Gary Carter had just wrapped up his 10th full season with the Montreal Expos. The routine had been similar to what it always had been, with Carter mostly excelling on the field but the Expos making the playoffs only once, some seasons because of bad play and others because of bad luck.
It was late 1984, and he and his wife, Sandy, had just finished building a home in Montreal. In November, Sandy had given birth to their third child, D.J. The house, the job, the three kids and the golden retriever — by all accounts, the Carters were settled.
But baseball has a penchant for unpredictability, and it made no exception for the Carters. The Expos and owner Charles Bronfman were a mix of cash-strapped and stingy, and Carter’s seven-year, $14 million price tag suddenly was too high despite his marquee status.
Which is how Carter, 30, found himself in St. Petersburg, Florida, on Feb. 22, 1985, where the decade of attention he had deserved but never quite received suddenly rained down from every corner. He was a Met now, and that meant cameras in his face, more reporters in one day than he’d probably see in a week in Montreal, and 300 people flocking to a meaningless day in spring training just to catch sight of the newest addition.
"Gary wanted me to come and I remember we walked in for the press conference and there were just so many people there," Sandy Carter said. "This whole room was just full, so it was a little touch of what it was going to be like in New York. It was overwhelming because there was one English paper in Montreal and there were, I don’t even know, a dozen in New York. It was really like playing baseball for the first time because it was the first time he had ever played in the United States as a home park."
The blockbuster trade that brought Carter to the Mets on Dec. 10, 1984, in return for Hubie Brooks, Mike Fitzgerald, Herm Winningham and Floyd Youmans is remembered as the move that eventually solidified the powerhouse that became the 1986 world champion team that won 108 games.
The Hall of Fame catcher died in 2012 at the age of 57 from an aggressive form of brain cancer, but his contributions to that team still resonate today.
Carter was the good guy, the stabilizing force in a high-flying fraternity known almost as much for its off-the-field antics as its on-the-field dominance. He was so peppy, they called him "The Kid" or ''Kid'' long after he had kids of his own. He was incredibly kind, Ron Darling said, and so outgoing — "all the things I wish I were."
"That was a kind of team that was treated as a wild team and Gary was a teetotaler and a sweet person," Darling added. "As we’ve gotten older, I think we all now aspire to be more like Gary than before. He was just a mature, All-Star-slash-Hall of Fame player that was thrown into the mix with a college fraternity, and I don’t know how he did it, but he made it work. As you get older and older, the admiration for Gary gets higher and higher."
Carter was an 11-time All-Star, a three-time Gold Glove selection, a five-time Silver Slugger winner and the recipient of the 1989 Roberto Clemente Award. He shepherded a pitching staff that included Dwight Gooden, Darling, Bobby Ojeda, Sid Fernandez, Roger McDowell and Jesse Orosco.
Gooden told Newsday earlier this year that Carter "brought out the best" in him during his groundbreaking Cy Young Award season in 1985. Darling said he was a computer who could pinpoint hitters’ weaknesses and tendencies.
"He was the scouting report," Darling said. "He was the leader. He was the alpha male behind the plate. You really felt that if you followed his fingers, it would turn to success. It was pretty simple."
But it didn’t mean everything else was so simple. The ’86 Mets had plenty of egos, and there sometimes could be tension. There also was the accusation that Carter liked being in front of the cameras — "Camera Carter" was a moniker that had traveled with him from Montreal — and reveled in attention. That was all categorically false, Howard Johnson said, and the implications wounded a player who wore his emotions plainly.
"Gary was very conscious of what people were saying about him," said Johnson, who stayed close with Carter right up until his death. "I think people would say negative things about him basically out of jealousy. It wasn’t that they intentionally meant him harm or anything.
"You know, people would kid him in the locker room, like 'find the cameras' and stuff like that, but that was just 'Kid.' That was the way he was. He wasn’t trying to do it to say 'I’m better than you' or virtue signaling or anything like that. He was just trying to be himself."
Much of that came from the fact that Carter always made a point of speaking to the media regardless of whether he had gone 4-for-4 or 0-for-4, Sandy Carter said.
"He always said it was important because they had a job to do, so if I’m 0-for-4 with two errors, I’m going to talk to them because that’s their job and this is out of respect," Sandy said.
Carter ascended to the leadership role he was made for. He deferred to Keith Hernandez, who had been with the Mets longer, Johnson said, but he knew how to guide the clubhouse in his own way.
Carter hit a walk-off home run on Opening Day at Shea Stadium in 1985 and, one year later, earned the World Series ring he had waited for his entire career.
Yes, Carter loved the Expos, who moved to Washington, D.C., and became known as the Nationals in 2005. He went into the Hall of Fame in 2003 wearing an Expos hat and was a seven-time All-Star with Montreal. But no one was happier than Carter when he was shipped to New York, Darling said.
"I don’t know if there’s ever been a trade when I was on that team that generated so much euphoria, with the players, ownership, fans, people on the radio," Darling said. "It was kind of like we were this super-team now. You had Gooden, [Darryl] Strawberry, Hernandez and Carter. You could make the argument we had the four best players in the National League . . . And I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone as happy to go to another team as Gary was to come to New York."
Even 36 years later, the feeling is mutual.