcher. "I've had enough cortisone shots in this knee for a whole team, but I can't think about that. I'm glad I didn't have the surgery.
"Maybe someday, in my wheelchair, I'll look back on this and say it was worth going through a little pain and agony to reach out and take something that was finally within your grasp."
That's how Carter talks. Smart, like the four-year National Honor Society student he was. Floridly, like the jock romantic he is, full of purple sentiments. Self-congratulatory in the sense that his words could be translated as, "Ain't I one courageous dude?"
But the "pain and agony" are documentable truths, not locker room pap. This man is burning up his baseball body at double or triple speed. And that wheelchair isn't all joke. He already has caught more than 1,400 games and had surgery on his other knee. The NL record for games caught is 1,861, so we know the species limit.
"It makes me sick to hear Carter get ripped," says Mets Manager Davey Johnson. "I see the foul balls off his fingers and the tape all over him. When you catch like he catches -- hard-nosed and every day -- then you can talk all you want. You've earned it.
"He gave 10 years of his life's blood in Montreal," says Johnson. "Now they're makin' up stories about him being a bad influence. They're burning him every chance they get. Bush."
Some people have a hard time liking big handsome hulks from southern California who star in three sports at Sunnyhills High and turn down a scholarship to be the quarterback at UCLA. They gag at somebody who blocks the plate, ignores injuries, nicknames himself "Kid Carter" and gives hundred-word answers to three-word questions.
In a world that's often too bad to believe, they fear people who seem too good to be true. For them, virtue will always seem more threatening than vice, because it's less accessible. They'll mistrust the heart of Carter, the humor of Rose, the dignity of Garvey. In this, heroes are no help at all because they can never really explain.