Near the end of the 2011 film “Moneyball,” Bill Beane wonders, “How do you not get romantic about baseball?” Baseball, in all its fun and excitement, in all its myth and magic, is indeed a romantic sport, but it can be a dramatic, sad and devastating one at the same time.
Fans all across Cardinal Nation were greeted by General Manager John Mozeliak at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday with some very bad news: Cy Young Award-winner Chris Carpenter will not be pitching in the 2013 season.
That doesn’t sound that bad, does it? Pitchers miss seasons all the time. Carp missed most of last season. Adam Wainwright missed the one before that. We’ve dealt with this before, right?
Not so fast. The workhorse right-hander will celebrate his 38th birthday at the start of the season, and 2013 will be his last year under contract with the Cardinals. Last year, Carpenter suffered from thoracic outlet syndrome. Yeah, I don’t know what that means either, but it’s bad for your arm, neck, shoulder, back; anything you might need to fire a baseball at 90 mph and snap a wicked curve.
When Carp returned in late 2012 to help the Birds along their playoff run, something was still not right. Cards fans were happy to see the return of their old friend and the long-time leader of the pitching staff, but Carpenter did not have his sharpest stuff. Still, the fact that he returned at all was a medical miracle.
And that is perhaps the lasting legacy of Chris Carpenter. If indeed Carpenter has pitched his last game, as many fans and baseball specialists speculate, it is Carpenter’s ferociously-competitive nature and dominating mound presence that will be the stuff of legends. More than his admirable 144 wins and career 3.76 ERA, more than his three All-Star appearances and two World Series wins, No. 29 will be remembered for all the ways he mirrored Cardinal great Bob Gibson.
Mike Shannon tells the story of a conversation he had with Gibson in 2003, right after the Cardinals acquired an injured Carpenter. “Mike,” Gibby said, “the kid reminds me of me.” Gibson, known as much for his terrifying presence on the mount as for his electric fastball, could not have said it better himself.
He was referring, of course, to a pitcher who would return time and time again from surgeries that often ended other guys’ careers. An apocryphal story has Carpenter keeping a rib he had removed during one of his surgeries and mounting it on the wall. He yelled at batters and umpires and pumped his fist in shameless celebration. When Carpenter beat you, you knew it.
My three fondest memories of Mr. Carpenter came from the last two seasons, specifically from the Cards playoff runs.
Going on three days’ rest (pitchers usually pitch on four) Carpenter started Game 7 of that same World Series. Coming off of an historic and dramatic win in Game 6, Carpenter begged manager Tony LaRussa for the ball in Game 7. LaRussa mulled over this decision. Carp’s stats on short rest were not impressive, but if anyone could bear the title “big game pitcher,” it the was hockey player from Exeter, a true man’s man. LaRussa recounts calling pitching coach Dave Duncan on the day of the game to discuss their decision. Duncan, LaRussa says, told him that he could choose to go with another pitcher but that LaRussa would have to tell Carpenter. Duncan refused. LaRussa, of course, decided to give No. 29 the ball, but, in jest, called him to tell him that him Kyle Lohse would be pitching. Carpenter hung up on him.
But the one story that remains the stuff classics are made of was Game 5 of the NLDS against the heavily-favored Philadelphia Phillies. The Cards battled back from a 2-1 deficit to force a final deciding game. Carpenter took to the hill against former teammate, rival, hunting buddy and best friend Roy Halladay, the dominating righty and ace of the Philly staff. In the top of the first, just two batters in, the Cardinals took a 1-0 lead. That would be all they needed. In one of the gutsiest of pitching performances, Carpenter went all nine innings, surrendering only five hits and neutralizing the hometown crowd. After the final out was made, Carp let out a battle cry and tore his jersey off. It is still the greatest-pitched game I have ever seen.
Game 5 was the crowning achievement of his great career, a career that should have ended when Carp left the field in the 6th inning of Game 7 of the World Series. But, ever the fierce competitor, he worked his way back from injury to help his team the following year. While walking slowly off the mound to the dugout to a standing ovation from Cardinal Nation, knowing he had put his team in a position to win one of the craziest World Series in the history of the game, one does wonder if Carp knew, on that cold October night, that if this was indeed it, it certainly doesn’t get much better than this. If we never see Mr. Carpenter take the hill again, he will forever remain in the memory of Cardinal Nation if for nothing other than his intimidating character, his strong leadership, and that miraculous Game 5. Cardinals fans will always have that.
Indeed, how do you not get romantic about baseball?