by Taryn “the Coop” Cooper
I apologize in advance if this turns into a blubbering, rambling mess. People who know me have asked me why I’ve been resistant to writing about Gary Carter, his position with the Mets and his illness. To be honest, I was in denial. I was in denial about my hero from the 1980s Mets teams. I was in denial that my heroes had the capacity to get sick, to have brain cancer and ultimately would expire.
My heroes didn’t do that.
We had the opportunity to talk to Kid on our Kult of Mets Personalities podcast last year, and when I checked the date, I was shocked. The episode aired on February 17th. Yet, we had pretaped the show on February 16th.
I tell people often that I became a Mets fan because I saw Dwight Gooden pitch in his rookie year. My first favorite Met, though, was Gary Carter.
The trade that brought him to the Mets happened in December of 1984. I was still too young to know his impact in baseball, but I know that ultimately the Mets changed on that day. I changed too, but didn’t know it.
It wasn’t until Opening Day 1985 that I knew the full impact of this move. My dad had gone to several Opening Days in a row, but he couldn’t go this year. So we taped it. For those of you who have no idea what that means, the primitive versions of TiVo and DVRs were the VCRs (or if you were really unlucky, Beta). I don’t know or maybe I just don’t remember whether I knew the Mets won that day before we watched it. What I do remember is that I watched that game over and over and over to see just one moment. And that one moment was Gary Carter hitting a walk-off home run in the 10th inning against the hated St. Louis Cardinals that day, and the irony was Neil Allen threw that pitch. Neil Allen was the guy Frank Cashen traded (along with Rick Ownbey) to St. Louis for Keith Hernandez. I’ll never forget Lonnie Smith in left field, slamming his glove on the ground. It was Opening Day, for Pete’s sakes, and here he was treating it like Game 7 of the NLCS or something.
Two trades that made the ’80s Mets the ’80s Mets. Two trades that piggy-backed off one another to lead the Mets to those great years that defined 1980s culture, that defined 1980s sports, and helped define my childhood.
I probably watched that home run on a continuous loop when I was bored. Which was often, as a kid living in the suburbs. But with that home run, a message was sent. A message that the Mets were going to be a force in the National League and in baseball from now on. That a dynamic shift had happened in baseball.
I’ll never forget Tim McCarver and Steve Zabriskie’s call that day. “Welcome to New York, Gary Carter!” “There’s a World Series atmosphere here.”
Hard to believe that the Mets had something to cheer about, Schadenfreude if you will. I wasn’t aware of the previous years since I was in diapers during the Mets downtrodden years. Yet, as I got older, that home run and the irony behind it really symbolized how the Mets were coming into their own and that the Gary Carter trade was a game changer.
Heroes though. They’re not supposed to expire.
I could go on and on and recap every single thing that Gary Carter did but I won’t. I can tell you though how he’s impacted my life without even knowing it. Take away that 1985 Opening Day, which I blubbered over him on our interview that it was one of my fondest Mets fan memories (it’s my thing, let it go).
Late in the 1986 season, I remember my mom and I took a trip to Woodbridge Mall in New Jersey. Back then, there weren’t many malls in Jersey (shudder the thought), and my mother liked the old Stern’s store there for some reason. I had some allowance burning a hole in my pocket, but I saw what I wanted, and it wasn’t in my budget (sort of).
A Cabbage Patch Doll wearing a Mets uniform.
So I looked at my mom — puppy dog eyes didn’t work nearly as well with her as it did with my dad — and she said, “Ok, fine, I’ll buy it.” I think she knew that I really liked it (plus, I think deep down, she thought the sucker was pretty cute).
What did I name him? Gary Carter Cooper.
At Shea Stadium in 1985, and maybe in other stadiums, there were cardboard cutouts of players that were life-size. The Mets showcased the battery of Doc and Gary, with a Polaroid picture stand. Of course, I held onto Gary’s arm. Doc may have made me a Mets fan, but Kid was my first favorite player.
Perhaps signifying the denouement of those great teams was in 1987, when Carter started to show signs of wear and tear. When there was talk last year of retiring #8 after he got sick (I’ll weigh in on that in a minute), people pointed to him .249 BA and overall he had two good years out of five. The amount of goodwill he brought to the team and the amount of respect his trade brought to the organization made him the Mets great, not a .249 BA.
Back in 2002, I started going to Brooklyn Cyclones game. I was there with two other people, and one of my friends said, “Hey, that guy in the dugout. Not for nothin’, that looks like Gary Carter.” I probably started hyperventilating. GARY EDMUND CARTER. IN BROOKLYN. Turns out, since he was buddies with Howard Johnson (the manager) and Bobby Ojeda (pitching coach), he sat in as a special coach to the team.
