This has been a sad time for baseball fans. A couple of weeks ago, we lost the great Harmon Killebrew, that gentle, unassuming bear of a man who hit 573 home runs without ever injecting steroids or pausing at home plate to admire the ball’s trajectory.
Now we hear that Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter has inoperable brain cancer—The Kid, famously ebullient, ferociously competitive—and a mere 57. Nonfans may not relate, perhaps—but for many of us, particularly in New York City, this is personal. It always is when the heroes of our youth (and beyond) confront mortality.
We reeled in shock, and many of us wept, when a plane crash took Thurman Munson in 1979. But at least we could explain that away—private planes are dangerous things. I wrote the cover story for PEOPLE magazine when Mickey Mantle died (yes, PEOPLE once did covers like that—and it actually sold pretty well). Mantle’s death resonated deeply. When I came to baseball as a small child in the mid-late 1960s, we were Willie Mays fans—too mild a word, perhaps, for he was the closest thing our family had to a formal religion. So, naturally, we loathed The Mick and the Yankees. But passions faded, and I grew to appreciate his aw-shucks charm, and self-deprecating wit. And, ultimately his courage and grace in the face of death.
But we could explain away Mick’s loss, too—all that drinking and carousing. Gary Carter’s brain cancer, on the other hand, is terrifying; it seems so random and arbitrary. And cruel.
I only got to see my idol, Willie, in the twilight of his career and after he retired—the same year of my father’s sudden death—I drifted away from baseball. But my interest revived in the mid-1980s—rekindled by the resurgent New York Mets. It was the team of Strawberry and Gooden, of course—with their astonishing talent and seemingly limitless potential. But what made the Amazin’s into contenders was the acquisition of two “club pros,” a pair of “gamers” who excelled at bat, afield, and in the clubhouse—Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter.
The Kid’s sprawling smile and clutch play were as emblematic of the 1986 World Champions as were Straw’s towering homers, Dr. K’s Ks or Mex’s golden glove and swarthy glare. In the sixth game of the World Series, in that remarkable 9th inning—the Buckner inning—it was Carter whose two-out, bases-empty single kept the Mets alive.
Now he has to do it again. And with the stakes so much higher, literally life-and-death, the millions who hoped against hope for a miracle that autumn evening 25 years ago would do well to offer up a prayer for The Kid.