(This story first appeared in the Early Season 2012 issue of Gotham Baseball magazine. You can read the entire issue here MH)
“I’m aware of the fine nucleus the Mets have. They just missed winning the pennant last season. And I feel I can do my part to help them win a championship.” – Gary Carter, speaking to reporters after the December 1984 trade that sent him from the Montreal Expos to the York Mets.
“As easy as the trade for (Keith) Hernandez was, the trade for Gary Carter was much, much, much, much more difficult,” Cashen told Newsday’s Steve Marcus. “It took about 10 telephone calls and a couple of face-to-face meetings and was done over a period of a couple of months before I could finalize the deal. He [Expos GM John McHale] didn’t want to do it. I thought the possibility of getting him was slim and none. We needed a hitter and a catcher and he fit the bill completely. I hung in there for a long time, much longer than you do for an ordinary kind of trade.”
It was an extraordinary trade for an extraordinary player who would prove to be the crucial to the team’s 1986 World Series championship. He was the perfect guy at the perfect time. A “Captain America” type personality, a Gold Glove defensive catcher, and a MVP-caliber power hitter all rolled into one.
It’s hard to remember a more exciting time to be a Mets fan. Following two consecutive Rookie of the Year campaigns by Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden, and an unlooked-for 90-win season by Davey Johnson’s 1984 club, the Flushing Faithful were thinking World Series for the first time in a long time.
And true to form, the Kid delivered the goods immediately
Carter’s Opening Day game-winning home run off of St. Louis reliever Neil Allen, a former Mets All-Star who had been traded for Hernandez two years earlier, raised the stakes at Shea Stadium to epic proportions. The drama of the blast (we didn’t call them walk-offs just yet), was matched by the upraised fist and the first of many passionate curtain calls “Kid” would be asked to grant for the rest of his tenure as a Met. And no one did a curtain call quite like Gary Carter. Pointing to the right side of the Shea Stadium crowd, then to the left, punctuated by a “YES!” fist pump, it made the fans love him even more. It also drove opponents nuts. Mike Lupica, the award-winning sportswriter from the NY Daily News didn’t really understand the hate back in 1986, especially for Carter,
“Gary Carter? Sure. Carter is a ham. He always has been. It`s his nature, he can`t help himself. Home runs send him into this high-five frenzy. This is news? This is bush? Carter waited a whole career to get a stage like Shea. He`s supposed to be Ted Williams all of a sudden?”
His best year for the Mets would be that 1985 season, but while the Mets would win 98 games, they would lose a tightly-contested NL East race to the Cardinals. Carter would be an All-Star from 85-88, but injuries and the team’s dependency on both his cleanup bat and handling of the pitching staff, would wear on his body. It was the last days of baseball before PEDs, and only through sheer will was Carter able to battle through. He was already 31 when he donned the blue and orange, so a long stint in New York was never in the offing. His knees had already been surgically repaired twice before coming to Gotham, and would be worked on three more times before he left. But it always was the quality of his Mets career that is remembered, not the quantity.
Carter would touch a lot of lives during his career, including my own. In the summer of 1986, it became apparent that my sister Nicole would need a kidney transplant. My dad – a huge Cary Carter fan dating back to his Expos days — was the donor, and when the Mets were taking on the Astros in the NLCS, we spent most of that postseason watching the games on hospital TVs. After the World Series, in which Carter did more than his share, my father wrote a letter to Gary telling him about our family. Not long after, both my dad and my sister received autographed pictures of Carter with personal messages attached, as well as an invitation for my dad, mom and sister to meet Gary at Shea Stadium. They did so during the 1987 season, and my family could not have been more touched by the personal way the All-Star catcher spoke with my sister. We had loved Jerry Grote and John Stearns in our house, and that guy Piazza surely was appreciated, but the Kid was the king.
He was reduced to a shadow of his former self in the 1989 season, hitting just .183 in 50 games for the Mets. He would spend his last three seasons as a decent backup catcher for the Giants (1990) and Dodgers (1991) before ending back up with the Expos in 1993, where he finally said good-bye to his playing career.
Carter had never won a World Series for the Expos, but the organization – despite whatever previous animosity had existed – not only retired Carter’s number, but threw him a big party to do so.
