The acquisition of Gary Carter was a seminal moment in the history of the Mets. The deal that brought the All-Star catcher from Montreal in December 1984 remains vivid to former general manager Frank Cashen, 86, who strongly believed Carter was the final ingredient in propelling the Mets to championship caliber.
Cashen recalled it as the most difficult deal he made, not because of the players he had to yield but in the reluctance he faced from Expos president John McHale, who doted on the 10-year franchise player for the Expos. When reached in January as Carter's condition worsened, Cashen said of McHale, "I remember distinctly him saying, 'If people learned I was thinking about trading Gary Carter, I'd be run out of Canada.' "
"He loved Gary Carter as a player and as a person," McHale Jr. said recently. "As a throwback executive, I think he just took it to heart a little bit more than somebody might today. Gary Carter was such a part of the fabric of those good Expos clubs of the late 1970s and early '80s. He was so important on the field, off the field and in the clubhouse. It was a terribly, terribly painful thing for my father."
Carter wasn't initially excited about leaving Montreal, said Richard Moss, his agent at the time. "Gary was very happy in Montreal. He was treated like a rock star. He really wanted to stay. It was really not what he wanted, but he was willing to go along with it."
Cashen said the deal took months to complete as McHale came to terms with the fact that the Expos could no longer afford Carter. Cashen said the deal was painstaking compared to the one he pulled off in 1983, when he acquired Keith Hernandez from the Cardinals for pitchers Neil Allen and Rick Ownbey.
"As easy as the trade for Hernandez was, the trade for Gary Carter was much, much, much, much more difficult," Cashen said. "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 [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."
The deal finally was made when McHale, facing financial pressure, traded the final five years of Carter's seven-year, $13.1-million contract. The Mets gave up third baseman Hubie Brooks, catcher Mike Fitzgerald, pitcher Floyd Youmans and outfielder Herm Winningham (instead of Mookie Wilson, whom the Expos deemed unaffordable). Brooks was the key player, but Fitzgerald took all the heat in Montreal as the supposed replacement for Carter.
"I had to talk about Gary every day for at least a year," Fitzgerald said recently. "Every place where we played, every place where we worked out. When you get traded for a player like that, people want to know what it's like. And believe me, it wasn't easy. Fans are used to seeing 30 home runs and 100 ribbies a year . . . "
Fitzgerald grew to admire his predecessor.
"Gary had a real zest to go out and play hard and to be the superstar. I just have so much respect for him. Through his career, as tough as he was, as many games as he played, he had zippers everywhere," said Fitzgerald, referring to Carter's injuries. "Knees, thumbs, shoulders, elbows. The guy obviously played through a lot of pain. The trainers in Montreal had a lot of respect for how tough Gary was because of the pain he played through."
Cashen said the trade for Carter, who turned 31 early in the 1985 season, paid off with big hits, but he was just as valuable working with the pitchers. "I don't think most people realize he was a veteran catcher," Cashen said. "We had a very young pitching staff: Ron Darling, Bobby Ojeda and Sid Fernandez. That was a big addition that few people realized."
Carter paid tribute to John McHale Sr. when the Expos' president died in 2008, saying the executive knew Carter did not want to be traded at that time. "I thought he handled it with kid gloves," Carter said at the time. "I was always very appreciative of that."
The McHale family stayed in close contact with Carter through the years. "Gary will always be a hero to all of us in our family and I think to everybody that was a fan of the Expos," John Jr. said. "His joie de vivre, his ebullience, the love that he brought for the game to the game every day, just made it so wonderful to be a part of that organization. He was a giant, giant figure in our lives and the lives of everybody who cared about Les Expos and baseball."