In Memoriam of My Baseball Wonder Years
I first seriously started to follow baseball, through the St. Louis Cardinals, back before the 2004 season. I was 14. I don’t know what drove my sudden interest in baseball. I liken it to a Great Awakening within myself; perhaps it was the first moment in which I started to look into the world beyond my immediate surroundings. Regardless, what had great potential to be just a passing fancy became a major part of my current identity after the Cardinals won 105 games in 2004, 100 games in 2005, and a World Series in 2006.
I write this today because starting pitcher Chris Carpenter, a major part of those adolescence-defining teams and the teams that followed up to the present, is reported to have what is very likely a career-ending injury, with complications regarding his shoulder. Carpenter, in many ways, was the face of the Cardinals from my adolescence to my present young adulthood. This became even more the case after Albert Pujols, one of the best players ever, left the Cardinals for the Los Angeles Angels after the 2011 championship season.
When he was healthy (and health was a major issue), Carpenter was easily one of the top ten pitchers in baseball, maybe even top two or three a couple of those years. Every fifth day was a holiday. The man brought intensity to the Cardinals every day, even on days in which he wasn’t pitching.
He possessed a wicked curveball, an excellent sinker, a nice cut fastball, and an occasional changeup. He cussed when he did not get the result he wanted. He stared opponents down, whether they deserved it or not, and even occasionally yelled at his teammates when they had a mental lapse. Chris Carpenter was an old-school baseball player playing in a contemporary time.
To get a sense of how valuable Chris Carpenter was, he is probably the second best pitcher in Cardinals history after Bob Gibson. He won the Cy Young Award in 2005 and finished in the top three in 2006 and 2009. Without Carpenter, the Cardinals probably don’t win the World Series in both 2006 and 2011 and be in a position to reach it in 2004 (he was out with a nerve issue for the playoffs that year).
Perhaps the best stretches of Carpenter’s career came in the summer of 2005, where he posted a 1.41 ERA from June to early September, and the 2011 postseason. His magnum opus probably came against the 102-win Philadelphia Phillies in Game 5 of the Division Series in the latter year, a winner-take-all game in a hostile Philadelphia environment.
In that game, Carpenter pitched a three-hit shutout against his former Toronto Blue Jays teammate Roy Halladay (a magnificent pitcher himself), all while being staked to a one-run lead that was scored before he even took the mound in the bottom of the first inning. (And, through iTunes, that game is saved forever on my computer. Highlights from that game are below, courtesy of MLB.com)
But health was always a major issue in Carpenter’s career. Signed in 2003 by the Cardinals, he did not pitch until 2004. From there, he virtually missed the 2007, 2008, and 2012 seasons. He made an admirable, and warrior-like, comeback at the end of the 2012 season and the playoffs, but he was not the same Chris Carpenter that defined the Cardinals in my teens and early twenties.
With the announcement that Carpenter’s career is likely over, the on-field connection from my inaugural (and magical) season in 2004 to the present is mostly gone. (Cardinals manager Mike Matheny and coach Jose Oquendo remain, though Matheny was the starting catcher on the 2004 team.)
Now, I will fully transition to a new era of Cardinals baseball. On the surface, things won’t be too different from last year. They should be good, and they have a Carpenter-like clone in Adam Wainwright.
But it will never be the same, knowing that Chris Carpenter won’t be taking the ball anymore.
Featured photo taken from Wikimedia Commons