Senior Baseball Columnist

Hall of Famer Carter gone, but the Kid's smile will remain with us


There's hardly a time when Gary Carter wasn't wearing a smile. (Getty Images)  
There's hardly a time when Gary Carter wasn't wearing a smile. (Getty Images)  

With Gary Carter, it was always about the smile.

That giant, gleaming, eye-twinkling, teeth-sparkling, lips-parting, molars-revealing, life-loving, soul-reaffirming smile. He was called The Kid for a reason. He loved baseball. He loved everything about the game and he loved everything about those who played it.

It's hard to see Hall of Famers grow old because when we see the pictures, they don't square with what we continue to see in our ever-youthful minds. Willie Mays forever will be running down Vic Wertz's long drive in 1954. Stan Musial always will be coiled in that funky batting stance with the Redbirds proudly on his chest.

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Though it eventually happens to all of us, it can be damned unsettling to see these guys as old men, wobbling as they walk -- probably because the same thing is happening to us even if we can't see it.

But Gary Carter? At 57? He had so much life to live, so many more smiles to give.

I dare you to find a photo when the guy wasn't smiling, and those are the worst kind of people to lose. We need more warmth in this world. More rays of sunshine. Carter lived life with such joy. Unbridled, relentless joy.

And it emanated practically everywhere he went.

The Mets? He keyed the Game 6, 10th-inning rally against the Red Sox during the 1986 World Series triumph that helped bring so many memories to New York.

The Expos? He cut his baseball teeth there and was front-and-center of some of the best hardball moments there that, for a time, made Montreal a place you had to pay attention to in the baseball universe.

His home in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., after he retired from the game? Just ask the folks there about all the charity work he did over the years. And ask the Palm Beach Atlantic University Sailfish baseball team, which Carter had coached since 2009.

Right now, I'm looking at an old black and white photo of Carter, in his crisp, white Expos jersey, being mobbed by Montreal fans on Camera Day in 1983. The Kid's smile is wider than the Notre Dame Basilica.

Now I'm looking at a photo of Carter with Mets teammate Keith Hernandez from Shea Stadium, 1980s. Hernandez is smiling. But in an embrace with Carter, he looks like a grumpy old man next to The Kid's blast-furnace of a grin.

There's Carter in 2003 after learning he had been inducted into the Hall of Fame, pumping his right fist and blinding folks with another pearly, toothy Pepsodent moment.

He made his final public appearance two weeks ago, on opening day of Palm Beach Atlantic's baseball season because he wanted to be there for the kids. By all accounts, it was a struggle for him to make it. He was in grave shape. And the photos, they made you smile and cry all at once: There was Carter in a golf cart, wearing old-man eyeglasses, his face grotesquely swollen from the ravages of the brain tumors that mugged him decades too early ... and are you kidding? Smiling, still.

He would not be stopped. There were times when it wore on people, teammates, eliciting jealous whispers that the Kid was a phony. That he was an attention hog, loved being in front of the camera.

That was the only thing even remotely negative anybody ever tagged him with. On the loved-being-in-front-of-the-camera count, guilty as charged. So what? There was absolutely nothing phony about this man. He emerged straight from the Smile, It Makes 'Em Nervous side of life.

Truth was, he spent most of his time as an eight-year-old trapped in an adult body. So, what, just because others were sometimes cranky or maybe wished they were somewhere other than where they were, Carter was supposed to temper his own enthusiasm?

Some spirits, you just can't break. And thank the heavens for that.

Do you know what folks were saying after news of Carter's death touched all of the game's bases on Thursday?

On WFAN in New York, former Mets infielder Wally Backman said, "I wish I could have lived my life like Gary Carter." On the same station, Darryl Strawberry, whose Hall of Fame skills were eclipsed by the demons of addiction, said similar things.

A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives, Carter's Cooperstown teammate, Jackie Robinson, once said. By that measure, Carter was a Hall of Famer several times over.

He was an 11-time All-Star, and he was named as All-Star MVP twice. Smile. He was a three-time Gold Glover. Smile. He was runner-up to Mike Schmidt as the NL MVP in 1980. Smile.

"Nobody loved the game of baseball more than Gary Carter," fellow Hall of Famer Tom Seaver said Thursday. "Nobody enjoyed playing the game of baseball more than Gary Carter.

"He wore his heart on his sleeve every inning he played."

The Mets issued a statement and attributed it to CEO Fred Wilpon, president Saul Katz and COO Jeff Wilpon and, maybe that's telling, too, that it takes three of today's Mets to hoist up one hefty -- and fitting -- statement about the iconic Kid.

The message was on point: "His nickname 'The Kid' captured how Gary approached life. He did everything with enthusiasm and with gusto on and off the field. His smile was infectious."

Fitting, I suppose, that in The Kid's final public pictures, the brain tumors that would take his life could not wipe away his smile.

It is a sad, sad day in the baseball world. But I bet even Gary Carter could find some joy somewhere.


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