04/05/12 6:03 PM ET
Opening Day only fitting for Carter tribute
By Marty Noble / MLB.com
The person who would have most enjoyed it -- all the trappings -- was missing, though. He was absent in the most tangible way. Gary Carter was missing from Opening Day, and he was missing Opening Day, too.
No one enjoyed the season's first game more than Kid, not "the Kid," just "Kid." No one would have been more affected by the pomp and the colors and, yes, the ton of sun that made Citi Field warm, fuzzy and, as the airlines say, "very full." The fuzzy came, in part, from the widely awaited return of the everyday game to our lives, but also from more remembrances of the Hall of Fame catcher who died in February.
Shea wasn't around to tip its cap to Carter, so Citi stepped in more than adequately and saluted one of the game's foremost Opening Day maestros. Carter loved the first game. If he had produced in each subsequent game as he did when the bunting was in place in April, his wait for election to the Hall of Fame wouldn't have been so long or frustrated him so much.
Kid came out of the blocks like Usain Bolt. As someone once wrote, "Carter OD's on OD." He batted .262 with on-base and slugging averages of .335 and .439 in his career. The corresponding figures for his Opening Day games are .293, .382 and .655. He hit six home runs in 58 at-bats. His eternally bad knees and the general fatigue that is every catcher's albatross undoubtedly undermined his production in Games 2-162. But Carter's former colleagues knew there was more to it.
"Opening Day is like Christmas Morning to Kid," Howard Johnson said on Opening Day 1987, after Carter had begun his season with two hits. "He's always pumped, but on Opening Day, he's like a kid." All puns intended.
Carter characteristically gushed about the event and the impact it had on him.
"Sometimes you have to get yourself up," he said in 1988 the day before the Mets played their first game, in Montreal. "You know it can be tough in July after a long trip or a long game. But Opening Day is easy. If you're not up for the first game ... I just can't see how you couldn't be. Pete Rose used to say the opener was like a cup of coffee after you get up."
So it is that the Mets chose the appropriate day to honor their late co-captain one more time. The Carter family -- wife Sandy, daughters Kimmy and Christy and son D.J. -- were in attendance. With Kid's former colleagues -- Darryl Strawberry, Keith Hernandez, Ron Darling and Mookie Wilson -- serving as catchers, the Carters became the Citi's first family for a day and tended to the First Ball duties.
And the Citi embraced all of it. Kid always brought energy to the park; memory of him did so Thursday. A moment of silence was preceded and followed by enough applause to the drown out one of LaGuardia's takeoffs. And another loud response followed when the family uncovered a white-on-black homeplate-shaped decal on the outfield wall in left-center. It reads: "Kid 8" The roof of each dugout is similarly appointed.
The game that followed prompted mostly faint responses until David Wright drove in the lone run of the game in the sixth inning. It was quiet even after the Mets had scored. Tiger could have teed off without waiting, without getting teed off.
That part was unlike Carter. He was a noisemaker, like one of those "Hey batter. Hey batter, batter" kids in Little League. The other dugout always could hear him. The umpire and hitter had to hear him.
The Carter Family preferred not to speak publicly Thursday, so Wilson and Strawberry were made available for reminiscing purposes. Wilson spoke of Carter's energy and the decibels he produced. He and Straw spoke of Kid as an opponent, an Expo, a primary pain in the patoot. He always chirped, tried to distract batters. And yes, Mookie and Straw testified that Kid courted the camera. Opponents didn't like that either. And his boundless joy could be irritant. "How could anyone be that happy?" Strawberry recalled asking himself after his first series against Carter's Expos.
Then the Mets imported the right-handed bat that would complement the left-handed swings of Strawberry and Hernandez. And the players learned to embrace the unbreakable smile of Gary of Sunnyhills High. Truth be told, they were forced to embrace him.
"Gary loved to hug. Hugs for everybody," Wilson said, clearly not comfortable with at least one aspect of The Over-Exuberant. "We didn't like to hug. I wasn't for that. Now everybody hugs. Everybody Gary brought that with him."
He brought curtain calls and those power right crosses to the chin of the air as well. He brought joy.
And 27 years ago, 27 almost to the date, he brought his bat to Shea. It was some four months after a Knicks crowd at the Garden had initiated an unsolicited "Let's Go Mets" chant in response to his acquisition a day earlier. It was after the Mets and Cardinals and had played 9 1/2 innings on Opening Day. The bat collided violently with a pitch from Neil Allen and Carter walked off a hero.
He gushed afterward. "There are a thousand adjectives," he said. "But I can't think of the right one." And all the while, the appropriate word was appropriate.
Gary Carter always loved Opening Day.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.