02/16/12 5:08 PM EST
Noble: 'Kid' a complex figure to the end
By Marty Noble / MLB.com
His uniform quickly became stained from Florida soil, though no one could figure out how he accomplished that. He signed autographs with glee, shook hands as if he were running for office. He talked to some cameras, posed for those operated by amateurs. He accommodated a multitude of microphones. He spent close to an hour with newspaper reporters.
Long after all of his new colleagues had departed, Carter showered, dressed and headed for the exit of the Payson Complex in St. Petersburg, Fla. As he passed through the dusty area where field-maintenance tools were scattered, he took a small detour, bent two knees that already were squawkin', picked up a piece of paper trash and properly discarded it.
"The do-everything catcher," a man walking behind him said.
Carter smiled as he looked over his left shoulder and gave a modest pump of his fist as if to say, "Guilty as charged."
Some players who had come to know Carter during his 11 seasons with the Expos and some who would come to know him later would have guessed his one-man cleanup happened because he knew he had an audience. Others would have suggested his pickup game occurred in case someone was watching. And still others, those who appreciated and admired him, knew Carter had cleaned up someone else's mess because it was the right thing to do. Gary Carter always tried to do the right thing.
It was his worst attribute.
The Boy Scout in him never faded. A one-time colleague who liked him acknowledged that he seemed to be auditioning for a Wheaties-box appearance at every turn. And after Carter died Thursday, the same man suggested a likeness of his former comrade on the cereal box would be a fitting testament. "A decent, decent man," he called Carter.
Yes, the man whose smile showed through his catcher's mask for 19 summers and throughout his battle against cancer has lost that battle. Some nine months after four tumors were detected near his right temple, the Hall of Famer whose everyday enthusiasm exceeded even his considerable baseball talent passed away in West Palm Beach, Fla. He was 57, a young man. "Young for his age," is what Casey Stengel said once about a player.
Even after the onset of the insidious disease that took him, even as the cancer took its course, Carter was young for his age. He was universally known as "Kid." Not "the Kid," just "Kid." It was a double-edged nickname for baseball's Peter Pan, a salute and ridicule expressed in one, three-letter word. Like Pan, Carter could do what most others -- most other catchers of his era -- couldn't: hit for power, drive in runs, bat in the middle of the order, beat a pitcher's best pitch. But he, as Mary Martin sang in the Broadway production about the boy who wouldn't grow up, had to crow, too. So teammates called him "I-me." Opponents used that and other terms.
At the same time, though, they all called him clutch and gallant and productive and valuable and reliable and durable and resilient and sincere and a winner. He was all that and ultra-irrepressible. He always wanted to be the guy who did it. "There's nothing like the roar of the crowd," he said during his Hall of Fame acceptance speech in 2003. Carter loved to be the hero -- who doesn't? -- but he never mastered humility as a player.
It was the ultimate validation of his playing career, his election to the Hall, that enabled him to speak in something other than the first-person singular. Only after Carter finally had reached the point where he could crow, longer and louder than ever, did a greater humility become apparent. He found a prideful peace. The HOF monogram made him "repressible." His Cooperstown speech was touching and sincere.
Contradiction was not part of Carter; he was who he was -- religious, dedicated to his family, appreciative of what he had, proud of who he was and protective of his image.
Later in the spring of 1985, Carter was seated in the Mets' clubhouse, dealing with a newspaper reporter who wanted more than the "I came here to help the Mets win" pap he was wont to deliver. In a final attempt to elicit a non-programmed response, his questioner mentioned the psychologist's glass. "Half-full or half-empty?"
The question perplexed Carter. He was unsure of its objective. Coaxed and confused, he responded: "Half-empty." He was distressed when told that some might perceive that response as negative. "No, no, half-full, make it half-full," he said. He wanted to be positive and proper. Even a day later, he was bothered by his response.
Carter had come to the Mets in a four-for-one trade with the Expos in December 1984. He was to provide the team a right-handed bat with power to balance the batting order that already included left-handed hitters Keith Hernandez and Darryl Strawberry, and to be a veteran presence behind the plate.
The public embraced the deal. A chant of "Let's Go Mets!" filled Madison Square Garden during a Knicks game the night after the exchange was announced.
And Carter performed as advertised, making the Mets whole, though not invincible. They came close in '85, when he hit a career-high 32 home runs and drove in 100 runs, but finished in second place and missed the postseason.
