As legacies go, Chris Carpenter’s is about as good as it gets.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever witnessed a better competitor or leader than Chris. He’s a real throwback in the game and commanded respect with how he went about his business and treated people.”—Cardinals manager Mike Matheny on Carpenter.
From Roger Clemens, he learned about work ethic and competing and leaving nothing to chance. Chris Carpenter’s career may have turned out exactly the same even if he hadn’t played those two seasons with the Rocket because he had a relentless will to succeed. He worked harder than almost anyone and was thorough in his preparation. He also had some of the Rocket’s fire. Did you ever catch video of him screaming into the opposing dugout? It was stunning to see because off the field he was quiet and unfailingly polite.
My favorite Chris Carpenter story—okay, it’s actually about five stories—occurred late in the 2011 season. In August, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa called a team meeting to encourage his players to continue giving a professional effort. Even though it seemed unlikely they’d make the playoffs, he wanted them to play hard until the end and see how far it got them.
That same day, La Russa sat down with a schedule and ran his finger down to Game 162, at Houston. He scribbled in Carpenter’s name. From there, he worked backward, his thinking being that if the Cardinals had a chance to win, he’d want to put the season in Carpenter’s hands.
Sure enough, it played out just the way he’d hoped. The Cardinals made up 10 games in the National League Wild Card race, and on the final day of the regular season, Carpenter pitched a two-hit shutout to clinch a playoff berth. He was a monster down the stretch, compiling a 2.73 ERA in his last 19 starts and a 1.13 ERA in his final five. When the Cardinals needed him, he was there.
There was more to come. He pitched a three-hit shutout in a clinching Game 5 victory over the Phillies. He won Game 1 of the World Series that year and then went six innings on short rest to get the victory in Game 7. When Game 6 was rained out, it meant La Russa would be able to pitch Carpenter in Game 7. To a lot of Cardinals, that meant game, set, match.
He finished with 273 innings that season, and whether that total had anything to do with the injury that kept him out most of 2012 and now seems likely to end of his career probably is beside the point. All Carpenter knew was that his team needed him for 273 innings. If there were consequences, he’d worry about them later.
I’m guessing he wouldn’t change a thing. That team was close. Players genuinely liked and respected one another. To win a championship is always special. To win a championship in St. Louis, to win a championship with friends, is really, really special.
He was injured frequently in his career, coming back from two shoulder injuries and Tommy John surgery. He was an All-Star hockey player in his native New Hampshire, and he brought a little of that tenacity to everything he did. When he was able to pitch, he was as good as almost anyone. He was also a workhorse, running up regular-season totals of 241, 237, 235, 221 and 215 innings in his career. And he was money in the postseason, going 10-4 with a 3.00 ERA in 18 starts. In four World Series starts, he was 3-0 with a 2.00 ERA.
The Cardinals knew Carpenter might not pitch this season. They also knew he would do everything in his power to be ready. When he telephoned Cardinals GM John Mozeliak last week to say he couldn’t go, he apparently was devastated. He probably thought he could will himself past the neck and shoulder issues, which he probably did in returning to the mound late last season.
Carpenter helped define a special era for one of baseball’s most successful franchises. During Carpenter’s nine seasons with the Cardinals, they went to the postseason six times and won two championships. As Mozeliak said, “He helped create the model of success here.”