I caught up with Gary in 2001, when I was covering the first-ever season of the Brooklyn Cyclones. Carter had spent the last few seasons with the Mets as a roving catching instructor, and was in Brooklyn that week working with the Cyclones catchers.
After interviewing him for a piece I was preparing about Brett Kay, the young Cyclones catcher, he and I had a few minutes to chat. In what turned into an almost 45-minute conversation, I explained who I was, and thanked him for his kindness to my family. Instead of saying “Oh I remember” or some other phony platitude, he simply asked how my dad and sister (she had just received a second transplant, after a second transplant, this time from my brother), were doing. When I told him that my dad was great and my sister was doing even better, he grabbed me by the shoulders.
“That is amazing,” Carter said. “God bless your family, and God bless your sister.”
Later that year, Gary would be inducted into the Mets Hall of Fame. However, he was still waiting for his well-deserved induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame when it was announced in the winter of 2002 that he was 129 votes shy of getting into Cooperstown. It would mark his fifth straight year of eligibility, and with the declining health f his then-84 year old father Jim, Carter was – rightfully so – starting to get a little exasperated, especially when his wife – who had planned a huge surprise party for what most people predicted would be the year he would be inducted. Yes, he deserved the honor, but he wanted his father there to see it happen.
Jim Carter lost his wife to leukemia when Gary was just 12 years old, a devastating loss for both of them. Gary would raise millions of dollars during and after his baseball career to fight the disease as a tribute to his mom, and his burning desire to have his dad at his induction ceremony was foremost in his mind. To be waiting this long, many surmised (including this writer, who wrote a column wondering that same thing for the Associated Press that year), seemed unfair. Imagine what it felt for Carter, who was watching his then-84 year old father’s declining health before his eyes, trying to be democratic about the lack of support from West Coast writers who failed to vote for Carter time and time again. The same people who voted in Carlton Fisk into the HOF, first ballot no less, didn’t see fit to put Carter in the same class.
Consider this, Carter batted .262 with 324 homers and 1,225 RBIs, while Fisk batted .269 with 376 and 1,330 in 203 more games. Carter was an 11-time All-Star, won three Gold Gloves and one World Series ring while Fisk was a 10-time All-Star, won one Gold Glove and no rings.
A year later, Carter did get in, but while his father would live to hear the news, he didn’t last long enough to see Carter inducted. It was a crushing blow for Carter. But as he had always done before, he grinned, bared it, and moved on with his life. He was ready, he felt, to do something special.
In 2004, Carter angered some folks when he honestly answered some questions about Art Howe’s job status as Mets manager, saying he would be interested in the job if it was offered. The person who asked the question knew Art Howe was still the Mets manager, though it was pretty clear that he was a goner. So, when Carter, in his always honest fashion, said what was on his mind, he was vilified. Lying, it would seem, is the preferred stance in these matters. That fact remained that Howe was a dead man walking and everyone in New York knew it. It was time for a radical shift in philosophy.
In 2004, the entire baseball operations department, enabled and divided by ownership – was an absolute mess. Fred Wilpon, now the principal owner, was never comfortable with the hiring of Jim Duquette as the GM. Duquette, one of the best liked people in baseball, wasn’t a “star” in the elder Wilpon’s eyes. The son, Jeff Wilpon, had always championed Duquette as the person who had the combination of great baseball relationships and a healthy respect for statistical analysis (it was Duquette that pushed for the Mets to hire Rick Peterson and make him the highest paid pitching coach in baseball). Fred had tried to get Omar Minaya, once a trusted assistant to the now-deposed Steve Phillips, to share the GM duties with Duquette, an arrangement that both rejected. So instead, to “help” his “untested” GM, Fred Wilpon went to his old pal and scouting legend Al Goldis to serve as a “superscout” and assistant GM. The public meltdown of Duquette’s choice as assistant GM, Bill Singer (Singer was fired after making ethnic slurs and mimicking Dodgers assistant GM Kim Ng at a baseball function in the off-season), was bad enough, but his replacement, another legend, Bill Livesey (the man who helped build the Yankees farm system under Gene Michael), was the man who drafted Victor Zambrano for the Tampa Bay Rays. If you’re a Mets fan, you know that the June 30th deadline deal that sent Scott Kazmir to the Rays for Zambrano is still known as “Black Friday”. It would prove to the biggest backlash of criticism of the Mets in years, and it had gotten considerably worse since Wilpon had taken over sole ownership of the club in 2002. It would be the third straight season of below .500 baseball, despite the NL’s highest payroll.
