Today marks one year since former Mets catcher Gary Carter lost his battle to brain cancer at the incredibly young age of 57. The Amazins honored their former leader last season by wearing a patch on their uniform sleeves with his number 8 on it. However, as we sit here a year after hearing this tragic news come out of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, let’s take a look back at his Hall of Fame playing career, what he did afterward, and what kind of person he was.
Born on April 8th, 1954, Carter was drafted straight out of Sunny Hills High School in California to start his professional baseball career with the Montreal Expos, selecting him in the 3rd round. He made his way through Montreal’s minor league system rather quickly, as it took him three seasons to go from playing in Rookie Ball to Triple-A, where he had his best season in 1974 before getting called up to the Big Leagues (.268/.354/.488, with 23 HR and 83 RBI).
Although The Kid was drafted as a shortstop, the Expos felt he would be better suited as a catcher, as that transformation took place during his time in the minors. Coincidentally enough, he made his MLB debut in Montreal against the New York Mets; he went hitless in his debut, but finished that month with a .407/.414/.593 line to go with one homer and six RBI (with that one longball coming off Steve Carlton). He showed his value immediately and spent his first full season in the Majors with Montreal in 1975, placing second in NL Rookie of the Year voting and heading to his fist All-Star game. He finished the season hitting .270/.360/.416 with 17 homers and 68 RBI.
After having a tough 1976 season in which he hit .219 in 91 games played, he turned into a consistent power threat behind the plate, as it was almost a sure thing that he would hit 20+ homers (he did it six times) and drive in 70+ (he did it seven times) while north of the border. The 1979 season also started a streak in which he played in 10 straight All-Star games, but he also showed overall worth to a team, winning three Gold Gloves and five Silver Sluggers during his career.
When it came to building the 1986 World Champions, there were two moves Frank Cashen made that I felt were imperative to the Mets being a successful ball club. One was trading for Keith Hernandez and to signing him to an extension before he hit free agency, and the other was acquiring Carter. Although he hit .294/.366/.487 with 27 homers and a league-leading 106 RBI in 1984, the Expos were in full rebuilding mode, and decided to ship out their team leader to Flushing for Hubie Brooks, Mike Fitzgerald, Herb Winningham, and Floyd Youmans.
He was the final piece of the championship squad in ’86, as there was no doubt he was the emotional leader of that team. I’ve always admired the way Carter played the game because whenever I see replays of him on the field, he’s either smiling ear-to-ear or jumping up and down in excitement like a little boy. That’s the kind of enthusiasm and passion every player needs these days. In his five years with New York, he was still productive despite being past his prime, putting together three straight 20+ HR, 80+ RBI seasons to go with two of his Silver Sluggers, four All-Star selections, and twice being in the top-6 for NL MVP voting. After leaving the Mets following the 1989 season, he spent a year with both the Giants and Dodgers, then finished his career with a final year in Montreal.
Carter finished his 19-year career with a .262/.335/.439 line, including 324 homers, 1,225 RBI, and 1,025 runs scored in 9,019 plate appearances. His 298 homers as a catcher rank sixth-best in MLB history, while he also sported a career fielding percentage of .991. The Mets elected him to their team Hall of Fame in 2001, but it took him six tries before he was elected to the MLB Hall of Fame in 2003, receiving 78% of the vote.
Carter spent 1993-1996 as a broadcaster for the Florida Marlins, then got into coaching within the Mets organization in 2005, as he managed the Gulf Coast Mets, then won manager of the year honors in ’06 with the St. Lucie Mets. His public campaigns to manage the Mets were unsuccessful (in ’04 and ’08), as he spent a few more seasons managing in Indy Ball, as well as college. He was also heralded as a philanthropist, as he worked hard to raise money through the Gary Carter Foundation, giving over $300K to elementary school reading programs.
His battle with brain cancer started in May 2011, and he fought valiantly until he took his last breath a year ago today. He will always be a legend in the Mets organization, and his smile and enthusiasm for the game is missed every single day.