One of my earliest memories in life is of the Mets winning the world series in 1986. I’ve got some scattered recollections before that but, my father holding me and popping open a bottle of champagne in our living room, the cork ricocheting off the ceiling, is really where events start to form a cohesive narrative for me. At the same moment my father was scooping me up in his arms, Gary Carter was jumping into Jesse Orosco’s, celebrating possibly the defining moment of his career. The image of the Kid hurling his 200-plus pound frame, covered in protective gear, at our left-handed reliever is one of the most iconic in New York baseball and one that immediately carved out a hole in my young heart for the catcher.
Carter was more than just a catcher or an icon — he was my hero. And I don’t say that lightly. When I first fell in love with baseball it wasn’t out of love for the sport, so much as love for the seemingly bottomless enthusiasm and heart of the Mets’ backstop. What his teammates in Montreal saw as showmanship, seemed quite understated amongst the mid-80s Metropolitans. His celebrations didn’t come across as cruel taunts, cries for attention or unchecked arrogance — there was pure joy in those fist pumps and curtain calls. He played harder that most and earned every cheer. Other kids may have idolized Mike, but I wanted to be like Gary. When I started playing little league, all the other kids fought over pitcher and shortstop — I asked to don the chest protector and squat behind home plate. When it came time to grab jerseys I demanded to wear number 8, even if the shirt was two sizes too big.
Eventually it became clear that I wasn’t cut out for catcher thanks to my small size. And my reasonably quick reflexes made me more useful on the infield (even if my bat made me most useful on the bench). By that time, though, my infatuation with the position was beginning to wane. In 1989 the Mets traded my idol, and I hated them for it. Never mind that he spent most of the year injured or hit an embarrassing .183 — Gary Carter was the Mets in my mind and, more than that, baseball. Each player that followed in his footsteps (Mackey Sasser, Todd Hundley, Mike Piazza, Paul Lo Duca, Josh Thole…) had a hard time earning my respect and admiration, not that it would matter to them. Sure, I eventually warmed up to some of them and Piazza proved to be a pillar of club, but they were poor substitutions for the Kid.
Some older Mets fans have never been able to forgive the franchise for trading Seaver or Ryan — I’ll never get over the release of Gary Carter. Even as his knees and skills failed him, his spirit never seemed to. It’s more than a little cliche to say “it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game,” but it’s true. And Gary Carter — he always played the game right.