In what was already a dysfunctional organization, chaos reigned supreme, and it was ownership’s fault. Accountability was (and still isn’t) a Wilpon strong point, but everyone knew – especially COO Jeff Wilpon – that hiring Art Howe in the first place was a awful mistake. He was aloof from his players, ill-equipped to handle the New York media, and lacked the kind of personality that would have allowed for the fans to support him despite his lack of tactical skills.
Carter as Mets manager made sense to a lot of people, even after his “insult” to Howe, including former Mets pitcher, minor league coach and now broadcaster, Bob Ojeda.
From the Daily News:
“(Ojeda) was aware that Carter was quoted last week as saying he’d like to manage the Mets, a faux pas that likely will hurt his cause … (but) he believes that Carter would be an ideal fit, even though he has no managerial experience.
“I don’t believe it takes a tremendous amount of experience when you played the game at that level for 20 years, especially as a catcher,” Ojeda said. “I really think Gary could pull it off. And he has the stature the Mets need right now. I’ve seen him get ticked off and step up and tell people what he thinks, They need leadership over there because right now the team on the field is a reflection of the front office – there’s no strong or clear leadership.”
There were those in the Mets front office that agreed, and told Gary to “sit tight, and we’ll get something done soon.”
Unfortunately for Carter, the sudden hiring (and demotion of Duquette) of Minaya was the worst thing that could happen to his major-league managerial aspirations. For one, like his old boss Phillips, Minaya wasn’t keen on 1986 Mets. For another, Minaya’s new assistant GM Tony Bernazard, wasn’t keen on personnel he couldn’t control. It didn’t take long for Bernazard to alienate much of the organization after his hire, but as he was the right-hand to the apple of Fred Wilpon’s eye, he was going to get most of the incumbent front office exiled anyway.
Even after Minaya’s hiring, many in the organization felt that Carter was going to be a coach on the new manager’s staff . When that changed, so did his immediate future. Despite spending years as a rover in the minors, and despite being in the Hall of Fame, the Met with a World Series ring earned as a Met wasn’t offered a Mets major league job.
Instead, he was offered a job Minaya thought he would refuse; managing the Low-A Gulf Coast League Mets. He would win Manager of the Year in 2005, taking the GCL Mets to the championship round. The next year, he would win MOY honors again, this time in the full-season A Florida State League, winning the FSL championship with the St. Lucie Mets. Current Mets left-hander Jonathon Niese pitched for him on both of those clubs.
“The one thing Gary stressed to us was team,” Niese told Newsday. “He said individual goals were meaningless. He said the name on the front of the uniform was more important than the name on the back. That’s what I’ll take from my two years with him.”
Carter knew that with the Mets having won the NL East in 2006, he wasn’t going to be the Mets manager in 2007. But he also knew that there was something rotten in the state of Denmark. It was no secret that Jeff Wilpon was furious about the heavily favored Mets’ loss to St. Louis in the NLCS, and blamed Willie Randolph for the loss. To be fair, while the Mets’ offense and bullpen struggled in the seven-game defeat, Randolph made some very strange managerial decisions with both his bullpen and in-game machinations that played a role in the team’s demise. Add in the fact that Randolph and Bernazard despised each other, and an organization that was in complete upheaval, Carter wanted to know where he fit.
Carter was told by Bernazard that the organization wanted him to manage the 2007 season in Binghamton. It was a promotion they said, and another step closer to the major leagues. Carter, whose knees had now been through five different procedures, had enough of the minor leagues. He knew all about the empty promises that had been made to Ken Oberkfell, who had managed several years in the minors for the Mets as well. The former infielder who had won a World Series ring with the Cardinals in 1982 had been a successful minor league manager at several different levels and, like Carter, had won his share of accolades, including a Manager of the Year award, But “Obie” had never even gotten an interview when Minaya decided to hire Randolph. So, when the Mets wouldn’t make any promises that he would be the guy to replace Randolph (and it was when, not if), when the time came, he declined the offer. When he said he’d be happy to return to St. Lucie, they informed him that Frank Caccitore had been already given the job.
