This article was written by Bruce Slutsky
Gary Carter earned the nickname “Kid” when he first came to spring training with the Montreal Expos at age 19 in 1973.1 He, along with Larry Parrish, Ellis Valentine, André Dawson, and pitcher Steve Rogers, would turn out to be the core players of this franchise in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But Carter, with his affable personality and hard-nosed play, was the recognizable star. Sports Illustrated put him on its front cover in early 1983, proclaiming him the “Best in Baseball.”2 From 1974 to 1984, Carter hit 220 home runs for the Expos and was picked for seven All-Star Games. But Carter’s stay in Montreal resulted in only one playoff appearance. That came in the split season of 1981, when the Expos reached the National League Championship Series before falling to the Los Angeles Dodgers in heartbreaking fashion.
In 1984 the Mets seemed to have found their way after a decade in the wilderness since their last appearance in the postseason, in 1973. A 90-72 record put them in second place, 6½ games behind the ’84 Chicago Cubs. The Mets felt they needed to make roster moves before they could be true pennant contenders. In one of the biggest trades since they dealt Tom Seaver to the Reds in 1977, the club obtained Carter from the Expos in exchange for shortstop Hubie Brooks, catcher Mike Fitzgerald, and minor leaguers Herm Winningham and Floyd Youmans. Since Carter had 10 years of major-league service time and at least five years with the same team, he could have vetoed the trade. But he didn’t, aware of the fine nucleus of playoff potential the Mets possessed. Certainly, playing in New York City would improve his visibility.3
Dwight Gooden, the teenage pitching prodigy who was voted the 1984 NL Rookie of the Year and was the runner-up in the Cy Young Award voting, got the 1985 Opening Day assignment. In addition to Carter making his New York debut, other notable starters included Wally Backman, Mookie Wilson, Keith Hernandez, and Darryl Strawberry. Joaquin Andujar, who won 20 games in 1984, was the St. Louis Cardinals’ starting pitcher. The group behind him included Lonnie Smith, Tommy Herr, and future Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith. With Vice President George H.W. Bush tossing out the ceremonial first pitch, the game had a World Series atmosphere. It was also a portent of the fierce NL East battle that would heat up come late September and early October.
But there was little heat in the air. At game time, the temperature was 45 degrees. That didn’t stop a crowd of 46,781 from coming to Shea Stadium. By the bottom of the fifth, the Mets were ahead, 5-2, on of RBIs from Hernandez, Howard Johnson, Rafael Santana, and George Foster (home run). Andujar departed the game after five innings — tagged for eight hits. Gooden, meanwhile, was removed in the top of the seventh after giving up singles to Andy Van Slyke and Ozzie Smith.
By the ninth inning, the Mets were clinging to a 5-4 advantage. But an ineffectual Doug Sisk walked Jack Clark with the bases loaded. With the score now even at 5-5 in the bottom of the ninth, Neil Allen, a former Mets closer, came in to pitch for St. Louis. He had departed from New York on June 15, 1983, a date legendary in Mets history and infamous in Cardinals lore. Allen and Rick Ownbey were sent by the Mets to St. Louis for Hernandez. Former Mets catcher John Stearns called the trade “the biggest heist since the Thomas Crown Affair.”4 The main reason for the exchange was the deteriorating relationship between Whitey Herzog and Hernandez. Herzog was quoted as saying, “Keith Hernandez was dogging it. … He’s the best defensive first baseman I’ve ever seen. But on offense, he was loafing. He loafed down the line on groundballs and he wasn’t aggressive on the bases.”5
The Mets loaded the bases against Allen in the bottom of the ninth on a hit, a walk, and an error, but Allen got Mookie Wilson on a fly ball to retire the side. Tom Gorman gave up a double to Ozzie Smith in the top of the 10th but the Cardinals couldn’t push a run across.
Hernandez led off the bottom of the 10th inning against Allen and struck out. That merely set the stage for Carter to have a storybook finish in his orange and blue debut. A hanging curveball by Allen turned into a rope as it came off Carter’s bat. Left fielder Lonnie Smith reached up at the wall, but the ball snuck over his glove and the fence in front of the visiting bullpen. The Mets were 6-5 walk-off winners. The Mets had a 6-5 win and reason to think that, with the best-hitting catcher in baseball, there would be many more special victories ahead. The only blemish in the game for Gary Carter was a passed ball in the third inning that led to a run for the Cardinals.
Carter, the Mets’ cleanup batter, was selected for the All-Star Game in his first four seasons with the team, and was one of the stars of the Mets’ victory over the Boston Red Sox in the 1986 World Series. Hobbled by knee injuries,6 he was released by the Mets in 1989 and signed as a free agent with the San Francisco Giants. After the 1990 season for the Giants, he signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1991 and then in 1992 returned to the Expos, for whom he completed his playing career. After retirement he served as a color commentator for the Florida Marlins and the Expos. Carter also worked as a minor-league catching instructor for the Mets. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2003.
In 2011 Carter was diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. He died on February 16, 2012.7
This article was published in “Met-rospectives: A Collection of the Greatest Games in New York Mets History“ (SABR, 2018), edited by Brian Wright and Bill Nowlin. To read more articles from this book at the SABR Games Project, click here.
In addition to the sources mentioned in the Notes, the author consulted baseball-reference.com and retrosheet.org.
3 Joseph Durso. “Mets Get Expo’s Carter for Broks and 3 Others,” New York Times, December 10, 1984. Accessed January 19, 2018. http://www.nytimes.com/1984/12/11/sports/mets-get-expo-s-carter-for-brooks-and-3-others.html
4 “Why Cardinals dealt Keith Hernandez in 1983,” RetroSimba. December 31, 2017. Accessed January 19, 2018. https://retrosimba.com/2013/06/12/why-cardinals-dealt-keith-hernandez-30-years-ago/
5 Whitey Herzog and Kevin Horrigan. White Rat: A Life in Baseball (New York: Harper & Row, 1987), 148.
7 “Gary Carter,” Baseball Hall of Fame.