He also helped make them unpopular. By the beginning of the 1986 season, the team was widely regarded as arrogant and full of itself though it had yet to win even a division championship. The curtain call that Shea Stadium fans regularly demanded was a component in opponents' dislike for the Mets. And, though teammates also accommodated the fans, Carter was the King of the Curtain Call. Irrepressible, and to those in the other dugout, irritating.
He quickly made a place for himself in New York. His home run turned his Mets debut into a victory in 1985. And the 1986 season -- the title of his book about that year was "A Dream Season" -- turned Carter into an all-time Mets hero. Before his time with the Mets was complete, he had become the team's co-captain, hit his 300th career home run and played in another postseason, in 1988, two years after the Mets' World Series championship season.
His co-captaincy came in the spring of 1988 and became an issue because Hernandez had been named captain the previous summer, and Carter had appealed to the club to allow the title to be shared. He thought he was doing the right thing. The teammates who cared weren't so sure.
Death came to Gary Edmund Carter eight-plus years after a Cooperstown induction ceremony that showcased a career of perseverance, spirited competition, home runs, curtain calls, knee surgeries, All-Star appearances, bear hugs and an obsession with the number 8. He had become uncommonly popular in Montreal and New York, the cities in which he played 17 seasons. His acceptance speech included a greeting delivered in French.
He wanted the Hall of Fame as much as anyone. Some voters thought he campaigned for it and were offended. Before he was dissuaded, he had decided to contact the voters who had omitted him in the 2002 vote, his fourth year on the ballot. He thought it was the proper course of action because he wanted so much for his father to see him inducted. His mother had died when he was 12. His father died shortly after Carter was voted in but before he was inducted.
Depicted as a member of the Expos on his plaque, Carter was inducted in the same year as Eddie Murray, the Orioles and Dodgers switch-hitter. The image of the class was one with a Mona Lisa quality. Carter had the unbreakable smile and the forever-cheery outlook. He had spent his childhood and adolescence in Sunny Hills, Calif. Murray, a product of urban Los Angeles, often seemed sullen.
Carter made a point of acknowledging Johnny Bench during his acceptance speech. Bench, the greatest catcher of his time and perhaps ever, had recognized Carter's prowess in 1974 and told the rookie, "In a few years, kid, this is all yours."
Carter's candidacy was based on the 324 career home runs and 1,225 runs batted in he produced, playing the game's most punishing position with the Expos (1974-84), Mets (1985-89), Giants (1990), Dodgers (1991) and again with the Expos (1992). His resume included significantly more: Four seasons of at least 100 RBIs, four finishes among the top six in MVP balloting, three Gold Gloves, 11 All-Star appearances -- he was the All-Star Game MVP in 1981 and '84 -- five Silver Slugger Awards, a World Series ring, the 1989 Roberto Clemente Award and the single that initiated the Mets' stunning, two-out, 10th-inning comeback in Game 6 of 1986 Series.
The right thing to do was prolong the 10th, so that's what he did.
His retirement after the 1992 season was followed by four years working as an analyst on Marlins telecasts. He worked for the Mets in the Minor Leagues. After nearly being hired to manage the Yankees' Triple-A affliate -- George Steinbrenner enjoyed tweaking the Mets by hiring their former stars -- he successfully managed two Mets affiliates in Port St. Lucie, not far from his home in Palm Beach Gardens, in 2005-06. But he declined a promotion to Double-A in 2007, at least partially because he preferred not to work in Binghamton, N.Y. His decision irritated the Mets.
He had more of a falling out with the club in 2004 when he essentially announced his availability to replace Mets manager Art Howe after Howe's job security had waned. Carter repeated that faux pas four years later when Willie Randolph held the title at Shea Stadium. Randolph's position already was tenuous. Some of Carter's former teammates, Hernandez included, were publicly critical of the unsolicted comments.
But it was Carter being Carter, certain and irrepressible, confident the team would prosper under his leadership. People said, "He can't help himself." Carter wasn't considered after Randolph was dismissed.
He successfully managed the Orange County Flyers of the Golden Baseball League in California in 2008, the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League in 2009 and became head baseball coach for Palm Beach University. He was working for the school when his cancer was detected, staying on for five months while being treated.
That Carter put himself through more of an ordeal came as no surprise to those who knew him. If anything, they expected him to fight the cancer while working. He considered it the right thing to do. And worth one more curtain call.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.