It was there and gone on the TV screen so quickly that you weren’t absolutely certain what you had seen. During last fall’s World Series, Major League Baseball and MasterCard were airing public service announcements that were part of the “Stand Up to Cancer” campaign that began several years ago to raise money and awareness about the disease.
The PSA moved quickly, from fans at the All-Star Game holding up placards that said things such as “I stand up for my mother-in-law” to Jimmy Rollins and Brian Williams saying, “I stand up to cancer.” Then came a shot of four ex-baseball players. None of them spoke. John Kruk wore a shirt that said, “Survivor.” Mitch Williams held a sign that said, “I stand up for my parents.” Reggie Sanders stood up and stared intently into the camera.
And on the far right, barely in the shot, stood former New York Mets pitcher Ron Darling, holding a sign that said, “I stand up for my catcher.”
It took a split-second to completely grasp the message, but when it finally landed, your chest suddenly tightened because the reality was so clear: Gary Carter was dying.
“The Kid,” the 11-time all-star catcher who never failed to bring total enthusiasm and joy to a baseball field in his entire life. Carter was the first truly great player for the Montreal Expos — the team that spawned the Washington Nationals — and he was the heart and soul of the 1986 Mets team that won one of the most memorable World Series in baseball history.
The Hall of Famer died Thursday at age 57, nine months after being diagnosed with brain cancer. When the news broke last spring that Carter had tumors on his brain and that the prognosis was about as bad as it could get, there was an overwhelming sadness among baseball people. But there was also a sense that if anybody could beat an unbeatable disease, it would be The Kid, because that’s who he was his entire life.
“He was one of the great gladiators of the game,” Darling said Thursday evening after the news of Carter’s death broke, an apt choice of words from the Yale graduate, because gladiators also faced almost unbeatable odds.
With two outs in the bottom of the 10th inning of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, Carter came to bat with no one on and the Mets trailing the Boston Red Sox, 5-3, and three games to two.
Any baseball fan knows what happened after Carter’s single gave the Mets a ray of hope: Kevin Mitchell singled; Ray Knight singled to score Carter; Bob Stanley wild-pitched Mitchell across the plate to tie the score; and Mookie Wilson hit his fateful roller that went through Bill Buckner’s legs.
Among the many indelible images of that night is one of Carter crossing the plate to make it 5-4, clapping his hands wildly and pointing at Wilson as if to say, “Your turn, buddy.”
Carter played 19 seasons in the major leagues with the Expos, Mets, Giants, Dodgers and finally, in 1992, a farewell season with the Expos. He was 38 by then and all the years of catching had left him a shell of the player he had been, but his enthusiasm hadn’t faded. On a night in Montreal when he had made a key error late in the game that had led to an Expos loss, he stood in front of his locker for a good 30 minutes talking about dealing with not being the player he once had been.
“Is it tough?” he said, smiling at a question. “It’s tough physically some days just to get this body up and out of bed. But playing baseball is never tough. It’s great. I love coming to the park every day and preparing as if I’m going to play whether I’m in the lineup or not. For me to stand here and tell you I’ve been anything but blessed would be crazy. There’s no one in the world luckier than me.”
Carter was devout, and no doubt his faith carried him and his family through his last days. There’s nothing lucky or blessed about dying at 57, but if anyone could find a way to look at an ending like that without feeling sorry for himself, it was Carter.
As is often the case with someone that upbeat, skeptics wondered if all that enthusiasm could possibly be real. His teammates never questioned it for one second.
Those Mets of the mid-’80s were an often-fractious bunch. Keith Hernandez and Darryl Strawberry got into a fight one year on team picture day. Manager Davey Johnson seemed to do battle with a different star every week. Even during the ’86 World Series, he and Strawberry didn’t speak for two days after Johnson took Strawberry out of Game 6 late. When Strawberry homered in Game 7 to extend the Mets’ lead, both Carter and Knight went to him and told him the same thing: “Go shake Davey’s hand.”
Which is exactly what Strawberry did.
Many will remember Carter as the guy who always had a huge smile, someone who clearly loved his life. But there was also the intense Carter, standing upright at home plate, eyes filled with intensity, especially in big moments such as the one on a late October night in 1986 when he kept his team alive long enough to produce the most startling rally in postseason history.
The words will keep pouring out in the next few days and they will be heartfelt. But no words will capture the way those who played with him and knew him as eloquently as those few seconds when Darling told the world he was standing up for his catcher.
Today, all of baseball is standing up for The Kid. And there isn’t a dry eye in the house.