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'Kid' lived a life of grace and giving

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It was nine months ago when doctors first discovered the tumors in Gary Carter's brain, and they knew instantly it would be a horrific fight. Instead of rotating medicines, holding back one or two in case the others failed, the specialists chose to throw everything into Carter's system at once.

"It was that bad," a family friend said of the diagnosis. "From day one, the odds were against Gary."

The Kid himself accepted the reality of his illness; there would be no coming back from such an aggressive form of cancer. His prayer was to live out his final days in peace and comfort. If there's divine justice in this world, Carter left us buoyed by the love of millions.

The major league family had been bracing for this announcement since last May. Still, news of Carter's passing Thursday was too awful to comprehend. He was only 57 -- decades stolen from a kind, gentle man who deserved better.

Carter was a Met who lived beyond the excesses of the '80s. There were no drugs in his world, no booze, no girlfriends on the side. Kid was straight out of Ozzie and Harriet, faithful to his wife, Sandy, devoted to his children, always smiling, bestowing corny nicknames upon anyone who came his way.

He was talented all right, a future Hall of Famer who delivered the biggest hit of the miracle comeback in the '86 World Series. It was Carter's two-out single in the 10th inning of Game 6 that started the Mets' come-from-behind rally -- three runs that materialized out of nowhere, all because Carter refused to see the impossibility of the Mets' predicament.

The franchise was forever grateful for that one hit, the irrepressible can-do attitude that remained with Carter until the day he died. Yet, he knew that Boy Scout gene had made him an outcast in his own clubhouse. There were no rules among Davey Johnson's troops, other than winning. Once the Mets proved they could overwhelm the National League, the rest of the summer played out like Lord of the Flies.

The wild-siders like Keith Hernandez and Darryl Strawberry and Lenny Dykstra controlled the room. They were too hip and much too popular to be challenged. Carter never tried. He, like Mookie Wilson and Tim Teufel, were content in their role as outsiders.

Kid, however, was the particular target of ridicule, if only because he loved attention. He knew there was a surcharge for hamming it up with the TV cameras, and he paid in full. Kid could've challenged his teammates to stop the sniping, but decided the already lawless clubhouse didn't need another war, particularly between him and Hernandez.

Years later, the Mets realized their catcher was ahead of his time.

"Gary figured it out way before we did how to treat people," former teammate Wally Backman said last summer. "We used to make fun of him, the way he'd sign every damn autograph. We had to hold the bus for him sometimes, because he didn't know how to say no. He didn't want to say no. But you know what? He was right. He really loved the game."

Sadly, the Mets never did get around to retiring Carter's No. 8. They figured there'd always be time to honor him, at least until he started feeling ill in May. There were a series of severe, unexplained headaches, followed by lapses in memory.

At first, Carter's doctors presumed he was suffering from nothing more than stress and middle-age forgetfulness. But the headaches worsened, prompting an MRI. And that's where the specialists took over. The results were akin to a death sentence -- tumors everywhere in Carter's brain, unreachable for even the most skilled surgeon.

The findings, according to the friend, "blew Gary away." It took weeks for Carter's family to understand how little time he had left.

Without surgery as an option, Carter knew the remainder of his life would be measured by rounds of chemo and radiation. There were brief periods of hope, as the tumors temporarily shrunk. But as it so often does, the cancer returned with a killer's vengeance in January. The doctors were powerless this time around; they'd already used up their ammunition. There were no medicines left to help the patient.

Even as the end was approaching, however, Carter found snippets of normalcy. As recently as Feb. 2, he managed to attend a baseball game at Palm Beach Atlantic University in Florida, the team he'd been hired to coach two years ago.

It was a good day for Carter, even if the newspaper photos revealed what the treatments had done to him. The steroid infusions, meant to control the tumors' growth, had swelled his face almost beyond recognition. It was hard to recognize Carter, but even harder to know how much he was suffering behind closed doors.

Was the Kid fearing death as it descended upon him in the final days? Had he said his goodbyes, completed the arc of his relationships? We can only hope.

Those left behind will never forget.

"I wish I could've lived my like life Gary Carter," former teammate Darryl Strawberry said. "He was a true man."

There were similar sentiments expressed throughout baseball -- from those who knew Carter personally, played with or against him, and even those who had no connection whatsoever. The bond was universal.

This was one of those darker signposts we pass during the course of our lifetimes, the ones that succeed in aging us. Carter departs with the legacy of a champion, but also with a heartbreaking asterisk:

Died too young.