WEST PALM BEACH — When the Palm Beach Atlantic University baseball team plays its season opener Thursday night at Roger Dean Stadium, the No. 8 jersey of head coach Gary Carter will hang in the dugout.
Carter is battling an aggressive form of brain cancer that has sapped his strength at a frightening pace. So his Sailfish players don't expect him to wear the uniform or join them on the bench.
But if he can make it to the game, they said, his mere presence will be as uplifting to them as it was in September, when they saw him for the first time since he was diagnosed with cancer in May.
On that September morning, the players surrounded him in a tight circle on the gymnasium floor at PBA. With 33 sets of hands touching or reaching for Carter, they prayed with their coach for his recovery.
"We had been praying for Coach ever since we found out about his situation. This was more of a heartfelt prayer - a prayer for strength and for peace with what he was going through, whatever the outcome,' said Logan Thomas, a senior starting pitcher who led the prayer.
Thomas will be on the mound Thursday when PBA plays its first baseball game since Carter was diagnosed with Stage 4 glioblastoma last May, just days after the previous season ended.
The news shocked the campus, but it was especially hard on players who had gone home for the summer not knowing he was ill.
Two weeks ago, doctors discovered more tumor spots on Carter's brain, a development that has prompted the family to consider ending medical treatment.
The team and the university at large have tried to make the best of a grim situation.
"This has been a galvanizing experience for the university,' said William Fleming, the interim president at PBAU, which has 3,700 students and is built on Christian values. "It has been a call to action, not a call to sorrow, here on our campus.'
Students wear "Team Carter" bracelets sold by The Gary Carter Foundation, the charity he started in 1992 when he retired from major league baseball after 19 seasons. The blue wristbands also have the inscription "Isaiah 40:31," his favorite Bible verse.
Carter, a catcher who was inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2003, was a big reason many PBA players came to the school after he was hired in the fall of 2009.
At the time, Carter had been managing in the minors, hoping for a shot at a major league job.
"My comment to him was that he would have a lifetime impact on young men,' Fleming said. "He could shape and mold their lives in ways he would never be able to do in the minors or the majors.'
Carter often tries to inspire his players by drawing on his personal experiences. One of his favorite stories recalls how he was determined not to make the last out for the New York Mets in the 1986 World Series. He slapped a hit to help save the Mets from elimination in Game 6 and they went on to beat Boston in seven games.
"Listening to Gary Carter talk about Game 6 of the 1986 World Series makes you feel as though you have the dirt and grass of Shea Stadium on your hands,' Fleming said. "Gary is a Mount Rushmore-type individual. These young men he has influenced the last three years cling on his every word.'
Carter also made it a point to get to know his players and their families, which added to his stature on a campus where Carter's daughter, Kimmy Bloemers, is the school's softball coach.
She has chronicled his illness in an online journal intended for family and friends.
PBA athletic officials remember that Carter started complaining about headaches last spring. Then, a day or two after his players had left for the summer, he was in the gym taking inventory of team equipment when he had more troubling symptoms. He had trouble with his handwriting and difficulty counting, which led to medical tests and his diagnosis.
His players are learning lessons they didn't expect from their coach.
"They are gaining character that they probably wouldn't have at other places,' said Kent Bottenfield, a former major league pitcher and longtime Carter friend who was hired in July as PBA's associate baseball coach.
"I don't think it has been a 'win one for the Gipper' attitude or anything like that, but they ask all the time about him. (Players are) constantly texting me, calling me, pulling me aside at practice. There's a great concern for him.'
Bottenfield, 43, was home in Tennessee last summer when PBA asked him to help. He and his family soon were ready to move south.
"We really felt like I was called to come down here, not as much to coach a team but to help a friend and to help a family through a tough time,' said Bottenfield, who was the starting pitcher for the Montreal Expos in Carter's final game on Sept. 27, 1992.
When the current school year started in
September, Bottenfield told players that Carter's presence would be limited. But they got a welcome surprise when they gathered in the gym for their first conditioning drills of the season.
Players looked up that morning to see Carter gingerly walking down the stairs from the mezzanine, where he keeps an office next to a batting cage.
One by one, players formed a line at the bottom of the steps. "We all just started hugging him,' Thomas said. "Honestly, it was tough for me because he wasn't the same. But you could still see the light in his eyes, a love for life, a love for baseball, a love for the guys.'
Carter watched the drills and then held his first team meeting of the year. He mentioned his illness only briefly while urging them to worry about themselves and work to improve their 27-26 record of the previous season, his second as coach.
"Initially he was like, 'Guys, I'm going to make it through this. It's going to OK ' ' Thomas said. "He didn't want us worrying about him because he knew that might take away from baseball.'
The meeting ended with the prayer circle. The players saw Carter a few more times in the ensuing months, most recently on Jan. 9 when he came out to their first spring practice at Dyer Park in suburban West Palm Beach.
Carter, 57, looked frail. He used a cane as he walked to the field and was aided by his son, D.J. But Carter had a spark when he addressed the team.
"He says, 'Guys, the day's finally here! It's spring! Let's get after it!' " Thomas recalled.
The Division II program hopes to open its new baseball field in spring 2013 on land just east of I-95 and north of Belvedere Road. Until then, they will play most of their games at Palm Beach Gardens High and at Santaluces High in Lantana.
But the opener at 7 p.m. Thursday will be at Roger Dean Stadium, a few miles from Carter's home at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens.
If Carter feels well enough to attend, he might ride around the field in a car during the seventh-inning stretch.
Fleming is hoping that the game draws a big crowd.
"It will be incredible if people turn out," he said. "Their presence would be an indication to their love and admiration for Gary and for the Carter family.
"Simply showing up will send a powerful message of love and support to the Kid.'