From The New York Times:
“How do you not take a promotion if you want to manage in the major leagues?” Minaya said. “We gave him an opportunity and we offered him more money and a more high-profile job and he turned it down. What more could we do?”
Carter said that Tony Bernazard, a team vice president, told him there were two reasons the club wanted Carter to go to Binghamton: to follow the players he had coached in Class A and to learn how to use the double switch, a move usually made when relievers enter a game.
“I said, ‘Tony, I played 18 years in the major leagues and you’re going to tell me I have to go to Double-A to learn how to do the double switch?’ ” Carter said. “I can do that in my sleep.”
Jeff Wilpon will understand, thought Carter, so he contacted the Mets’ COO who had followed around Carter as a teenager. The younger Wilpon suggested Gary look for work elsewhere.
So much for loyalty.
So Carter tried to get hired by both the Dodgers and Rockies, but both jobs were given to someone else. Then the 2007 Mets blew a 7 ½ game lead in September and missed the playoffs. If the Mets didn’t get off to a great start in 2008, then Randolph would be gone. So Carter took the manager’s job for the Orange County Flyers in the California-based Golden League. He proceeded to win the 2008 championship and the steered the Long Island Ducks to the Atlantic League playoffs.
The Mets were playing uninspired .500 baseball in May of 2008 and Randolph would soon be a goner. Carter took one last shot and called old friend Jay Horwitz to see if he had any shot at getting the job. Then Carter made a mistake he would regret for the rest of his life, he told the whole truth and nothing but the truth during an interview to “The Mike & Murray Show” on Sirius Satellite Radio. He admitted the call to Horwitz and said the Mets could use a person with his experience.
He never worked in affiliated baseball again, for telling the damn truth.
“I learned that things can be taken out of context,” Carter told reporters when he was hired by the Long Island Ducks. “There was no intention whatsoever to undermine anybody. I was simply asked the question, “would you be interested?” Of course I would be interested in any capacity because that is where my passion is. If it’s not with the Mets, I would like it to be with maybe somebody else.”
Hall of Famer Gary Carter, exiled to the independent leagues by a .260 career hitter in Bernazard who had never served as a scout, instructor, coach or manager at any level in the minor or major leagues, believed he had no other recourse than to “campaign” for the job. It wasn’t like Gary had any real shot at the job this time, so to make a big deal about it seemed petty.
Yet everyone did.
“I’ve always been accommodating and it’s hurt me because I’ve worn my heart on my sleeve,” Carter told the Times during a contentious interview following the hiring of Jerry Manuel. “They throw me under the bus and two weeks later, (Willie’s) fired anyway. Yeah, so I’m the one to blame.”
In 2009 Gary Carter would find peace in baseball and combine it with his greatest passion; his family. Palm Beach Atlantic University needed a baseball coach, and with Kimmee Carter serving as the team’s softball coach, it was an easy “yes’ for the Kid.
Ray McNulty, writing for the TCPalm.com, couldn’t understand, like many of us, why Carter was taking a job at a Division 2 college.
So this is what it has come to for Gary Carter, the Hall of Fame catcher who managed successfully in the minor leagues but can’t seem to get back to the majors — not as a manager, not even as a coach.
This, apparently, is the best he can do.
And that’s as sad as it is ridiculous.
“Not even many D-I schools in this nation have a Hall of Fame baseball coach,” said Lu Hardin, president of PBAU, where the baseball team compiled a 24-67 record the past two seasons.
No D-II school should.
But Carter lives in nearby Palm Beach Gardens. His daughter, Kimmy Bloemers, is the school’s softball coach. And, at age 55, after 19 major league seasons as a player and six years as a minor league manager, this was another chance to stay in baseball.
Maybe his best chance.
And that’s as sad as it is ridiculous.
Perhaps the worst part about the loss of Gary Carter was the Wilpon / Katz ownership not giving Cary Carter a last chance to say goodbye to the fans that loved him. One last chance to thank the man who helped them win their last championship. One last curtain call for the best of the 1986 Mets, the best damn team this franchise has ever had.
They chose not to. They chose to posthumously honor him. With a patch and a big sticker on the outfield wall.
Gary Carter deserved better.