That night, the starting pitcher for the Cyclones took a perfect game into the 9th inning. I totally blame the idiot behind me for telling us all to sit down when we all stood up for the beginning of the 9th inning. “What? What? You really think this kid is gonna pitch a PERFECT GAME.” Well, 8 1/3 innings…
What made that game a perfect one for me was waiting like a 10 year old by the players’ entrance. I held onto a ball like an eager kid, then when he came out…I could tell, he was probably tired, and probably wanted to go home. But for selfish reasons, there was NO WAY I was letting the opportunity to talk to my childhood hero slip by.
“GARY!” He looked right at me. I handed him my ball and a Sharpie. All I could say to him was, “I’ve waited my whole life to meet you!” I got a genuine Kid smile out of that one, and the woman next to me, guessing she was about my parents’ age, said, “Oh, I have too!” Then there was a little kid next to me, a real 10 year old and not just a mentally 10 year old, who handed her ball for him to sign, and asked, “Wait. Who is that again?”
Oh, you young whipper snappers, you.
In 2003, Gary Carter was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Against his wishes, and many Mets fans, Carter was inducted wearing a Montreal Expos cap. He even requested there be a way to split the hat into two and meant it. I’m not about to find that link today. It’s impossible with how his name is flooding the web.
Yet, the Mets did a classy thing on “Gary Carter Night” in 2003. I dragged my then-boyfriend, who was not a huge baseball fan at that point, to the game. This was a night that celebrated Carter’s accomplishments with the team and his Hall of Fame enshrinement. They gave him his own plaque, based on the design of the Cooperstown one, with a Mets cap.
It’s nights like those that I don’t think the Mets are totally clueless with honoring their own. It was one more night of chanting one of my favorite chants, “GA-RY! GA-RY!” Showing all those famous reels of his from the great ’80s.
People have asked me whether I think #8 should be retired. I’m torn. According to Mets by the Numbers, no one has worn the number since Carter was inducted into the Hall of Fame. The right thing to do would be to retire it, since it’s unofficially retired anyway. I mean, is anyone truly going to wear it again? Then again, Cal Ripken Sr’s #7 has not been in circulation since he passed away…and I don’t think the Baltimore Orioles have any intentions of every retiring it.
I don’t want to diminish the affect of retiring numbers as I’ve had it in my head that the next one to be retired should be #31. I don’t know if I feel comfortable with it now. What I would like is for the Mets to honor him with some part of CitiField, akin to Seaver, Stengel and Hodges. There’s a Shea Bridge, we should name an area the “Piazza.” Perhaps the area behind home plate could be the Carter area.
I don’t know.
Today, Gary Carter has passed away at the age of 57. In the last year, we’ve lost a lot of good ones. My friend Dana Brand passed away, and we’re honoring him at Hofstra University, where he taught, by keeping the 50th Anniversary of the Mets alive. That day he died was the day we found out Gary Carter was sick. My friend, whom I lovingly referred to as Uncle Johnny, passed away from a bought of pancreatic cancer. My friend Solly’s mother passed away. His childhood memories are very similar to mine, although I went to Mets games with my dad, he went to Mets games with his mother. We both became Mets fans because of watching Doc pitch.
My mom was born the same year as Carter. My dad is a few years older than he is. My uncle passed away from brain cancer in 2001. Ultimate Mets hero Tug McGraw passed away from brain cancer. This same year, I’ve decided to start raising funds for the Tug McGraw Foundation by running on Team McGraw in the New York City Marathon in November of this year. I’ll be taping an “8” shape on the back to run in honor of Kid.
All I can say is, Gary Carter is gone. My childhood hero is gone, and he’s not supposed to die. Heroes are supposed to live forever, they’re never supposed to get sick, they should never have anything they can’t overcome. They’re supposed to wear a cape and save the world, and even hit a home run to win a game in their very first home game.
Or keep the team alive when all the outs are against them in a situation they’re supposed to lose.
Yet, at the same time, we’re lucky to have been able to watch him and to root for him when he played for our team. The thing with heroes like him is that he’s enshrined in the Hall of Fame. I’m watching a Mets Classic of 1985 Opening Day, like I did several times on a continuous loop as a child. Every year, we’ll never get over Game Six of 1986 on October 25 every year, when somehow that conversation comes up and it becomes a “where were you when…?” contest.
Gary Edmund Carter may have left us in this life. Yet his spirit, his heart, his hustle, his art, his games, the way he played it, will live forever.
I was able to fawn over him on our podcast last year to tell him that one of my fondest childhood memories was watching his walk off home run on April 9, 1985. He seemed very grateful. Looking back, it was the day after his 31st birthday. I am now 36. I’ll always have that fangirlism towards him for the rest of my days. As I watch today, I’m brought back to being a 10 year old, hitting rewind on my VCR, and seeing his at-bat over and over and over again, and never getting sick of watching it.
I watch it today, and it’s like I’m nine years old all over again.