A Cardinal Warrior Leaves The Battlefield A Champion
It happened so suddenly. The Cardinals quickly announced a press conference for this afternoon. Then, slowly, speculation turned to the possible retirement Chris Carpenter. And then John Mozeliak stepped to the microphone and confirmed the unthinkable: Chris Carpenter’s career is likely over.
It’s difficult to comprehend. Carpenter is made of adamantium; unbreakable stuff. This is the man who laughed off Tommy John surgery and returned to pitch the greatest game in playoff history just three years later. This is the man who plays hockey for relaxation. This is the man who practically ran back to the mound two months after having a rib removed from his body. And then he made a necklace out of that same rib.
I didn’t think DEATH would stop Carpenter from pitching, let alone easy obstacles like old age or infirmity.
Now that we’re faced with the demoralizing reality that Carpenter’s career is over, we can look back on his amazing run that fueled the success of one of the greatest eras in Cardinal history. He came to the Cardinals in 2003 after several lackluster seasons in Toronto. The signing seemed minor at the time given Carpenter’s record and his already-complicated medical history. His first season as a Cardinal (2003) was spent on the bench, recovering from a torn labrum.
But Carpenter was shaped by the philosophies of pitching coach Dave Duncan, who transformed the volatile right-hander into one of the most imposing pitchers of the Aughts. Carpenter’s rage and competitiveness were already there, but Duncan’s Yoda routine helped him focus that intensity like a laser.
From 2004-2006, Carpenter was arguably the best pitcher in baseball, compiling a ridiculous record of 51-18 during that stretch. During that time, Carpenter won a Cy Young Award (2005) and his first World Series ring in 2006.
More injuries sidelined him through 2007-2008, but Carp bounced back without missing a beat in 2009, posting a 17-4 record and a stingy 2.24 ERA. He continued to win despite several medical setbacks, going 27-18 through 2010-2011.
But it was the Carpenter of September and October of 2011 that forever cemented him in Cardinal and baseball lore. As his team stumbled and wheezed around him, Carpenter defiantly rose up and carried his teammates to the finish line. Then, with the imposing Phillies sending ace Roy Halladay to shove the Cardinals out of the postseason, Carpenter crafted his greatest moment. It’s his Mona Lisa, his David, his Symphony No. 9. In a nine-inning duel against Halladay, Carpenter tossed his aging, battered body upon the sword to defeat the stunned Phillies and begin the most magical postseason we will ever see.
That night we saw something in Carpenter that we almost never see in the modern baseball player: courage. The images are still fresh: the tall, statuesque figure of Carpenter on the mound in the first inning with his sizzling, focused eyes … the zeroes on the scoreboard above him … the slight smile of exhaustion in the ninth inning … the primal scream. There was simply no way for the enemy to defeat Carpenter that night. Had the game gone into the 30th inning, Carpenter would’ve stayed out there and sacrificed himself to earn a win for his teammates.
But we can only keep fighting for so long, for time and its ravages will eventually win out over the strongest of us. Even the greatest warriors must, at some point, sheath their swords and leave the battlefield for younger troops.
The question arises: where does Carpenter rank in Cardinal history? While he certainly cannot best Bob Gibson, I would place him neatly in second place behind him without much trepidation. Every great player is assessed, not just by their individual statistics, but also by the time period they graced with their talent. By that rule, Carpenter’s Cardinal career is one of the greatest in franchise history, a touchstone that will forever symbolize the La Russa Era and its incredible string of success.
Somewhere out there I know Carpenter is in agony over this frustrating end to his career. I’m sure many Cardinal fans feel the same way. For me, I’m simply grateful that I witnessed this intense competitor, fearless warrior, and loyal teammate play on my field and wear the radiant colors of my team. He gave us everything his body and will could provide, and then pushed for even more. He will be sorely missed, but he will always be loved in Baseball Heaven as one of the greatest Cardinals to play on the Busch Stadium battlefield.