Today, on the 3rd anniversary of his death, I want to honor the memory of one of baseball’s finest role models. His story will be listened to because he also happened to be one of the game’s best catchers, and one of the top players to ever wear a uniform for the Expos and for my beloved Mets. While Gary Carter’s best baseball years undoubtedly took place during the 1980s, it was during the 1970s that he was drafted, and eventually got his start in Major League Baseball.
Born in Culver City, CA and growing up in Fullerton, Carter was only 12 years old when his mother, Inge, died from leukemia at age 37. Brought up from that time on by his father Jim, and mentored by his older brother Gordy, Gary was a three sport-star at Sunny Hills HS and was a member of the National Honor Society. An All-American quarterback, Carter committed to play football at UCLA, but suffered knee injuries in his senior year that convinced him to instead sign with the Montreal Expos, who had drafted him in the third round as an infielder in 1972.
The Expos quickly converted the 6’2″ 200 pound shortstop to catcher, and while he was initially a work in progress defensively, Carter showed promise that first summer in Rookie Ball in the Florida East Coast League, and then batted .320 in A-Ball for West Palm Beach. The following spring in his first major league camp, the 19-year-old Carter raised some eyebrows among the veterans like Mike Jorgenson, Ken Singleton, Tim Foli, and catcher John Boccabella by going all out in every drill and exercise, and showing boundless enthusiasm. The old-timers called him “The Kid”.
The Kid showed some power that summer in AA Quebec, hitting 15 homers and earning a late-season call-up to AAA. 1974 would be Carter’s last season in minor league baseball; he batted .268 with 23 HR and 83 RBI for Memphis in the International League, and was named Topps AAA All-Star catcher. On September 16 he made his major league debut against the Mets, and twelve days later hit his first home run, against eventual Hall of Famer Steve Carlton. In all Carter went 11-27 (.407) that September, and then married his high school sweetheart Sandy over the winter.
Gary was clearly ready for big league pitching, but the club was still trying to fit him into the lineup with the highly regarded Barry Foote, another catcher who was Montreal’s first round draft choice in 1970 (#3 overall), and who had enjoyed a solid rookie season in 1974, batting .262 with 11 homers. So in 1975 Carter began the season in right field and made the National League All-Star team, hitting .270 with 17 home runs. He finished 2nd in Rookie of the Year voting, starting 80 games in the outfield and another 56 games at catcher, as Foote suffered through a miserable season, hitting .194. In 1976, Foote started 92 games behind the plate and Carter 55, partly because Gary missed 2 months with a thumb injury incurred in an outfield collision.
By 1977 Ellis Valentine, another Californian, picked one round before Carter in ’72, had forced his way into the lineup with All-Star outfield play, and Carter, who demonstrated both better offensive and defensive skills than Foote (in ’75-’76 he nabbed 50% of would be base stealers, vs 36% for Foote), became the everyday catcher. Foote was traded by mid-season. The Kid responded by hitting .284 with 31 homers and 84 RBI, winning Expos Player of the Year honors. With the power surge Carter’s strikeouts rose to 103, but he later addressed the problem with a more patient approach at the plate, and he never struck out more than 78 times in any of his subsequent 15 years in the majors.
In 1979 Carter returned to the All-Star game, reeling off one of 10 straight All-Star selections. The Expos won 95 games for the first winning season in franchise history, but finished 2 games behind the Pirates in the NL East. In 1981 Gary started his first All-Star game and took MVP honors on the strength of 2 home runs. The Expos reached the post-season that year for the only time in their history, and won the NLDS vs Philadelphia led by Carter’s 8-19 (.421) 2 HR performance, but were knocked out of the NLCS by the eventual World Champion Los Angeles Dodgers despite Gary hitting .438 (7-16). In 1984 Carter hit the game-winning blast in a 2-1 NL All-Star victory, and again captured the game’s MVP award. From 1977-84 Carter won 3 Gold Gloves and nailed 40% of attempted steals during an era when the league’s catchers averaged 32%. He led the league with 106 RBI in 1984, but Montreal struggled, and he was traded to the Mets that winter.
Carter hit a walk-off homer in his first game as a Met in 1985, had his final two 100+ RBI seasons in ’85-’86, and led New York to a World Championship in 1986. He was named co-captain with Keith Hernandez – the two veteran All-Stars were the centerpieces and leaders of a scrappy, tough, and talented young roster that included Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez, and Lenny Dykstra. Carter was also a stable figure and family man in a wild clubhouse. Like in Montreal, where he was never quite ‘one of the guys’, Carter’s authenticity was sometimes questioned by teammates.
After the 1986 season Carter was never quite the same player; all those games behind the plate had taken their toll on his knees. He turned in a decent campaign in 1987, and had a tougher one in 1988, his last as a regular. Carter played sparingly over the next four seasons in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, then returned to Montreal where it all began and retired in 1992, fittingly hitting a game-winning double in his final at-bat. Gary retired with 324 home runs, 289 as a catcher. He was elected into the New York Mets Hall of Fame in 2001. In 2003 the Montreal Expos retired his number 8, and he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
After his playing career ended Carter remained active in broadcasting, then in minor league coaching and managing. He launched the Gary Carter Foundation to help the poor, promote literacy, and fight leukemia and autism. In May 2011 Gary was diagnosed with inoperable glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. He died on February 16, 2012 at the young age of 57, survived by Sandy, his three children, and three grandchildren.
Carter touched so many because he was the genuine article. Teammates from his days in Montreal finally realized “The Kid” played the game hard not to put on a show, but because he felt lucky to be a part of it, and he acted upbeat and cheerful in interviews not to be “Camera Carter”, as they called him behind his back, but because that was how he truly felt. In New York, hard-partying fellow players who once mocked him for being such a straight arrow now see him in a different way. Darryl Strawberry, the highly talented outfielder who has had several run-ins with the law and with drug issues, said “I wish I could have lived my life like Gary Carter…He was a true man.”
Lets tell Carter’s story to young people. If the true tale of Gary Carter’s enthusiasm for life, self-awareness, and maturity can be an influence on even one youngster, it is worth repeating.
Joe Gersbeck is a baseball historian and lifetime fan/student of the game who lives in New Jersey with his wife and two sons. His website is http://www.1970sBaseball.com and his book, 1970s Baseball: A History and Analysis of the Decade’s Best Seasons, Teams, and Players is available on Amazon, B&N, and iBooks: