On Chris Carpenter, Baseball Moments and Storybook Endings

Chris Carpenter has been on my mind in recent weeks.

There have been the glimpses of him in the Cardinals dugout from time to time during the Cardinals broadcasts, of course, plus he was featured prominently in a great USA Today piece by Bob Nightengale on Sept. 26, “Game in ’11 ‘changed everything’ for two teams.”

CC-first pitchLast Saturday night too, while I watched Andy Pettitte’s final inning as a major leaguer play out with the perfect ending of a complete game, I couldn’t help but think of Chris.

He deserves that kind of from-a-movie ending, doesn’t he? For all that he’s done for and as a Cardinal, to recognize the baddest of BAMFs to pitch for the team since Bob Gibson?

But baseball isn’t fair.

And, as we all learn the hard way at some point, life isn’t fair.

Chris did get a baseball moment on Friday, as he threw out the ceremonial first pitch before Game Two of the NLDS. (Thank you, MLB Network, for showing it.)

What a moment it was too, as both of his kids took the field with him as the Busch Stadium crowd roared — Sam to home plate to catch the ball, Ava to the mound with Chris. He tossed the ball to Sam as the crowd continued its ovation. He embraced both kids before leaving the field — and there was probably more going on, but I couldn’t see through all my tears.

I still can’t look through the photo slideshow on the St. Louis Post-Dispatch website without tearing up all over again either. A well deserved tribute, a perfect family moment.

Yet the unfairness of it all — that a ceremonial first pitch is likely the end of Chris Carpenter’s playing career — still bugs me. Even though the perfect storybook baseball career ending like Andy Pettitte’s complete game, or Todd Helton’s Coors Field homer and of course Mariano Rivera’s final appearance  at Yankee Stadium, are the rarities.

In retrospectCardinals' Carpenter celebrates winning their MLB baseball playoff game against the Phillies in Philadelphia, Chris Carpenter likely did have the perfect storybook ending to his career — but none of us, not even him, knew it at the time.

His performances in September and October 2011 — could there be anything better than those career-defining games he had? Game 162 on Sept. 28 to cap off the magical ride to the postseason. Obviously Game Five of the NLDS on Oct. 7, which ended with the iconic picture above (and those equally iconic pictures from a few moments later, once Nick Punto thankfully had the chance to do his shredding). Finally, Game Seven of the World Series on three days’ rest (and those family moments afterward).

Of course Chris is featured in that USA Today article by Bob Nightengale on Game Five of the NLDS, as is his role in that magical 2011 journey:

There was one professional casualty: Carpenter.

He’d pitched 472 innings in 2010-11, then tacked on another 36 during his 4-0 playoff run.

They were stressful innings.

“In hindsight,” Mozeliak says, “it took it toll on Carp. They say, ‘You ride the horse.’ We rode it.’

“That Game 5 was the best game I ever saw. We’re not hoisting a World Series flag without him.”

Carpenter, 38, isn’t certain that postseason prematurely ended his career, but if it did, there are no regrets. The World Series ring is the ultimate prize for his sacrifice.

“I left it all out there,” Carpenter said, “and I wouldn’t change a thing. My body really hasn’t responded since, but that’s OK. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

If he’s OK with that, we have to be OK with that too — unfairness of it all or not. And we have to admire his efforts to get back out there in 2012 and 2013 after the toll all those innings did take, with the surgery and the rehabs and all the hours and days spent to make his way to the pitcher’s mound at Busch Stadium one more time, to pitch like himself one more time.

Friday’s first pitch was probably the finale, so what better way to do it than with his kids accompanying him on such a sun-splashed October day? Because now we know that the storybook ending really did already take place, two years ago, much as so many of us love Chris and want to see him pitch well again.

Like Moonlight Graham says in Field of Dreams, “we just don’t recognize life’s most significant moments while they’re happening. Back then I thought, ‘Well, there’ll be other days.'”

Thankfully, we all had the many Chris Carpenter days we did.


Christine Coleman is the lead writer for Aaron Miles’ Fastball. Follow her on Twitter, @CColeman802, or email aaronmilesfastball@gmail.com. Also follow @AMilesFastball for the latest updates.

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