When the people of the Palm Beach, Fla., community gather on Friday night for a memorial service for Palm Beach Atlantic coach Gary Carter, they will be celebrating the life of a Hall of Famer. More than that, they will be honoring a friend and mentor.

Carter, the former Montreal Expo and New York Met great who died Feb. 16 after a nine-month battle with brain cancer, was a fixture in the Palm Beach community for 20 years. He coached the Division II Sailfish for only two years, but the impression he left on his players will last a lifetime.

“He always had time for everyone,” pitcher Logan Thomas said. “The thing that set Skip aside was that he really did believe in us. And that’s the first thing he told me when I met him -- that I should live for my dreams and never give up on them.”

GARY CARTER CAREER STATS
Year Team R H RBI Avg
1974 Mon 5 11 6 .407
1975 Mon 58 136 68 .270
1976 Mon 31 68 38 .219
1977 Mon 86 148 84 .284
1978 Mon 76 136 72 .255
1979 Mon 74 143 75 .283
1980 Mon 76 145 101 .264
1981 Mon 48 94 68 .251
1982 Mon 91 163 97 .293
1983 Mon 63 146 79 .270
1984 Mon 75 175 106 .294
1985 NYM 83 156 100 .281
1986 NYM 81 125 105 .255
1987 NYM 55 123 83 .235
1988 NYM 39 110 46 .242
1989 NYM 14 28 15 .183
1990 SF 24 62 27 .254
1991 LAD 22 61 26 .246
1992 Mon 24 62 29 .262
Totals   1,025 2,092 1,225 .262

Many players already knew Carter before he became coach from his visibility in the Palm Beach area. He was always willing to talk baseball and was totally unpretentious. Nobody could tell better stories, and Carter had hundreds of them. Though he retired in 1992, before many college players were born, baseball players couldn’t get enough of him.

For that reason, Thomas still remembers where he was when he got the news that one of the greatest catchers in history was going to be his next coach.

“I was sitting in a classroom with [teammate] Steve Fowler, and the athletic director came in with coach Carter, and I was like, ‘No way! What’s going on?’ ” Thomas said. “He came in and said ‘How are you doing and I’m your new head coach’ and everybody’s jaw just kind of dropped.”

Outsiders might think that a big star like Carter might have been a ceremonial coach who left the actual teaching to others. Players, however, said he loved to teach the game -- and was astonishingly competitive.

“He definitely taught us a bunch of stuff,” second baseman Michael Lyon said. “But when he stepped on the field, it was completely different. He was so focused on the game. He would basically hate the other team, and then after the game, it would be fine. But the will to win was so much…It was cool so see.”

Added Fowler, “He did it in a respectful way, which was key.”

Away from the field, there was always time for stories. It sounds a little like when Crash Davis regaled the Durham Bulls with tales of “The Show” in “Bull Durham.”

“He loved telling stories,” Thomas said. “But we loved hearing them. We would always ask him about fights or what it was like playing in the World Series.”

Palm Beach Atlantic President Bill Fleming said the detail made Carter’s stories spellbinding.

“He could tell you the pitch he hit off Steve Carlton 25 years ago,” Fleming said. “He could tell you how the seams were spinning. As a writer for the Palm Beach Post wrote, you would feel the dirt of Shea on your hands and have the smell of the grass of Shea in your nostrils. That’s how relevant and clear the story was.”

Last May, the team had just finished its second season under Carter. The team had finished with a 27-26 record and an appearance in the National Christian Collegiate Athletic Association tournament. The outlook was good.

“We had had our exit meetings where you meet one-on-one with the coaching staff to talk about your year, and we didn’t think anything was different,” Thomas said. “He was the same old Skip. And then we got a phone call or a text that said, hey, Skip’s not feeling well. He went to the doctor’s office, and they’re flying him out to Duke.”

The news would have been devastating under any conditions, but the fact that everybody had gone home made the experience even tougher for the team.

Carter, however, was always about the big moment, and he saved one of his best for the Sailfish and their 2012 season opener with Lynn on Feb. 2.

By then, Carter was desperately ill. Associate athletics director Michael Brown knew that the stricken coach wanted to attend the game, but it was an on-again, off-again proposition throughout the day.

But when game time arrived, so did Carter.

“I had just finished warming up and we were getting ready to go, and I heard somebody say, ‘Hey, Skip’s here!’ ” said Thomas, who was the starting pitcher. “Everyone kind of ran out there, and he shook each and every one of our hands.”

“We all stood up in the dugout and took our hats off. And he came driving around, and everybody started clapping for him. It was a great experience knowing that we were playing for him and his memory.”

His final words to the Sailfish were, “Let’s win tonight, boys.”

They did, winning 3-2 on a walkoff single. Carter no doubt appreciated that the game-winner came from the catcher, Travis Murray.

Two weeks later, Carter was gone. His influence, however, will last several lifetimes.

Fowler said Carter taught him how to work hard. As for Lyon, he said Carter always stressed maintaining a relationship with Christ. And Thomas said he learned to love the game as never before.

“It was a blessing, an opportunity to use the gifts and talents that the Lord’s given us,” Thomas said. “Skip loved the game. You could see the twinkle in his eye when he stepped on the field. He loved it so much.”

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