For those of you too young to remember, being a New York Mets fan didn't always go hand in hand with embarrassment and ridicule.
As hard as it may be to believe now, during the mid- to late 1980s, the New York Mets not only were kings of the Big Apple, but fielded some of the most feared teams in Major League Baseball. In other words, while there have been plenty of dark moments in the Mets' 50-year history, there have been plenty of times when being a Mets fan was, for lack of a better term, amazing.
Lucky for me, the dominance of the Mets during the Reagan years just happened to coincide with the beginning of a lifelong love affair I would have with America's pastime, a love passed down to me from my father and a love I would later pass on to my son.
I am the son of a diehard New York Yankee fan from the Bronx who was just beginning to understand the game as an eight-year-old in 1986, and as that slow dribbler that Mookie Wilson hit in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series somehow found its way past the glove of Bill Buckner, it not only took with it the morale of the Boston Red Sox, but also any hopes my father would have of me rooting for his beloved Bronx Bombers.
Yes, the Mets were all the rage when I was a kid, and like most kids, I followed what was hot at the time—the same way I'm sure my father did when he pledged his allegiance to the Yankees, rather than the favorite team of his father, the New York Giants.
Most of the kids around my age at the time were almost all fans of Doc Gooden or Darryl Strawberry. After all, they were young, they put up numbers that were larger than life, they had what kids of today would consider "swag" and they were arguably the best pitcher and slugger in baseball, respectively. What was not to like?
When I stepped in front of that brick schoolhouse wall with the spray-painted strike zone on it, I stood up straight with a waggle in my bat just like the right fielder who patrolled Shea Stadium. My stick ball pitching motion was such a good impersonation of Dr. K it would have made Frank Caliendo jealous. In other words, I idolized both those young men.
Unfortunately, they would both break my heart numerous times. I remember as a nine-year-old in 1987 watching as Gooden would be busted for cocaine and suspended. It was the same drug that everyone from my parents, to teachers, to Nancy Reagan was preaching to "Just Say No" to.
I would say that I felt hurt and betrayed, but those words would not do my feelings justice. I felt like my heart had been ripped from my chest, and even to this day, as a 34-year-old father who has had his share of turmoil in his life and become a bit desensitized to addiction after seeing it ruin the lives of some people very close to him, there is still a part of me that wonders "How could Doc do this to me?"
As the 1990s approached, more suspensions for Gooden came and went, Strawberry's hard-living ways began to come to light and more and more secrets of many of the Mets' frat-boy antics surfaced. I began to become desensitized to the ways of the modern athlete as well, thus losing faith in many of the men I once idolized, relating myself to the little boy in the movie Eight Men Out who frantically begged Shoeless Joe Jackson to "Say it ain't so."
Then on a February Sunday in 1989, everything changed.
After my parents divorced in the early 1980s, I visited my father every Sunday and some holidays, but because I was now technically a member of two households, every holiday, including my birthday, was celebrated twice. It's one of the few perks a kid gets when their parents decide to go their separate ways.
I had just turned 11 in February 1989, and after celebrating on my birthday at my mother's during the week, I went to my father's house to do it all over again.
At that age, all I cared about was baseball and baseball cards. Every year for my birthday from the time I was 10 until I was 14, I received a complete set of that year's Topps Baseball Cards. This year was no different, as I opened the box and quickly began to fumble through the cards looking for what I believed to be the crown jewel of the set: a Gregg Jefferies rookie card.
Before I could find the card, however, my father made me put them away, and told me that there was another part of my gift. We hopped in his car, took a five-minute drive to the neighboring town of New Milford, NJ, and parked in the parking lot of my favorite baseball card shop.
Immediately my mind began thinking about more baseball cards—that is, until I noticed the long line coming out of the front door, and almost completely around the building. That's when my father informed me that we were going to meet Mets catcher Gary Carter.
I thought it was really cool, but at the same time, it wasn't on the same level of cool as meeting Gooden, Strawberry, David Cone or Lenny Dykstra. It wasn't the type of name that I could run back and tell my friends to make them all envious of me.
Still, Carter was the Mets catcher, and I was excited. My father had bought me an official National League baseball, the same baseball that was used in major league games, for me to get signed. Come to think of it, I may have even been more impressed with the ball than I was with the fact that I was meeting Carter.
The line was incredibly long, but I remember it moving rather quickly, and everyone in it being pretty friendly. I remember when we finally got out of the cold and into the store, and how I could see Carter sitting there. The closer I got to him, the more the butterflies in my stomach multiplied.
It's been more than 20 years since I approached the table that Carter was sitting at, and the scene is as vivid in my mind today as it has ever been. I remember I was more nervous meeting Carter than I was when I leaned in for my first kiss, as he reached out his hand to shake mine.
He smiled and asked me what my name was as he gave me a firm handshake. He made small talk with my father and I. He posed for a picture with me, and then he signed my baseball.
I was a bit shocked, as this was not one of the horror stories I heard as a kid of guys like Strawberry or Jose Canseco signing items and rushing people through the line without even looking up at them, or Lawrence Taylor not even showing up for a signing and leaving numerous fans in the cold. This experience was nothing like that at all. In fact, Carter made me feel like he was as happy to meet me as I was to meet him.
I have never forgotten any moment in my life where I have met a baseball player, be it watching Eddie Murray stand less than a foot away from me when I was a 13-year-old at Shea Stadium and totally ignoring me, or watching Jose Lima sign my kid brother's hat and joke with us when I was 24—every one of those moments, good or bad, has always stayed with me, and probably always will.
Sure I went into that store to meet a Mets player who wasn't as "cool" to me as some of his teammates, but I left with a the memory of a man who made an impact on the rest of my life, be it my eternal love for the No. 8 or how the I use the tail of the last letter of my name to cross the T's in my signature (the same way it appears on the ball that I still own) through a single meeting.
I left that card store with so much more than an autograph and a photo. I left that store with a restored faith in the athletes I followed. I left that store with a hero.
Today my childhood hero passed away after a battle with brain cancer, and upon hearing the news through a text from my kid brother, I held back tears for a man I had met once, some 23 years ago.
Thank you, Gary Carter. May you rest in piece, and may God bless your loved ones. This 11-year-old boy will never forget you.