Strong, but a Stranger to Silence, Mets Catcher Gary Carter May Be Baseball's Happiest Warrior

updated 09/15/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/15/1986 01:00AM

In the Bible it is written: "And a little child shall lead them" (Isaiah 11:6). In the National League East, something like that has come to pass. A man-child is leading the New York Mets to a runaway divisional championship, with high hopes of moving on to the land of milk and honey, i.e., a World Series victory.

The child in question is catcher Gary Carter. True, he's 32 years old. And true, his 6'2", 210-lb. body has been made ancient before its time by 12 years of major league stoop labor—a professional lifetime of foul tips and home plate collisions. Nevertheless, age has not withered nor custom staled Carter's enjoyment of baseball's pure boyish pleasures.

Nicknamed "the Kid" for his boundless enthusiasm, Carter—an autographer of horsehide par excellence—is always obliging to fans. When unwary reporters ask him a question, they sometimes find they can't shut him up. He loves the game, loves to talk about it and, in fact, still collects baseball cards just like any 12-year-old. "Not only am I a player," says the Kid, "I'm a fan of the game as well."

Naturally many of his playing peers are appalled. Not only is the nine-time All-Star the heart of the Mets' batting order and the gray eminence behind the Mets' talented, and very young, pitching staff, he is also the team's No. 1 cheerleader. He is always the first man out of the dugout, be it for a high five or a congratulatory slap on the butt. "As an opponent, I hated him," said Bill Robinson, the former Pirates slugger who is now the Mets batting and first-base coach. "He's a real rah-rah."

Some players, in fact, are resentful of the whole "Kid" persona. In baseball's laconic subculture, it is a tradition that strong men don't have much to say. And Carter has plenty to say, even for a catcher. Behind the plate, he has been known to drive batters to distraction. Once, in the middle of a typical Carter monologue, Ted Simmons, then of the St. Louis Cardinals, stepped out of the box and glared at the Kid. "You wanna talk or you wanna play?" snarled Simmons. Gary had to think about it. "Okay, Simba," said a barely chastened Carter. "Let's play baseball."

Even a few old teammates suspect the irrepressible Carter of phoniness. Before being traded to the Mets in 1984, Carter had spent 10 years in a Montreal uniform. The moment he left, Expos outfielder Andre Dawson lit into him. "Gary wasn't popular among his teammates here," Dawson said. "He gave the impression he was more of a glory hound than a team player."

Carter shrugs off the sniping. His rebuttal is made on the field. Last year, for example, Carter caught in 143 games despite a cracked rib, a twisted ankle and damaged cartilage that sent a shooting pain through his right knee whenever he crouched or stood up. During the Mets' September pennant drive, he all but carried the team on his shoulders, amassing 13 homers and 34 RBIs in only 27 games. The knee was operated on last fall, "But it's still fragile," Carter said recently. "Fragile enough that one more collision could tear whatever cartilage that's left." Nonetheless, the Kid still blocks the plate as if the name of the game were demolition derby. (Ironically, the thumb injury that sidelined Carter for two weeks last month came while he was being rested at first base.)

If Carter seems impervious to the criticism, Sandy, his wife, feels it deeply. "It hurts me," she says. "I know how he plays when he's in pain, when he's sick. I've seen him hit two home runs and come home depressed because his team didn't win the game that day."

Gary and Sandy met 16 years ago at Sunny Hills High School in Fullerton, Calif. She was homecoming queen. He was the captain of the baseball, football and basketball teams. "We started dating at 16," she says. "They said it would never last." It's lasted. Gary and Sandy now have three children, Christy, 7, Kimmy, 5, and Douglas, 18 months. Sitting in the stands at Shea Stadium one afternoon, Sandy watches proudly as Carter whacks a run-scoring single. "Gary's a homebody," she says, as her husband takes his lead off first base. "He likes to make popcorn and watch movies with the children. I don't know how many games of Old Maid I've seen him play with the girls." Well, that figures. Old Maid is nothing if not a Kid's game.

As Mets slugger Darryl Strawberry hits a chopper to third, Carter, fragile knee and all, goes barreling into the second baseman to break up the double play. When the dust clears, the hapless infielder is draped around Carter's neck like a stole. Can this be the way glory hounds play? "Gar-ee!" screams one leather-lunged fan, "you're too good to be true!"

That, in a nutshell, may be the Kid's problem.

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