Gary Carter Succumbs to Cancer: The "Kid's" Ironic Death
Baseball great and Hall of Famer Gary Carter, affectionately known as “the Kid”, died of brain cancer yesterday at the age of 57. Carter started his career with the Montreal Expos, but gained perhaps his greatest fame as a key member and co-captain of the 1986 World Champion New York Mets. In what may be one of sports’ greatest ironies, the religious ex-catcher, who fought his disease with such class and bravery, is now dead while the plethora of drug-abusing teammates who shared his Shea Stadium dugout are still around to mourn his loss.
Dwight Gooden. Darryl Strawberry. Lenny Dykstra. Keith Hernandez. A veritable drug "hall of fame", these were the men, along with Carter, who led the Mets to their first championship since the franchise's magical 1969 title. It is also the last time that the Mets have captured baseball's ultimate prize.
In 1985, "The Kid" joined the Mets, slugging a tenth-inning, opening day home run off of St. Louis' Neil Allen (ironically, a reputed alcoholic who had been traded by the Mets for former MVP and alleged cocaine-user Hernandez). Carter's flair for the dramatic had already been cemented in 1981, when he slugged two home runs in the All-Star game - the first game played after the player's strike which split the baseball season into two sections. Another two-home run game highlighted Carter's performance in the 1986 World Series, and he retired in 1992 after a 19-year career which featured 2,092 hits, 324 home runs, and 1,225 RBI's to go with his .991 fielding percentage. He also singled to begin the famous rally in the 1986 World Series, which culminated with Mookie Wilson’s ground ball going through Bill Buckner’s legs and led to Game 7 and the Mets’ championship. Without Carter’s two-out single, there would have been no rally, no chance for Buckner’s error, and the Red Sox would have won the Series in 6 games.
An 11-time All-Star, Carter’s all-around excellence is perhaps best borne out by the fact that he was selected as the “Silver Slugger” award, as the National League’s best hitting catcher, on five occasions between 1981 and 1986. He was also awarded the “Golden Glove”, for fielding excellence, three times. He currently ranks sixth on the all-time list for homers by a catcher. Carter was elected to baseball's Hall of Fame in 2003, becoming the first player to don an Expos' hat on his plaque in Cooperstown. His number 8 jersey was retired by the Expos in 2003.
Left behind to mourn Carter, in addition to his family, friends, and fans, are former teammates Gooden, Strawberry, Dykstra, and Hernandez. Together, this was the nucleus of a team that, by all rights, should have completely dominated baseball from the mid-1980’s through at least the mid-1990’s. Instead, it is a team which captured only one title, and is a prime example of wasted potential.
The “poster children” for this waste are Gooden and Strawberry, both of whom electrified both the City of New York and the entire baseball world with the early promise of their careers and both of whom fell well short of their expectations, instead succumbing to the temptation of drug excess. Both captured the “Rookie of the Year” awards with the Mets, and both later achieved a later World Series ring with the Yankees, of all teams. Gooden actually pitched a no-hitter while with the Yankees, and Strawberry eventually amassed 335 homers in his career. But both also had well-documented bouts with drug abuse, both have seen the inside of jail cells, and both simply failed to fulfill their potential. Of that, there is no question. Either one of them could have been the best ever at their position. Neither came close.
Dykstra, with his “popeye-like” physique and bouts of rage, was the quintessential steroid user of the 1980’s. he achieved great success with both the Mets and Phillies (he was second in the league’s MVP balloting in 1993), but it is now evident that such success was due to anabolic, rather than work-ethic, reasons. He later achieved further fame as an investment advisor, but , like his baseball success, this was built on fabrication and his investment business crumbled. He later plead guilty to bankruptcy fraud, and was sentenced to house arrest.
The last of the drug-four, Hernandez, was the co-winner of the 1979 Most Valuable Player Award. He won a World Series championship while a member of the Cardinals in 1982, and won the batting title in 1979 and was named to two all-star teams while a member of the Redbirds. Widely acknowledged as the best fielding first baseman of his era, he began a string of eleven consecutive Gold Glove wins in 1978. Why, then, was he traded to the Mets before the 1983 season for the above-mentioned Allen, who, at best, was a middle-of-the-road pitcher? One word – cocaine. Allegations of cocaine use dogged Hernandez, so much so that the Cardinals were forced to trade their Gold Glove-winning first baseman during the off-season following their 1982 championship run. Hernandez served as co-captain of the 1986 Mets with Carter, and has enjoyed a second career as baseball broadcaster.
Note that it is not my intention to suggest that any of the other four players deserved to die instead of Carter, nor is this intended to be an indictment of the 1986 Mets and their failure to win more than one title. I simply find it ironic that we are today mourning the loss of Carter, while the others, who polluted their bodies so openly and for so long, taking gambles with their health on a daily basis, are still here.
It is perhaps fitting, however, that the man known as “the Kid” was taken so young.